Change the Inputs
Change the Inputs
Your deep nervous system is an input/output system. Do you understand what that means?
Since our nervous system, at the most fundamental level, is an input/output system, the way that we feel–the embodied experience of being ourselves in the present moment–is governed by the inputs we are experiencing and our interpretation of them. If, therefore, we want to feel different, to feel better, there are two deep levers here. We can change the inputs, and/or we can change our interpretation of them.
Modern humans are pretty good at forgetting what creates wellbeing. This is partly because what passes for culture in modernity is a highly dissociative matrix, the cascading results of intergenerational traumas born of separation. It is also because we don't really understand our own nervous systems, and how they work.
Although the nervous system has a number of branches, the one that we are concerned with primarily in our work is the Autonomic Nervous System, which you can think of as the deep nervous system, and which is essentially the architecture of the mind-body connection.
At the deepest level, and from its inception, what the nervous system is doing is mediating between inside and outside. It is formed, embryonically, through an infolding process, whereby cells that are on the outside of the early embryo fold inwards, becoming the spinal column. As the nervous system elaborates, it creates conduits between inputs from the outside of us (the senses, roughly speaking), the inside of the body, and the gut, heart, and brain.
The primary agent of the Autonomic Nervous System is the vagus nerve, that great wanderer (latin), which descends from the brainstem, innervating the heart and lungs, and eventually passing beneath the respiratory diaphragm into the guts.
The vagus is primarily a monitoring system. Most of what it is doing is relaying information from the interoceptive (inside the body) awareness of organs up to the brain. Part of the genius of Polyvagal Theory is the recognition that this vagal system is not a single nerve, but a set of inter-related systems, which include a ventral system (connection system) that comes online when we feel safe enough, and a dorsal system (shutdown system) that surfaces in moments of lifethreat. These are functionally sandwiched around the sympathetic nervous system (fight/flight), and the three of them are bundled together, with inputs into the sino-atrial node (the pacemaker of the heart), the lungs, etc.
Inputs come into the body from outside of us– what we are seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, sensing. They also come from inside of us (this is technically called interoception). Interior inputs are sent up from our organ system (the guts, specific organs, the heart, etc.) to the brain.
What is essential to understand is that how we feel in the present moment (and there is no other moment, which is to say that this is effectively what governs how we feel at all times) is determined to a very large degree, by the aggregate signals coming up into the brain from the body, through the senses, and through interoception. Said simpler still: how you feel right now is a function of the total inputs coming into your nervous system from outside you and inside you, and how you interpret those inputs.
What this means, practically, is that if you want to change how you feel, there are two primary levers. The first is to change the inputs. The second is to change how you interpret them. Your attention is the volume knob on this system. Neuroception is your interpretation.
Changing the setpoints of our neuroception is difficult, but changing the inputs to our nervous system is a lever that is directly accessible to us all the time, and that is rarely utilized effectively by modern people. We seem to have forgotten that how we feel is a direct funtion of the neural inputs we are receiving.
Humans developed in small band hunter gatherer groups, deeply embedded in the living world. We developed actively, using our hands to build, gather, hunt, and create. We moved around nomadically, in deep relationship with place, and with seasonality, and the migratory patterns of local flora and fauna, which we knew intimately. We are social mammals, and ancestrally our survival depended on being part of a multi-generational tribal band. Our nervous systems are social in nature. We are designed to co-regulate with others, and to be socially engaged in groups of different ages, sizes, and functions. This means that putting our nervous systems into contact with these kind of regulating inputs turns on the ancestral drivers of wellbeing. We thrive through relatedness.
That said, consider how most modern people spend their time. We are generally indoors, sedentary, and on a screen. None of these activates the inputs that drive wellbeing. So if we discover that we don't feel well, one of the simplest things we can do is change the inputs. What does this mean?
1) Change your surroundings. For example, go outside. Most of live in a climate-controlled box. The moment you go outside, you are exposed to novel sensory inputs. The air temperature varies. There is wind. There are new sounds. New visuals. (Note here that the type of outside you go into, be it in a city with sirens, or a deep forest, matters.) Particularly in nature, we receiving the orienting rhythmicity of the living world.
2) Relate with others. Spend more time in social contact with people you like. Understand that our wellbeing is social in nature, and therefore feed yourself connection with others you care about. If you don't have relationships like that, build them. Creating healthy relationships is a skill we can learn.
Attention is the volume knob on all this stuff. The reason that we deeply emphasize the training of attention (our organization was called Applied Mindfulness for a decade) is because attention governs experience. It amplifies experience. I can change my surroundings, but if I'm still lost in my thoughts, I'm not actually receiving the novel inputs of my surroundings. So changing inputs means changing the inputs to my nervous system, and then placing my attention on the inputs that I enjoy.
Finding inputs that are pleasing, and that give me a sense of safety, is important to changing how we feel. The orienting practice on the platform is a visual practice that walks you through changing the inputs to the eyes. You can also change the inputs to, for example, your skin. The skin is the largest organ in the body, and under-utilized as a resource for healing. You can rapidly change inputs to your skin through cold therapy. This is a way of hacking your connecting system.
The second lever on the nervous system is neuroception. Neuroception is the moment-to-moment determination, by the body, of safety or threat. It is not a thought. It is a signal coming from the body that interprets what we are experiencing as either safe or dangerous. This determination is very important, because the same event experienced through the lens of safety versus danger is interpreted very differently by us. If we feel unsafe, the body, like a stringed musical instrument, literally re-tunes to attempt to keep us safe. This re-adjusts the internal knobs on our senses, akin to tightening or loosening strings, adjusting our visceral state (how it feels inside the body, including things like muscle tension, heart rate, breathing), our emotions, our thoughts, our interpretations, and then how we behave. We act very differently when we feel under threat, as compared to when we feel safe. We literally see, hear, perceive, interpret, and act differently.
Our neuroception is sometimes difficult to change, because it lives in implicit memory. There is a healing process, and if you are utilizing this learning platform, you are likely engaged in it, whereby we can learn to first perceive, and then begin to modulate, our habitual defensive response patterns. These patterns often form when we are young, and deeply shape how we develop. Polyvagal Theory teaches us that defensive patterns can be aggressive, evasive, or withdrawing. They can also be appeasing. Often they are reactive–they just happen. As we begin to develop more awareness, as we understand how our nervous system works, and as we develop more ability to understand what is required to help us feel safe again, these deep neuroceptive baselines begin to adjust. Yet this is a long term process. It is important that we engage in this work, which is essentially a developmental and evolutionary healing process, and there are lots of tools on this platform, as well as in mindfulness-based and somatically-informed healing modalities, to help us do this.
In the short run, however, we can make significant changes in how we feel by changing the inputs.
Related Practices:In order to effectively change the inputs to your nervous system, its good to know where you are on the Polyvagal map in the present moment. If you'd like to do this now, use the distress mapping assessment tool. This allows you to be more skillful in selecting appropriate input alterations. Generally speaking, we want to turn on more ventral vagal inputs in a way that doesn't undermine our experience of safety. Let's explore various inputs by category:
If you are looking for activities that change inputs rapidly, explore Hacking Your Connection System, Use Your Voice, and Visceral Karaoke and Feeding your Confidence. Try going outside. Swing in a hammock...also:
Change your breathing:
Inputs to the Skin:
Inputs to the Ears:
Inputs to the Feet:
Inputs to the Hands
Whole Body Inputs
Rhythm of the Living World Inputs:
For a brief general situating of Polyvagal Theory in the context of our wellbeing project, see Getting Our Nervous Systems back to Normal. For mind-body wellness considerations see Taking Charge of Your Own Wellness, Interoception, The Daisy Model of Regulation. For trauma healing, see Healing Trauma, and Deviations from the Nest: ACES. For understanding our human lineage and ancestral context, see The Evolved Nest. For other Polyvagal perspectives, see A Polyvagal Perspective on Resilience, 3 Steps: Assess, Down-Regulate, Connect, Polyvagal Mapping, Core Neurobiological Self. To think about changing inputs in the context of relationships, see Healthy Relationships. For thinking about changing inputs with respect to particular nervous system states, see Coming out of Fight, Coming out of Flight, Coming out of Shutdown, Calming Anxiety, Releasing Fear and Coming out of Appease.
Video: Cottonbro | Photography: | Licensed from Pexels.com, used with permission.