-Shivakumar Belavadi, PPNE, Bangalore, India

TOPIC – Working with the chapter of the nervous system by John Chitty, compare and contrast the Old and New Views of the Nervous system and why it is important for PPN educator.

OLD VIEW : The older view of the nervous system in human beings was of a reciprocal system which had two branches viz. Parasympathetic and Sympathetic. The parasympathetic branch had the Rest & Rebuild functions associated with it while the sympathetic branch had the Fight & Flight functions associated with it. In this view, the two branches functioned to mutual exclusion so that when the fight and flight response operated, it would cause the cessation of Rest & Rebuild mechanism, and vice versa.

NEW VIEW: In the new view, which was pioneered by Stephen Porges through the Polyvagal theory, there are three branches of the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) viz. Social, Sympathetic and Parasympathetic. The new inclusion is the Social branch. The new view of the ANS is of a phylogenically progressive system in which the three branches of the ANS function sequentially. The social system is the superior and newest system which has come about in the evolved species viz. mammals and human beings.


John Chitty compares the Old and New views of the Autonomic Nervous systems in a tabular form as given below. I have taken the liberty of putting in my thoughts on the importance to a PPN educator alongside each of the comparative aspect of the chart.







Supreme Importance

The value and relevance of the new view comes from the fact that it is “life empowering”Once a PPNE appreciates the linkages between the three branches and how they function, it can be used to empower babies, parents and caregivers.  In fact, society at large will benefit from such universal and empowering facts about how we function in the voluntary and involuntary domains.


Reciprocal(Sym- and Parasym are

seesaw, on/off)

Sequentialbased on phylogeny

(evolutionarily newer vs. older

By appreciating the sequential nature in the functioning of the branches, one can notice that the Social Branch has the potential to cause a cascading impact on to the Sympathetic and Parasympathetic parts. Hence if the Social Nervous System is addressed and tapped by a PPNE or parent, it can empower a child for a lifetime since the patterns made at the early stages get imprinted into a baby and can be referenced at any stage  in the rest of life – at any age !

How many parts?

Two (Sym-, Parasym-)

Three(Social, Sym-, Parasym-)

The three branches of ANS operate as a flow in continuum and not in a reciprocal manner. The first and natural recourse for a baby in the neuroception process is the Social branch. If this is dysfunctional for any reason, it then progresses downwards towards Sympathetic and Parasympathetic branches.  The clear messaging is that a PPNE can tap into the contimuum at any point, recognize the potential and cause bonding, attachment, self-care and other triggers to operate.

ANS Categorization

of Vagus Nerve

All Parasympathetic

Mixed(Ventral branch of Vagus is

not Parasympathetic)

The Ventral Branch of the Vagus (Cranial Nerve X) gives a new dimension to human life. It is autonomic and yet transcending the traditional Sympathetic and Parasympathetic paradigms. This is the social dimension of human beings, which makes prenatal  bonding, secure attachment, care giving, empathy, safety and such other concepts a bigger purpose through human interactions. The ventral part of the Vagus nerve is myelinated and accesses heart, facial muscles, throat and voice thus opening human communication to higher possibilities.Thus it will be a rich source for a PPNE who can tap into this potential right at the early phases of a baby’s life through maternal bonding, social cooperation and also counsel parents / care givers to a better and interactive life to a baby/child.

Therapy goal

Parasympathetic relaxation

Re-establish newer branches

With the new understanding of the ANS through the Polyvagal theory, the goal of therapeutic effort is to use the full flow or continuum in the sequential matrix of the three branches viz . Social è Sympatheticè Parasympathetic. At each level, a PPNE would recognise opportunities for both Normal Functions OR Stress Responses. Hence we can use techniques like touch, contact, authenticity,  communication, safety and the like to foster a quicker social interaction with a Child/baby and make use of the higher opportunities which the Social branch provides. In fact, John Chitty states that ‘When in doubt, operate through the Social Branch , which will set off a cascading impact through the other branches ‘. He has also given clear examples though “Rescue Hug, Roots of Empathy and Reading Dogs” which have created newer opportunities and therapies.A great learning for a PPNE is that ‘Secure attachment does to the ANS, what Immunization would do for the body.’


Feel no pain and have no


ANS is hyper-sensitive & records

experiences, particularly betrayals

Many of the aspects of dealing with a baby have undergone a sea change with the new understanding. If subjected to physical abuse or damage through pulling, slapping, holding baby by the leg or circumcision without anaesthesia, a baby could regress into a Parasympathetic state and thus cause regressive immobilization or even permanent damage. Hence we need to be “Nice” to babies and not welcome them with betrayals. On the contrary, the new paradigm is to recognize that babies are super-sentient, treat them well and create resilience and adaptability in them.



Parasympathetic “Rest & Rebuild

Sympathetic “Fight-or-Flight

Differentiate “normal functions”

from “stress responses

We first recognize that a baby hitchhikes on the mother’s nervous system in the course of pregnancy.  The “normal and stress” functions both happen as a part of the sequential flow over the matrix.  Hence a PPNE would clearly understand this flow across the matrix of branches and work to create appropriate interventions at each stage – either to minimize the regression towards Parasympathetic state OR maximize the progression towards Social Interaction stage.If we recognize the possibilities and calibrate the engagements of the PPNE/ Parent/Care-giver to meet a baby’s expectations created through pregnancy and pre-birth states, the child will flourish and progress throughout life, based on the first imprints created. If not there could be triggers of stress response which in turn could have limiting or damaging consequences for the baby, family and society at large.

In summary, the new understanding of the Autonomic Nervous System and the Polyvagal Theory , has thrown open new doors for PPNEs and society.  This gives us an opportunity to empower babies, parents and care givers into what human potential is and work towards tapping the higher realms.

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