Porges has made some very significant discoveries on the nature of emotion, the nervous system, and its significance for physical and mental health as well as a general understanding of human behavior: why we are the way we are. This book collects some of the most significant papers he's written on the topics, all on the basis of what he has come to call the "polyvagal theory". For decades the understanding of the autonomic nervous system and its relation to stress has been overly simplistic. It has ignored the very large role of visceral feedback on brain processes and the hierarchical nature of our response to the environment, whether it is safe or threatening.
The book is quite academic and uses scientific jargon, so be prepared for that. It can be quite dry and repetitive, given that the various chapters were written as essays and include a lot of necessary "background" material. That said, the repetition is great for learning what might otherwise be confusing and difficult topics. If you don't have any previous training in psychology, this is a great help. And the information is paradigm-changing in its importance.
Summing up just a few of the basics of the polyvagal theory, Porges bases his analysis on an in-depth study of the evolution of the nervous system from the simplest invertebrates to mammalian life and humans in particular. This approach brings with it some important insights. For one, our nervous system is constantly assessing the environment, whether it is safe or not. This process happens without our conscious awareness. Ordinarily, if the environment is safe, we predominantly use our newest "hardware", so to speak. We are socially engaging, communicative. We share, love, nurture, support, play. This is intimately tied with the myelinated vagus, which as a result of evolutionary processes, is intimately tied with heart rate, breathing, and the use of the muscles in the neck, head, and face. All of these are integral to the expression of emotion. But when we encounter a dangerous situation, we revert to an evolutionary 'older' system. We stop engaging socially and instead fight or flee. And if the danger looks hopeless, the primitive vagus takes over, immobilizing us for a painless death. Trauma can leave us stuck in one of those lower circuits, as can various forms of mental illness (autism, PTSD, borderline personality disorder, etc.).
Porges uses these concepts to analyze human behaviors, like play, sex, communication, monogamy in a new light. And all together, it demonstrates just how important it is to our well-being to have a good vagal 'tone'. That's where programs like Éiriú Eolas are so useful, as a way of calming down our stress response, reducing inflammation, and fostering healthy emotion and the vagal benefits of prosociality, bodily restoration and healing. As he points out, the state of the body is intimately tied to the mind. While external stimuli can trigger intense visceral states (fear, terror, rage), it works the other way, too. Visceral states (inflammation, illness, bodily stress) can influence our emotions and our general psychological state. An understanding of how these systems work, and how healthy states can be actively fostered, will go a long way to healing the many illnesses of civilization, whether they be mental illness like depression or anxiety disorders, or modern diseases.
After reading this book, I can't help but think that our society as a whole does NOT foster polyvagal health. We are less communicative, less helpful, less 'happy', less nurturing, and on and on. Hopefully this book will bring more awareness to the fact that these things are essential to human health, and we can do something about actively fostering them. Eiriu Eolas is doing that, as are some clinicians who utilize the advances made by Porges. Hopefully that will keep expanding. Until then, do read this book. It's a lot more coherent than the reigning theories at this time, and if you like understanding things, will not disappoint.