I had an “Ahah!” moment today, one that may not seem like much from the title, but between the lines it has more significance than it may seem. It may be a key insight into the nervous system, the up and coming new frontier upon which an important battle wages in the fight for maximizing wellbeing, in my humble opinion.
I discovered Polyvagal Theory recently in a Bulletproof podcast with Stephen Porges. Simply put it seems to have teased out another aspect of the ancient nervous system, one of our primal leftovers that has been repurposed in modern life. Most everyone by now has heard of the “fight or flight” response, the one initiated by a perceived life-threatening situation, typically depicted by the now cliché “being chased by a tiger” situation. This fight or flight is driven by cortisol and adrenaline and “jacks you up” to be able to wrestle that tiger like a crazy person with his own show on Animal Planet or run away from it like Usain Bolt.
As it turns out, though, there seems to be another similar function with a different response to a scary situation, and this response demobilizes you, shuts you down, as if to play dead to get the tiger to leave you alone and conserve resources. Evidently this was more appropriate for reptiles, animals with very low metabolic demands that can get by without much oxygen and blood flow for a while. We as humans inherited the response through evolution, yet it’s not as effective for us, especially when used for more than brief and infrequent encounters, given we have higher metabolic demands than the reptiles. As we shut down (either completely or mostly), we can run into a little trouble.
The best example of this response, at least that I relate to, is becoming stressed and hyper focused at my computer at work. You know, those cases where you eventually realize you’ve been holding your breath for ten or twenty seconds at a time and not breathing fully or deeply between those breath holds, maybe for an hour or two on end. Not a huge deal for a temporary incident, but when this goes on chronically, day by day, you create a chronic condition of hypoxia (low oxygen) thus inhibiting your ability to nourish your tissues and relax and recover. The results are similar to the “fight or flight” situation, but it presents itself very differently, and people may not identify with or be as aware of this one. I know I wasn’t, but I did know that at the end of many a work day, I felt completely winded, chilled, and achy, and I think this discovery has a lot to do with it.
So where do female singers come into play here? I’ve always wondered why I had such a strong preference towards female singers over the years. I mean there were potentially obvious explanations such as sexual attraction and fantasies of somehow meeting Amy Lee in some sort of romantic comedy-like situation, running through an airport late for a flight, tripping and knocking her coffee out of her hand and buying her a new one after feeling embarrassed and sheepish only to discover it was her, my muse all these years, right in front of me on her way to a show somewhere, and I awkwardly manage to tell her how I felt about her in a way uncomfortable enough to the viewer to create tension and attract interest in the scene but not so creepy that somehow she finds it just romantic and adorable enough to realize she wants a relationship with a “normal” guy, you know, not someone in Hollywood or the music business, and there’s just something between us that is hard to explain but is clearly…I mean so there’s that explanation.
But what I learned from polyvagal theory here is that there are certain safety triggers our nervous system has come to crave, triggers that tell us things are okay so that we can relax our nervous system and turn our body’s resources over to recovering and healing. Things like socializing with community and doing things to help others are on the list. Another list-topper was breathing techniques, especially focusing out the outbreath because contracting the diaphragm triggers that vagal nerve to signal relaxation. Similarly singing helps because it has the same impact on the diaphragm and also creates calming sounds and frequencies, whether from you or from someone else’s voice. But there was also a very interesting extension to the singing trigger, something more specific, one that seems very primordial, and eventually obvious, to me: the sound of a woman’s voice.
Evidently the tone and frequency of woman voices are so hard-wired into our brain as a trigger of safety because it reminds us of our mothers. You could argue whether this has to do with memories of them raising us as kids or if it goes back even further – and I believe it does – to first hearing that soothing voice while we’re fetuses in the womb, but point being, it’s an important nervous system trigger of evolution we can’t ignore. Equally as fascinating was the notion that folk music had a similar impact because the typical frequencies of most songs, even the instrumental pieces, most closely resembled the frequencies of female voice rather than man. Evidently this allowed folks to sing about terrible, downtrodden times yet feel better about it simply because of the calming frequencies (and, I’m speculating, the therapeutic nature of working through an issue by vocalizing it to others).
So I think this nugget reinforces a lot of things we’ve already discussed on the blog, breathing techniques, meditation, and other things that allow us to calm down the nervous system and maximize our recovery time, but it also gives us another technique to try, and another reason to spend a little quality time with your mom, grandma, girlfriend, or wife! Oh, and get them to sing to you while you’re at it. There were many other fascinating points within the podcast too, so I’d really recommend it if you have fifty-eight minutes to listen.