Polyvagal Theory, Oxytocin and the Neurobiology of Love and Trust

With Stephen W. Porges, PhD and Sue Carter, PhD

Recorded Saturday 8 June 2019

The Therapeutic Use of the Body’s Social Engagement System to Promote Feelings of Safety, Connectedness, Intimacy and Recovery

In this workshop Porges and Carter will demonstrate the clinical applications of their research into Polyvagal Theory and oxytocin and social behavior. Their scientifically validated advancements in neuroscience offer a new way of considering brain-body medicine.




Professor Stephen Porges
Polyvagal Theory and Connectedness
3 hours
The Polyvagal Theory links the evolution of the autonomic nervous system to affective experience, emotional expression, facial gestures, vocal communication and contingent social behavior, and provides a plausible explanation of several features that are compromised during stress and observed in numerous psychiatric disorders. The theory describes how, via evolution, a connection emerged in the brain between the nerves that control the heart and the face. This face-heart connection provided the structures for the “social engagement system” that links our bodily feelings with facial expression, vocal intonation, and gesture. The Polyvagal Theory provides a more informed understanding of the automatic reactions of our body to safety, danger and life threat. This session will explore the role of the autonomic nervous system in creating states that facilitate connectedness or defense such as fight/flight, hypervigilance, dissociation, collapse, shutdown, and even syncope.

Our nervous system evolved to evaluate risk in the environment and to rapidly detect features in others of safety, danger, and life threat. However, to cooperate with others and to develop intimate relationships, our nervous system had to identify both safe people and safe places. Through the neural mechanisms of a social engagement system, specific feature detectors in our brain dampen defensive strategies and we can relax in the arms of another without being vigilant or aggressive. Intimacy can only occur when defensive systems are dampened, and the social engagement system is activated. This session will describe features of the social engagement system, how it involves neural pathways regulating the heart, facial expression, vocal intonation, and the extraction of human voice from background sounds. From a clinical perspective this session will emphasize the importance of our face, voice, and heart in negotiating states that enable trust and intimacy.

Professor Sue Carter
The Oxytocin Hypothesis: The Biochemistry of Love and Trust
1 hour
Oxytocin pathways, which include the neuropeptide oxytocin, the related peptide vasopressin, and their receptors, are at the center of physiological and genetic systems that permitted the evolution of the human nervous system and allowed the expression of contemporary human sociality. In general, oxytocin acts to allow the high levels of social sensitivity and attunement necessary for human sociality and for rearing a human child. Under optimal conditions oxytocin may create an emotional sense of safety. This session with Sue Carter will explain how oxytocin dynamically moderates the autonomic nervous system and effects of oxytocin on vagal pathways, as well as the antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects of this peptide, and help to explain the pervasive adaptive consequences of love, trust, and social behavior for emotional and physical health.

Discussion and Q&A
30 minutes

Handouts and Presentations


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Professor Stephen Porges
Polyvagal Theory and Connectedness

Professor Sue Carter
The Oxytocin Hypothesis: The Biochemistry of Love and Trust

Discussion and Q&A