What if a single research key exists that fits into the lock that will open the door for me to find out what was REALLY wrong with my severely abusive Borderline mother?

I used to think that if I could name one single fact about my mother that allowed her to so terribly abuse me from birth and for the next 18 years of my childhood, I would say that my mother lacked a conscience.  Search as I might, I cannot actually find anyone who can begin to say exactly what ‘conscience’ is let alone where it might physically reside in a person’s body-brain.

Today I am beginning to understand that there is another word I can use to think about what my mother did to me.  My mother completely lacked the ability to feel compassion for me.  Compassion, it turns out, IS an aspect of human beings that does seem to be connected biologically, physiologically, neurologically to very real systems in our body-brain.  I like that.  I can learn about this.

The most fundamental human do-good, be-good system in our body is evidently our vagal nerve structures.  Before I present my informational links for today, I want to first present this single piece of research that shines a clear, bright light on what might be the very system within my mother’s body that was – most simply put – unable to help her not to harm me!


Borderline personality disorder and emotion regulation: Insights from the Polyvagal Theory


Marilyn A. Austina, Todd C. Riniolob and Stephen W. Porges (2007)

References and further reading may be available for this article. To view references and further reading you must purchase this article.


The current study provides the first published evidence that the parasympathetic component of the autonomic nervous system differentiates the response profiles between individuals diagnosed with borderline personality disorder (BPD) and controls.

Respiratory sinus arrhythmia (RSA), a non-invasive marker of the influence of the myelinated vagal fibers on the heart, and heart period were collected during the presentation of film clips of varying emotional content.

The BPD and control groups had similar initial levels of RSA and heart period. However, during the experiment the groups exhibited contrasting trajectories, with the BPD group decreasing RSA and heart period and the control group increasing RSA and heart period.

By the end of the experiment, the groups differ significantly on both RSA and heart period. The correlation between the changes in RSA and heart period was significant only for the control group, suggesting that vagal mechanisms mediated the heart period responses only in the control group.

The findings were consistent with the Polyvagal Theory [Porges, S. W. (1995). Orienting in a defensive world: Mammalian modifications of our evolutionary heritage: A Polyvagal Theory. Psychophysiology, 32, 301–318; Porges, S. W. (2001). The Polyvagal Theory: Phylogenetic substrates of a social nervous system. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 42, 123–146; Porges, S. W. (2003). Social engagement and attachment: A phylogenetic perspective. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1008, 31–47.], illustrating different adaptive shifts in autonomic state throughout the course of the experiment.

The BPD group ended in a physiological state that supports the mobilization behaviors of fight and flight, while the control group ended in a physiological state that supports social engagement behaviors.

These finding are consistent with other published studies demonstrating atypical vagal regulation of the heart with other psychiatric disorders.


Brain and Cognition
Volume 65, Issue 1, October 2007, Pages 69-76
Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience: Developmental and Clinical Perspectives

Marilyn A. Austina, Todd C. Riniolob and Stephen W. Porgesc, ,

aDepartment of Human Development, University of Maryland, College Park, College Park, MD, USA

bDepartment of Psychology, Medaille College, Buffalo, NY, USA

cDepartment of Psychiatry, University of Illinois at Chicago, Psychiatric Institute, Chicago, IL, USA





LISTEN HERE (scroll down their web page for title)

Dr. Moira Gunn talks with UC Berkeley Psychology Professor, Dacher Keltner and the editor of Greater Good magazine, Jason Marsh, about how humans are naturally programmed to be good and what separates those who are from those who are not.

Interview with the authors Dacher Keltner and Jason Marsh ABOUT —

The Compassionate Instinct: The Science of Human Goodness by Dacher Keltner, Jason Marsh, and Jeremy Adam Smith (Paperback – Jan 4, 2010)

Book Review

The short, accessible essays…underscore empathy, forgiveness, gratitude, happiness, trust, and apology…. A readable digest of current work in positive psychology for a general audience. (E. James Lieberman – Library Journal )

Book Description

Leading scientists and science writers reflect on the life-changing, perspective-changing, new science of human goodness. In these pages you will hear from Steven Pinker, who asks, “Why is there peace?”; Robert Sapolsky, who examines violence among primates; Paul Ekman, who talks with the Dalai Lama about global compassion; Daniel Goleman, who proposes “constructive anger”; and many others. Led by renowned psychologist Dacher Keltner, the Greater Good Science Center, based at the University of California in Berkeley, has been at the forefront of the positive psychology movement, making discoveries about how and why people do good. Four times a year the center publishes its findings with essays on forgiveness, moral inspiration, and everyday ethics in Greater Good magazine. The best of these writings are collected here for the first time.

A collection of personal stories and empirical research, The Compassionate Instinct will make you think not only about what it means to be happy and fulfilled but also about what it means to lead an ethical and compassionate life. 25 illustrations.

See all Editorial Reviews



Today I scanned the next chapter in Dr. Dacher Keltner’s book, Born to Be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life on Compassion.  I initially purchased this book out of my interest in what Keltner had to say about the human neural circuits that appear to have evolved specifically to help us live a good life in the world having to do with the Polyvagal Theory, or the vagal components of our nervous system.

It is here in his chapter on Compassion that Keltner begins to talk about this vagal nerve system (and about its direct connection to our immune system).  Please take a few moments to read this.  I present this chapter for discussion and educational purposes – please follow the active book title link above to purchase your copy:




  1. Two interesting books are Kotulak’s “Inside the Mind” and “A Mind to Crime” by Anne Moir and David Jessel. Maybe not as specific as what you’ve found, but has some other info you might find of interest. (Not linking to my article cuz there’s only an excerpt extant and it’s not relevant.)

  2. I did a research paper when I was in law school on brain chemistry and criminal defense – drawing on information about changes in brain chemistry caused by different kinds of trauma. I will try to post it here in a separate comment, if my computer doesn’t freeze again.

    • I hope the paper comes through.

      Interestingly, one of the first books I read when I started my studies was Keith Ablow’s “Inside the Mind of Scott Peterson.” A compassionate translation of Peterson’s actions that at least attempts to consider the early influences on Peterson’s mind. Does the dead woman no good — yet gives some context to the murderous act.

      The second book was “Why They Kill: The discoveries of a maverick criminologist” by Richard Rhodes, author of “The Making of the Atomic Bomb,” winner of the Pulitzer and National Book Award.

      If I were to read this book again I could pinpoint my criticisms of Rhodes’ discussions of the work of Lonnie Athens who conducted several hundred in-depth interviews with violent inmates. Actually, if I wished to directly consult Athen’s work, I could critique Rhodes quite succinctly.

      Rhodes draws the conclusion that these violent criminals consciously chose their actions. I doubt Rhodes has a single clue about what dissociation is in the body-brain, so of course would not be able to see it in the words of the criminals Athens recorded.

      After spending a great deal of time looking at research about early trauma body-brain changes, it is clear to me that the kind of body-brain-mind that can result from these changes is an entirely different kind of brain. My mother had one of these changed brains — and it made her an extremely dangerous mother. Anyway, I’m sure you know all of this — I am on a rambling tangent. Just to say, also, that how early trauma changes the male brain can be very different than how it changes the female brain. Because my concern has been specifically with trying to understand what happened to my mother, I have very little understanding specifically about these gender differences.

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