Sunday, December 20, 2015

Article 9: Stephen W. Porges



I met Steve Porges on a volleyball court in the summer of 1974.  I ran a summer outdoor league in Urbana, Illinois, and after the final matches were concluded, he asked if I would like to join their co-ed team to play in the upcoming fall indoor league in Champaign.  His team was comprised mostly of people from the University of Illinois Psychology Department, and it included his wife, Sue Carter.  Over the next two years, our team won five of the six park district leagues that we entered.  Steve and I were the big hitters and blockers, and our styles complemented each other, since he is left-handed and I am right-handed.  We could both jump well and were serious competitors, and we both thoroughly loved the sport.

As with many of the teams in those leagues, the tradition after each evening's matches was to grab a pizza and beer at the closest pizza restaurant, so we often sat together and talked for an hour after our matches.  That is how our friendship developed beyond being volleyball court mates.  One thing that set Steve apart from most of the other people was that he was so engaging and present.  He asked questions about me and my life, and he listened intently.  Years later I realized that people in my new home, California, get to know each other primarily by doing things together, while people in the Midwest get to know each other through talking and listening.  Steve was one of the great "listeners" in my life.

When I look back on the close friendship we developed during my last two years in Illinois, it isn't at all surprising to me.  We had both grown up Jewish and easily expressed our emotions and feelings, while enjoying a rye sense of humor.  We were both greatly influenced by music--Steve had been a very good classical clarinetist, and I had been in a folk band and was a songwriter.  We both loved volleyball and played a LOT of it during those two years--always on the same team.  And we both had found our professional callings in life--he as a neuropsychologist and I as a computer systems analyst.  We both loved talking about our work.

To begin to understand the impact that Steve has had on my life, I should say some things about his career and work.  Steve is probably the most intelligent person I've ever known well.  He currently holds the position of Distinguished University Scientist at Indiana University and is a part time Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina.  He is Professor Emeritus at the University of Illinois at Chicago and at the University of Maryland.  He's a former recipient of a National Institute of Mental Health Research Scientist Development Award and has published over 200 peer-reviewed scientific papers across an amazing number of disciplines, including anesthesiology, critical care medicine, ergonomics, exercise physiology, gerontology, neurology, obstetrics, pediatrics, psychiatry, psychology, space medicine and substance abuse.  In one interview of Steve a couple years ago (from which I took much of this biographical information), neuropsychologist Rick Hanson commented that, if a Nobel Prize were awarded in psychology, Steve would certainly have been a recipient by now.

To quote from the biography in Rick Hanson's "Hardwiring Happiness" series of interviews, "In 1994 [Steve] proposed the Polyvagal Theory, a theory that links the evolution of the vertebrate autonomic nervous system to the emergence of social behavior.  The theory provides insights into the mechanisms mediating symptoms observed in several behavioral, psychiatric, and physical disorders.  The theory...provides a theoretical perspective to study and to treat stress and trauma."  The titles of his two most recent books indicate the breadth and importance of Steve's work.  The Polyvagal Theory: Neurophysiological Foundations of Emotions, Attachment, Communication and Self-regulation was published in 2011, and Clinical Applications of the Polyvagal Theory: The Transformative Power of Feeling Safe was published in 2013.

Steve was certainly laying the groundwork for his Polyvagal Theory in the years that I first knew him.  Many of our conversations included discussions about his initial theories linking physiology and behavior.  I recall discussing how he wanted to analyze the complex wave that is comprised of a person's vagus nerve signal and heart rate, break down that wave into its component frequencies, associate those frequencies with different afflictions, such as hypertension and autism, and then be able to predict and treat those afflictions if the frequencies were abnormal, even in newborns!  He told me once that he enjoyed discussing his theories with me because (a) I understood what he was saying, (b) I challenged him by asking questions and (c) I was not an academician.

I think Steve's greatest ability as a psychologist and theoritician is the far-reaching, interdisciplinary quality of his work.  His theories are not simply scientific postulations, but they have immense clinical and practical value in today's world.  To be successful in his research, Steve has had to be very good in a lot of disciplines, and one of those, interestingly, is mathematics. Important to the success of his research has been his "intuitive math abilities," as he likes to say.

Soon after we met, he told me that he had just learned about the Fourier transform, which (simply put) is a mathematical tool that decomposes a signal into its component frequencies, similar to breaking down a musical chord into its component notes.  In his research, Steve had been forced to re-invent auto- and cross-correlations, which is just one step away from the Fourier transform frequency extraction method, because he had never heard of Fourier transforms!  (Well, who has except for a mathematician?)  As a person who majored in math, that's pretty amazing to me.

In looking back over our years of friendship, it was difficult for me to define exactly how Steve changed the course of my life, mostly because the influences were complex and not typical of any relationship.  The impact of those influences has taken a lifetime to emerge, unlike the influences of other remarkable people I've known.  But these two influences have, indeed, changed my life greatly.

Steve pushed me to always maintain diverse interests. This may seem like an odd way to influence another person's life, but Steve was the first one to make me fully aware that you are healthier when you actively nourish all parts of your life.  Steve saw me through some difficult times, but amid each emotional upheaval, he pushed me to see the importance and value of different parts of me.  He urged me to integrate those interests and activities, so I would not be consumed by the loss of any one of them.  He would ask me about my music, my sports activities, my computer projects, my reading, my ceramics, my physical health, my relationships.  If I were feeling down about something, he'd urge me to go play volleyball.  If work wasn't going well, he'd urge me to write a new song.  If I were grappling with a philosophical question, he'd encourage me to work it out in the ceramics studio.

I shared a lot of experiences with Steve that led me to realize how important diverse interests are in a person's life--from competing together in volleyball to discussing a computer technique over lunch, from seeing violinist Yehudi Menuhin at the San Francisco Symphony (while he and Sue were on sabbatical at Stanford University in 1981) to attending a lecture he gave in a psychology class at U.C. Davis.  I always admired that Steve could pay such careful attention to each part of his life.

For many years I've been told by people that I have an inordinate number of interests and activities.  Steve pushed me to keep those interests alive, in effect creating my own health safety net.  It goes further than having a busy lifestyle.  If one can be deeply involved in diverse things, then life changes, such as retirement, need not be so challenging.

Integrating and nourishing my diverse interests led to the second influence Steve has had on me.

Steve pushed me to be more resilient.  Steve was really the first person to make me aware that mental health, emotional health and physical health are deeply connected.  (I may even add "spiritual" health.)  He would ask, "Are you taking care of yourself?"  He wasn't asking if I was taking my vitamins; he was inquiring whether I was paying attention to and taking care of all the parts of me.  I think his profound empathy and concern for other people has led him on a natural path in developing his Polyvagal Theory, which opens doors to exploring the range of human behavior when a person feels "safe," not safety from being isolated, but safety while interacting with other people.  In one interview, Steve stated, "We make the world better by making people safer."

Steve has pushed me towards safe places.  I remember telling him once in a phone conversation that I was feeling down about something, and an hour later he showed up at my door with two full bags of groceries, just to make sure I was eating well.  Who even thinks to do that for someone, much less carries through on the thought?  That night I ate well and felt better.

Resilience is the ability to stabilize oneself after a challenge.  I am still working on that set of skills, as we all are.  One of my favorite quotes from Steve is, "Healthy steady states are not steady," so we can expect life to throw us challenges.  As part of my physical health issues in the last twelve years, I have sought and received the support of many others, especially my wife, Suzanne, and through those experiences my resilience has improved.  There was a time in my life when I was a lot less resilient, but Steve was the first to push me towards more resilience.

And Finally... In this article I have not said much about Steve's wife, Sue Carter, who also became a dear friend of mine.  To quote a Wikipedia article on her, she "is a biologist and behavioral neurobiol-ogist.  She is an internationally recognized expert in behavioral neuroendocrinology.  In 2014 she was appointed Director of The Kinsey Institute and Rudy Professor of Biology at Indiana University.  Dr. Carter was the first person to identify the physiological mechanisms responsible for social monogamy."  She was also the first to discover the relationship between oxytocin and social behavior.

Sue is such a warm, modest person that it was a long time before I discovered how highly regarded and accomplished she was in her field.  I was at Steve's and Sue's home one Saturday afternoon when I asked what they were doing that evening.  She responded that Masters and Johnson were joining them for dinner!  (I offered to bring the wine, but she said they had that covered.)  Now she's head of the Kinsey Institute, which was founded in 1947 by Dr. Alfred Kinsey (whose research was the basis for the Kinsey Reports).

My final words about Steve refer back to my article on Gary Usher in this series, where I mention that my search for a life's philosophy was first influenced by Gary.  For all practical purposes, that search lasted for nine years and culminated in a brief conversation that Steve and I had in a San Francisco deli one night, before going to the symphony.  We often discussed philosophical questions, and Steve knew I was searching for my "meaning in life," my theory to explain the reasons for living.

Suddenly, I got it, as simple as it could be.  I said, "Somehow life has always been a conflict for me between pursuing what I wanted to do and helping others.  Now I see that they have to work together.  The secret of life is to be the best you can be and to do good for others.  Isn't that right!?"  Steve looked up and replied, "Yes, that's right.  Would you pass the mustard?"

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