Friday, 8 August 2014

Big smiles each day......



Whilst we all know that receiving a big smile from another person makes us feel good what perhaps is less well known is just how important both the giving and receiving of smiles are to our own wellbeing.

Prof Stephen Porges ( ), is a Professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina. He has a particular interests in understanding the neurobiology of social behavior and in 1994 he developed a new model of understanding the autonomic nervous system which he called the Polyvagal Theory.  

Stephen Porges

The autonomic nervous system is the part of the nervous system responsible for control of the bodily functions not consciously directed, such as breathing, the heartbeat, and digestive processes. Until this time the autonomic nervous system had been understood to be a system of two modes of response - the sympathetic and parasympathetic:



But, in his Polyvagal Theory, Porges links the evolution of the autonomic nervous system to the emergence of social behaviour. Put simply reptiles, such as lizards, lead very simple lives of eating, sleeping and reproducing. They lay eggs and that is pretty much the end of their parental responsibility. However with evolution of birds and then mammals and ultimately human beings the degree of parental involvement grew. Nature had to find a way to bond the parent/parents to their young in order to ensure that they are taken care of whilst they are growing to maturity and this resulted in the evolution of increasingly complex social relationships in more evolved animal species. This is reflected in both brain size and structure.

So what Porges identified was that in humans we have a brain that comprises three distinct stages of evolution – this he calls the Triune brain. At the base of the brain, the area known as the brain stem, is the earliest structure in evolutionary terms and it is all about “eat or be eaten” – it is about sheer survival and is akin to the brain in reptiles. In the event of mortal danger freeze is its mode of protection and this is mediated by the dorsal vagal nerve. This is our passive defence system.


Then there is the limbic brain or emotional brain whose mantra is avoid pain (as secondary consideration find more pleasure), it’s all about looking for anything that might conceivably threaten its wellbeing. It is about protecting one’s self-interest and is governed by the fight and flight response of the sympathetic nervous system. This is our aggressive defence system.

The most evolved part of our brain is known as the neo-cortex, in particular, areas such as the left pre-frontal cortex are now known to be to do with our feeling of happiness and the insula is concerned with our ability to be compassionate and empathic. Porges calls this neurobiological response the mode of social engagement. It is the place of ultimate safeness, of unconditional love.


What Porges recognised was that what he calls neuroception is our perception of safeness within the environment we are in and how other people are responding to us and us to them. It is this that this is central to how we feel from moment to moment in the long term is fundamental in impacting on our health and wellbeing.

Neuroception is another sense just like vision, touch, and smell and we all can recognise a smile when it comes from the social engagement system and when it comes from the protective fight and flight mode:



Just take a moment and do a little experiment using the picture above:
  • First of all cover up the left side of the photo (Priscilla Presley) and just focus on Helen Mirren on the right and sense into how your body feels, do you feel relaxed, happy even? Do you want to smile back? Would you like to be her friend?
  • Then cover up Helen on the right and focus on Priscilla on the left and just notice how you feel – is it different to how you felt when you looked at Helen alone? How does your body feel now? Do you want to smile back? Do you feel like you would like to be her friend?

For most people there will be a subtle change in their bodies as they do this little experiment, for some maybe a big shift and even if we cannot pick anything up it does not mean their different facial responses do not have an impact on us. Stephen Porges theory expands to describe how our bodies operate very differently depending on which mode of neurobiological response our body is in:


We learn very young about feeling safe as the Still Face Experiment by Ed Tronick illustrates in this YouTube clip:


So how can we use this new knowledge to improve our own health and wellbeing?

I have found that a simple mindfulness practice is one way we can encourage our brains to access our own social engagement systems response and it is something that just doing a few minutes each day can enable us nervous system to change over time so that we feel safe, happy and content.

The Smile a Day practice

·         Find a picture of someone whose smile you find really makes you want to smile back. I find Googling “smiling faces” or something similar can give one a whole range of choices.  If you would like to get some photos to start go to my Facebook page

·         Find somewhere quiet to sit for five minutes so you will not be disturbed.

·         Close your eyes and feel your feet on the floor and your body on the chair and just allow yourself to feel that environmental support for a few moments.

·         Then focus your attention on your breathing and just follow your breath for a minute or so

·         Then keeping your attention on your breathing open your eyes and look at the smiling photo and notice how it makes you feel, in your body and your emotions and just spend a few minutes really connecting with this smiling experience as you breathe in and out. Allow yourself to smile back and notice how this enhances the experience.



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