Love: an emergent property of the
mammalian autonomic nervous system

Porges SW.
Institute for Child Study,
University of Maryland,
College Park 20742-1131, USA.
Psychoneuroendocrinology 1998 Nov;23(8):837-61


The evolution of the autonomic nervous system provides an organizing principle to interpret the adaptive significance of mammalian affective processes including courting, sexual arousal, copulation, and the establishment of enduring social bonds. According to the Polyvagal Theory (Porges, 1995, 1996, 1997), the well-documented phylogenetic shift in the neural regulation of the autonomic nervous system passes through three stages, each with an associated behavioral strategy. The first stage is characterized by a primitive unmyelinated visceral vagus that fosters digestion and responds to threat by depressing metabolic activity. Behaviorally, the first stage is associated with immobilization behaviors. The second stage is characterized by the sympathetic nervous system that is capable of increasing metabolic output and inhibiting the visceral vagus to foster mobilization behaviors necessary for 'fight or flight'. The third stage, unique to mammals, is characterized by a myelinated vagus that can rapidly regulate cardiac output to foster engagement and disengagement with the environment. The mammalian vagus is neuroanatomically linked to the cranial nerves that regulate social engagement via facial expression and vocalization. The Polyvagal Theory provides neurobiological explanations for two dimensions of intimacy: courting and the establishment of enduring pair-bonds. Courting is dependent upon the social engagement strategies associated with the mammalian vagus. The establishment of enduring pair-bonds is dependent upon a co-opting of the visceral vagus from an immobilization system associated with fear and avoidance to an immobilization system associated with safety and trust. The theory proposes that the phylogenetic development of the mammalian vagus is paralleled by a specialized communication, via oxytocin and vasopressin, between the hypothalamus and the medullary source nuclei of the viscera vagus, which facilitates sexual arousal, copulation, and the development of enduring pair-bonds.
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