Cranial Nerves & Empathy

The autonomic nervous system (most commonly understood as the fight/flight and freeze system) has 12 cranial nerves, 5 of which are responsible/necessary for social engagement (a feeling of safety, restoration, resiliency, and a desire to connect with others and not isolate). These five cranial nerves #5,7,9,10, & 11, manifest in our facial expressions/non-verbals and our voice prosody (the patterns of emphasis and intonation in language)—this plays an important role in developing awareness of our own and others emotions and experiences and supports the development of empathy.

In 2004. Dr. David Walsh’s study revealed that kids ages 8-18 in the US were consuming 40 hours of screen time per week on average. In 2010, the Kaiser Family Foundation did a follow up study to Walsh’s which revealed that number had climbed to over 55 hours/week on average and its speculated now to be over 60 hours/week. I love technology but I think the math is pretty simple. When were consuming that much screen time it just leaves less and less time for lived experiences and the necessary exercise of these 5 cranial nerves to learn, practice, and master these skills which help us regulate our emotions and behaviors.

Neuroplasticity, or the process by which we strengthen or create (neurogenesis) neural pathways (as Aristotle said, we are what we repeatedly do) we do this through activities/exercises that are intentionally focused, experiential, redundant, visceral, novel, consistent, meaningful, and require action—sound familiar? Of course it does because although it’s not rocket science, we know that just like the dirt road forms due to repeated traffic, we learn stuff and get better at it until we master it—by doing it over and over and over —like learning to play the guitar for example—it’s strangely difficult to do this, if possible at all, without actually engaging ourselves physically or engaging others. I can look at the kettle bells next to my tv every day and think about using them but I can tell you not using them does nothing!!

How we get to “freeze”

When someone has experienced trauma, chronic overwhelming stress, etc. our “fight/flight” part of our nervous system stays in a state of hyperarousal, just like repeatedly getting punched in the arm eventually leads to bruising (physical/physiological changes) so does hyperarousal create physical changes in our nervous system and eventually our viscera (bodily organs) (see ACE’s Study) causing the autonomic nervous system collapse or to the “freeze” mode (immobilized, collapse, shutdown—often manifested symptoms of depression and anxiety) promoting isolation, withdrawal, and a slowing of metabolism, etc.

So it’s not difficult to understand how someone who has experienced these things can have a collapse response. But there are lots of kids who haven’t experienced trauma that struggle with emotional and behavioral dysregulation due to a lack of lived experiences which are necessary to develop the ability to work through frustration, bounce back from disappointment, sit in and through discomfort—because these experiences teach sticktoitiveness (tenacity), perseverance, and grit—these are skills that prepare us for actually living life beyond the screens at a visceral and nervous system (neuroception) level.


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