Epistemic Spot Check: Polyvagal Theory/Safe and Sound Protocol/Stephen Porges

I read part of the book The Polyvagal Theory and went to a two day seminar by the author, Stephen Porges. I went because I thought there was a strong possibility EFT worked by affected the vagal nerve, and thought maybe polyvagal theory could explain how. I ended up pretty disappointed.

Once I was at the seminar I was very interested in a protocol Porges developed called Safe and Sound, which purports to cure a number of things including many symptoms of autism, plus misophonia (which I have), by playing songs with certain frequencies filtered. Porges showed very impressive videos of autistic children going from non-functional to neurotypical-passing. He bragged about a 50% improvement rate. He played a sound sample and even on hotel sound system speakers, it had a very definite affect on me, relaxing many muscles. So of course I ordered it.

In a failure of order of operations I didn’t look up the results until after I’d ordered it (I really wanted my misophonia fixed, plus the demo had been so impressive). The paper tries very hard to hide this, but what actually happened was not an average 50% improvement in some patient metric, but that 50% of patients showed any improvement. Given that autism is a high variance disease and children are often receiving multiple interventions, this basically means “didn’t make anything worse, probably”.

But I’d already ordered the thing, so I decided to try it. This was kind of an ordeal, btw. Safe and Sound is available only through “trained professionals”, even though the protocol consists in its entirety of listening to some songs on an MP3 player. And I checked, there’s nothing magic about the MP3 player or headphones they send you, you could do it with any reasonably good pair you had lying around. Based on this, I have to assume the 3-digit price tag and gatekeeping are entirely about prestige, because they’re certainly not about helping people or making money (I’m sure he could make more selling the CDs without the gatekeeping).

The protocol did have an effect, in that it consistently made me very sad. It didn’t have any effect on my misophonia, even though I tried it twice. The occupational therapist tried to insist it had worked because I was blunter and more confident in my last conversation with her, but no, sweety, that was because I was more sure your system was bullshit. Then she recommended I give them more money to do other protocols, which I inexplicably declined. If anyone else would like to try it, I did save some samples.

I am fighting the urge to get into the science of polyvagal theory, because it is really really interesting and has a lot of explanatory power. I put off writing this for five months because I wanted to do a more scientific review. But the empirical results are not just bad, they’re bad while proponents are claiming they are good. I can’t trust someone who does that.

For bonus points, when I asked some pointed questions during the seminar, Porges blew me off. So I’m not going to give polyvagal theory any more brain space, even though it would be so cool if it was true.

 

2 thoughts on “Epistemic Spot Check: Polyvagal Theory/Safe and Sound Protocol/Stephen Porges”

  1. Hey there. Interesting post about the Safe and Sound protocol. I have my self thought about getting it, but it would have been great to test it before hand. I tried to find your e-mail to send a PM but couldn`t find it. Can you share it over e-mail or are the files too big? Thanks and all the best 🙂

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