The Nervous System in the Classroom | Gary Sharpe


From Gary Sharpe: “The work of Dr Stephen Porges, and his ‘Polvagal Theory,’ was instrumental in my own understanding and knowledge of the Nervous System, chronic illness and trauma, and from there, the human condition, and societal issues. It is what led me to glean that my own ‘Idiopathic Parkinson’s Disease’ diagnosis was actually me being stuck in the freeze or ‘tonic immobility’ stress response.

Porges’ basic tenet is that our Nervous System is constantly evaluating the environment for cues of threats or safety, through a danger sense he calls ‘neuroception.’ If our neuroception deems the situation to be safe, we can be in calm, relaxed, and socially engaged states. If it deems there is a threat, it activates fight or flight responses, or if the danger is perceived as sufficiently great, puts us into a state of freeze.

Note here the use of the term ‘safe’ has nothing to do with ‘health & safety’ or ‘safe spaces’ — it means feeling safe at a visceral, Nervous System level.

Porges has used his work as a lens to look at various aspects of modern life, such as the design of schools and hospitals, and found them wanting. Indeed, through this lens, many of our institutions seem almost designed to constantly trigger our sense of threat.

In his 2011 interview The Polyvagal Theory, Somatic Perspectives, Porges puts education systems and schools under the spotlight of his Nervous Systems work, explaining why modern schooling and educational methods are at odds with healthy Nervous System functioning. Here, we work through this important work.

However, even though we are discussing the classroom, for me the direct analogies carry over in a very straightforward way to any and all of our institutions where some folks have control or power over the lives of others. For example we could have talked about prisons, where we can straightforwardly swap out ‘teacher’ for ‘prison guard,’ and ‘child’ for ‘prisoner,’ or corporate employment, where we swap ‘teacher’ for ‘manager/boss,’ and ‘child’ for ’employee,’ hospitals/healthcare (doctor and patients), government (elected politician and electorate), or caregiving (caregiver and cared for).”

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