The Multivagal System: A New Paradigm
The Multivagal System is a new paradigm integrating the Social Engagement System (SES) with Vagal functions below the respiratory diaphragm. This new paradigm has a set of principles consistent with the SES. The basic principles of understanding the Multivagal System are actually quite simple. These principles are unfolded in the left-hand column of the infographic. Starting with the Head – Face circle followed by the Lung – Heart – Aorta circle. These two circles are located above the respiratory diaphragm as you can see in the infographic. Structurally, only the dorsal vagus goes below the respiratory diaphragm. When it does, we have a circle called the Earth Belly and finally a circle at the bottom left called Pelvic Organs – Sacrum.
On the far right of the infographic are two boxes one that says Spinal Cord and one that says SNS Ganglion. It’s important to have an integrated understanding of the complexity of the autonomic nervous system even though the infographic is focusing on the Multivagal System, a major part of the parasympathetic nervous system. All of these neurological and vascular components (seen in the middle of the chart) are one integrated circuit. So we must remember that the body is a whole and everything is interconnected.
The four circles have a common theme of safety as the most fundamental principle of the Multivagal system. In the top circle is the term Neuroception coined by Stephen Porges to indicate the way in which the brain interprets social signals from other people especially regarding their face, posture and movement. This interpretation is for the sake of determining external safety. Is the world and other people safe to be in relationship with? At the neurological level neuroception is largely unconscious but capable of triggering significant physiological changes especially in the heart.
The Lung-Heart-Aorta section represents a sense of deep safety both at a metabolic level (molecules), the physiological level of the social engagement system (behavior) and at a spiritual level (compassion). Spiritual safety is a vital component of our health and well-being. The basic phenomenological experience of the heart is one of vulnerability. This simply means that everyone has a soft flexible spot in the front of their heart derived from embryonic development. The heart is designed to be able to expand especially in its anterior portion that is connected with the sternum. It is part of the natural and normal biology of the heart. The heart needs to be soft and flexible in front and this produces sensations of vulnerability. Vulnerability is not weakness or being boundaryless but rather it is associated with courage, confidence and authenticity when felt consciously and non-reactively.
The heart also has a very strong protection – pleasure system. This means that the heart has direct connections to many parts of the brain’s emergency network. When there is a serious injury with the loss of blood or a heart attack or other such shocks to the heart and cardiovascular system, the heart and brain will do everything possible to protect the body, reroute blood flow and prevent death. On the other hand so to speak, the heart also has a very exquisite pleasure capacity stemming from positive social engagement with other people which raises vagal tone (feel good experiences that stabilize and lower heart rate). This heart-pleasure system is further integrated with sexual engagement including orgasm via masturbation or sexual contact with other people. The Vagus nerve transports sexual pleasure from the pelvis up through the belly to the heart and brain. The transport of pleasure is a very important function of the Vagus nerve and important experience of the heart.
Once the Vagus nerve goes below the level of the respiratory diaphragm, it performs many different metabolic functions (molecular monitoring). Some are listed in the columns under the headings posterior and anterior. The Earth Belly via the Vagus nerve is about inner safety derived from the proper care and feeding of the gut microbiome, the detoxification of the large intestine and a complex interaction with the cardiovascular, enteric, endocrine and immune systems located in and around the lining of the gut. For example, the Vagus nerve constantly monitors the gut microbiome and endothelium of the Earth Belly for inflammation and sends this information to the heart and brain.
We must all learn how to tend the garden of our gut microbiome which contains 90% of the immune system and recently has been declared as an endocrine organ since it secretes hormones. The earth comes directly into the body via the mouth and intestinal system (other senses bring in the earth as well). Consequently, we can become conscious of our garden that is growing in our belly. We can feel the earth and all its activity in our belly including the weeds and delicious fruits. From the earth our body is built and maintained and thus the Earth Belly is the center of the universe inside the human body.
Then we arrive at the Pelvic Organs – Sacrum. Although the Vagus nerve does not directly connect to the organs in the pelvis in the human, it is indirectly connected via the pudendal nerve, the sacral outflow of the parasympathetic nervous system and the sacral plexus as seen at the very bottom of the infographic. These three sacral nerve plexi contribute to sexual pleasure and orgasm, urination and defecation. But where does the Vagus nerve interface with this part of our body?
The posterior Vagus nerve plugs into a vast network of sympathetic plexi located anterior and inferior to the abdominal aorta. These plexi derive from the SNS ganglion coming from the spinal cord. From top to bottom they are called the celiac plexus, the superior mesenteric plexus, the inferior mesenteric plexus (anterior to the abdominal aorta), the superior hypogastric plexus and finally the inferior hypogastric plexus (inferior to the abdominal aorta). These five plexi form an integrated circuit with the primary orientation of distributing blood in and out of the abdomen and pelvic floor.
Since the superior and inferior hypogastric plexi are in the pelvis, they are receiving input from the pudendal, sacral and parasympathetic outflow coming from the sacrum and the various structures listed in the three columns at the bottom of the page. This is where the Vagus nerve meets and then carries information coming from the pelvic floor to the heart and brain. The Vagus nerve is integrated with the sympathetic nervous system most everywhere in the body but especially the gut and pelvis.
Finally, the functions of the pelvic organs – urination, defecation and sexual orgasm all require complex integration of the various nerves and muscles of the gut and pelvis including the Vagus. To relax in the bathroom or in the bedroom requires a sense of safety and to be immobilized briefly for a complete release. Releases of the bladder and rectum can also be pleasurable.
The acts of urination, defecation and orgasm also require a change in blood flow especially in the sex organs and bladder. Thus safety – outer, deep and inner is the common theme in the new paradigm of the Multivagal System. Safety is also linked to the biology of proper blood flow for the co-regulation of the immune, nervous and endocrine systems via the Earth Belly. Safety and blood flow can be compromised by a multitude of possibilities many of which are mediated by the Vagus nerve in any of the four quadrants seen on the infographic. These are critically important considerations in the practice of the manual therapeutic arts.