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BlogDr. Stephen PorgesPolyvagal Theory

Revolutionizing the study of the autonomic nervous system: the growing legacy of Dr. Stephen Porges

🕑 3 minutes read
Posted July 4, 2023
By Rebecca Knowles, OTD, OTR/L, RYT
Reviewed by Unyte Editorial Team

When Dr. Stephen Porges enters a room, it’s his warm smile, kind eyes and generous spirit that you notice first. When he speaks, embedded in his intelligence is genuine humility and passion for the thing we all have in common — our humanity.

Though Dr. Porges is most known for his paradigm-shifting Polyvagal Theory, his work is grounded in decades of transdisciplinary research on cardiology and heart rate variability (HRV), relying in the early days on manual calculations and rudimentary technology. A pioneer in the emerging field of psychophysiology, he pushed the discipline to think beyond basic cause-and-effect methodologies. By asking bigger questions about why and how interconnected functions like breathing, heart rate, feeding and digestion responded to changes in arousal, he identified autonomic state as an intervening variable. To arrive at the Polyvagal Theory, he connected people and ideas, bringing together developmental psychology, evolutionary biology, neurophysiology, and more.

We are just beginning to realize the impact of his legacy. Dr. Porges was recently recognized in the field of psychology as being ranked number 655 on the Best Psychology Scientists list by Research.com, evidenced by a staggering 36,052 citations and 237 publications — an impressive achievement made even more significant by being a scientist who doesn’t only specialize in psychology! 

Discover the Safe and Sound Protocol

Created by Dr. Stephen Porges, the Safe and Sound Protocol (SSP) is a powerful listening therapy based on the science of Polyvagal Theory.

Additionally, while far from perfect, h-index is another metric for describing the reach and impact of a researcher’s scientific publications. H-index is calculated by the number of papers they have authored that have received at least the same number of citations. For example, an h-index of 10 means that 10 of an author’s publications have been cited at least 10 times. Dr. Porges has an h-index of 99, with more than 51,000 citations. (Putting that number into perspective, rankings that high are limited to world-class scientists, including Nobel Prize winners). To give context for the impact of his work across disciplines, his 1997 paper in the journal Psychophysiology, titled “Heart rate variability: Origins, methods, and interpretive caveats,” has 4,409 citations, and his 2007 publication describing the Polyvagal Theory in Biological Psychology, “The Polyvagal Perspective,” has 3,526 citations and counting.

Like every great scientist, Dr. Porges has welcomed inevitable questions from other researchers on elements of the Polyvagal Theory. He responds with great attention to detail and grace, while clarifying the scope of his work. Though it’s relatively new for a theory with such wide-reaching implications, Polyvagal Theory has fundamentally changed our understanding of the vagus nerve, the mind-body connection, and essential nature of safety in relationships, community, health and well-being. 

Today, there are more than 3,000 Safe and Sound Protocol (SSP) providers active in 70 countries worldwide, applying the principles of Dr. Porges’ Polyvagal Theory in practice to support thousands of clients on their healing journeys. At Unyte, we are grateful for Dr. Porges and his generous gift to the world, welcoming the legacy that follows.

About the author Rebecca Knowles, OTD, OTR/L, RYT

Rebecca is a clinician, researcher and educator specializing in sensory processing and mental health, and has worked in diverse settings as an occupational therapist, including schools, hospitals, outpatient clinics, and substance use treatment centers.

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