Our friend, Dr. Stephen Porges, expressed concern about the impersonal approach to communication technology presents in our recent podcast. He said, “With virtual [correspondence], meaning texting, it’s asynchronous. It’s not even in real time and our nervous system craves the reciprocity, the synchronicity of face-to-face interactions.”
He was referring to the importance of interpersonal connection described as the Social Engagement System (SES) in his Polyvagal Theory. Critical to healthy engagement with the world, the SES interprets cues from our social environment, like vocal prosody, eye contact and facial gestures to gauge our level of safety.
Sensing safety, the SES allows us to participate genuinely with others and be open and willing to accept new ideas. Researchers at Google found this state of psychological safety to be, more than any other factor, what separates great teams from unproductive ones. Without a sense of safety, our self-preservation and motivation to get through the current situation kicks in. We become closed off to others, oppositional and shortsighted.
The Polyvagal Theory describes the evolutionary hierarchy of our autonomic nervous responses. In it, the SES is our highest level and newest (in evolutionary terms) strategy for self-regulation. It is triggered by signals of safety and puts the brakes on defensive strategies, allowing us to rest and digest (our parasympathetic system).
If we sense danger, however, the SES will release the brakes to engage a more primitive response: that of fight or flight (our sympathetic system). And if we detect life threat, our response may devolve even further to immobilization, or freezing behavior (like a deer in headlights). None of these responses can be reasoned; they all occur unconsciously via neuroception, the body’s ability to perceive threat outside of our awareness.
What is the takeaway from this? We are constantly adjusting our physiological state to meet the world and our perceptions about it. Face-to-face human interaction allows us to receive and give signals of comfort and security and promotes health, growth and restoration, and in many cases those “safe” interactions are being replaced by technology.
Learn more about how our programs can help to improve emotional regulation and physiological state.