Psychophysiology, 32 (1995), 301-318. Cambridge University Press. Printed in the USA.

Orienting in a defensive world: Mammalian modifications of our evolutionary heritage. A Polyvagal Theory


Department of Human Development, University of Maryland, College Park, USA

Copyright, 1995 Society for Psychophysiological Research



The vagus, the 10th cranial nerve, contains pathways that contribute to the regulation of the internal viscera, including the heart. Vagal efferent fibers do not originate in a common brainstem structure. The Polyvagal Theory is introduced to explain the different functions of the two primary medullary source nuclei of the vague: the nucleus ambiguus (NA) and the dorsal motor nucleus (DMNX). Although vagal pathways from both nuclei terminate on the sinoatrial node, it is argued that the fibers originating in NA are uniquely responsible for respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA). Divergent shifts in RSA and heart rate are explained by independent actions of DMNX and NA. The theory emphasizes a phylogenetic perspective and speculates that mammalian, but not reptilian, brainstem organization is characterized by a ventral vagal complex (including NA) related to processes associated with attention, motion, emotion, and communication. Various clinical disorders, such as sudden infant death syndrome and asthma, may be related to the competition between DMNX and NA.

Descriptors: Vagus, Vagal tone, Nucleus ambiguus, Dorsal motor nucleus of the vagus, Respiratory sinus arrhythmia, Polyvagal Theory

I. -- Introduction
II. -- The Polyvagal Theory: Overview
III. -- Summary and Conclusions
IV. -- References, Author Notes, and Appendices