Last month I met with Benjamin Fry to chat about the use of technology to regulate the nervous system over a Chinese meal. Benjamin is the founder of trauma clinic Khiron House and of NeuralSolution, a company that is researching a new non-contact device to detect the state of activation of the nervous system, working with Stephen Porges PhD, the father of Polyvagal Theory.
The new device, called the PhysioCam, will have the aspect of a lightbulb that changes colour depending on a person's state of activation. A bit of background first. According to polyvagal theory there are three 'gears' to the nervous system. One is the social engagement system, a state of calm, safety and connection, this is where we all strive to be. Then there is a state of feeling too much linked with the sympathetic nervous system. This is linked with experiences of danger, vigilance, anger and anxiety, a bit like pressing on the accelerator in a car. And lastly a state of experiencing too little. This is reached when the activation goes past a certain level, causing the system to hit the brakes. This is associated with the activation of the dorsal vagal nerve, and also linked with states of life-threat, collapse, shut down, depression and shame.
So what will the PhysioCam do? Benjamin explained that it will be linked to a camera capable of detecting slight changes in blood flow in a person's face, making it possible to quickly show when a person is getting over or under activated, for example in the context of a therapy session. The device is currently being tested and will be showcased for the fist time at this year's ICAAD conference in London, with full results presented at this year's International Trauma Conference in Boston. This clinical application of polyvagal theory promises to aid clients learn to self-regulate whilst having the potential of being easily integrated and used in a relational way as part of a therapeutic relationship.
Potential applications of this new technology could however be varied. From wearables to solutions tailored for addiction treatment and relapse prevention. It seems to be an exciting time for the field of neuroscience and psychotherapy! During our chat, what really stayed with me was Benjamin's passionate vision of just how much of health and recovery might be linked with nervous system dysregulation and just how far we still have to travel as a profession to make sure the therapy we offer takes into account what we now know about the impact of trauma and adverse childhood events on the nervous system.
Benjamin has even written a book on this topic called 'The Invisible Lion' that explains, in plain English, why our nervous systems become dysregulated and what can be done about it.
As our meal drew to a close, I was left with some questions. Would it be possible to embed technology in the context of a therapy session in a way that wouldn't feel intrusive or disruptive of the relationship? Is that really all we are, just nervous systems going haywire left right and centre? I don't believe so. As a transpersonal psychotherapist, I view the person as having a spiritual dimension too, as being more than their baggage. A wonderful and multi-coloured combination of our personal, psychological and biological inheritance and all our longings, be it spiritual, relational or in terms of values and meaning.
After conversing with Benjamin, however, my personal feeling was that perhaps these things were not mutually exclusive, making it more a matter of making sure we don't leave the story of the nervous system out together with all the other aspects that make up each one of us as a unique being. Perhaps unless we help our bodies and nervous system to feel safe first, we would not be able to fully access all the resources and goodness that could come from living a rich and fulfilling life.
Dana, D. (2018) The Polyvagal theory in therapy. USA: W. W. Norton & Company.
Fry, B. (2019). The invisible Lion. Flatpack instructions for life. UK: Independently published.