Can the Neurobiology of Safety Explain Buttigieg ?
As person who has never before been particularly politically active, but drove 8 hours round trip to see Mayor Pete in his New Hampshire Town Hall the April weekend following his official announcement as a presidential candidate, I find myself observing this response in myself (and many others) and wondering, “What’s it all about?” As Pete himself points out, his positions are not dramatically different from other democratic candidates, many of whom I admire greatly. What is it about Pete that makes him such a powerfully compelling possibility?
As a specialist in developmental science, I find an answer to this question from a combination of Charles Darwin and neuroscientist Stephen Porges. In a work less well known but perhaps equally important as the Origin of Species, Darwin identifies the highly intricate system of facial muscles, and similarly complex systems of muscles modulating tone and rhythm, or prosody, of voice that exist only in humans. Playing a critical role in our capacity for connection, they are central to our evolutionary success.
Porges drew on Darwin’s observation in his discovery of what he terms the “polyvagal theory” of development underlying the “neurobiology of safety.” A person communicates safety when, under the influence of the parasympathetic nervous system, he or she has access to the full range of expressiveness these muscles offer. In turn, being around a person who’s “smart vagus” is active makes us feel safe. We feel connected. Our physiology becomes regulated. Our blood pressure goes down. We can think clearly and our capacity for empathy can come on line.
This sense of calm was exactly my reaction the first time I watched a video of a Mayor Pete interview. In New Hampshire, I had the privilege of first hand experience of the rhythm of his voice and the nuanced, wide-ranging expressiveness of his face.
Such a quality is easier to achieve in front of an adoring crowd. It was the “master fisherman” moment during his second CNN town hall that brought home for me the full significance of Pete’s extraordinary ability to connect and create a sense of safety in his audience. When asked a question by Anderson Cooper about a “hate hoax” he shut it down with the now famous line, “I’m not a master fisherman, but I know bait when I see it and I’m not gonna take it.”
But what happened immediately following this line gives us insight into Pete’s power to create a sense of safety. First there was what one commenter on Facebook described as the “death stare” that followed, communicating with his facial expression, “ Don’t you dare try that again.” Perhaps most significant was his ability to immediately pivot to be his warm, thoughtful, and fully engaged self in his response to the next question. Using a personal story from his time at Harvard, he brought the evening to a powerfully hopeful conclusion, telling the audience of young people who had just sat through a 5-hour event that they have an important role to play in politics.
Pete showed us what that capacity to remain fully present under stress looks like in real time in his CBS This Morning interview when he described an experience during his deployment to Afghanistan. Driving “outside the wire” there was a slap to the side of the vehicle. He had to make a split second decision about whether it was an IED and they needed to get out- a decision that would put all their lives at risk. His ability to remain calm enabled him to think it through rather than impulsively react; it turned out to be not an IED but a legless person on a cart hitting the vehicle.
Years of ugly divisiveness have addled our brains and bodies. When we feel traumatized and overwhelmed, we may not have access to the thinking parts of our brain. Pete’s intelligence and experience, extraordinary in and of themselves, make him a strong candidate. But his calm presence, together with his ability to listen fully, in the words of pediatrician D.W. Winnicott, “holds” his audience. He helps us to self-regulate, bringing our capacities for empathy and reflection back on line. Pete can, as he often states as his aim, engage our better selves. What more important quality can a President have to lead us forward to a hopeful future?