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What Putin’s Physiological State Tells Us

How the physiological state of a leader can impact the world.

Key points

  • The polyvagal theory focuses on the autonomic nervous system (ANS) and the many behaviors that it affects.
  • When challenged by a threat, the ANS shifts into a defensive state to deal with perceived danger.
  • A state change in the ANS disrupts one's ability to self-regulate, cooperate with others, and maintain balance.
  • In his state of hypervigilance, Putin's pre-frontal cortex functions are limited; his ability to reason is replaced by anger and fear.

By Robert Legvold, Nancy Rubbico, and Stephen W. Porges

One man, angry and isolated, has upended the world, returned it to 1939, and set in motion untold suffering. Many are questioning his mental stability. A former U.S. intelligence chief, James Clapper, said he appears “unhinged.” Obama’s Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, suspects that “in some respects, he’s gone off the rails.” U.S. intelligence agencies are mobilizing resources to assess his mental health.

One area of neuroscience research may offer insights into his actions: polyvagal theory. It suggests possible ways in which physiology is shaping Putin’s mental state and behavior. The theory focuses on the autonomic nervous system and the many behaviors that it affects, including how the foundational brainstem mechanisms regulating it influence and bias the cognitive processes of higher brain structures.

This autonomic nervous system (ANS) is programmed to keep us safe and healthy by supporting the bodily functions of health, growth, and restoration. However, the system influences other processes intimately related to our survival and health. It has a direct effect on our sociality. However, when challenged by a threat, the system shifts into a defensive state to deal with proximal illness and potential injury.

This state change in the ANS disrupts our abilities to self-regulate, cooperate with others, and maintain balance within our larger environment. The primitive brainstem mechanisms controlling the ANS do not have values or moral meanings, nor do they assign motivation. Our brain does that. It receives and assesses the signals sent by an environment, not on a cognitive but on a neural biological level. It is a survival-based detection process without awareness.

It is constantly surveilling three worlds: inside our body, outside our body—our immediate surroundings but also the larger world—and between the two, relationships at all levels. The polyvagal theory addresses three neural circuits that, in a hierarchical fashion, support different types of behavior.

The first circuit is a state of safety (our social engagement system) involving five cranial nerves. The second circuit is a state of mobilization, the fight-or-flight impulse. The third circuit is a state of immobilization. When the first circuit is no longer available and the second circuit is overwhelmed, the body enters a conservation mode: blood flow to the brain and digestion slows, a disconnected sense of hopelessness and helplessness prevails, and the feeling is one of invisibility and abandonment, with safety and hope unreachable.

If the insights of polyvagal theory help explain Putin’s behavior (as opposed to his mental state), the relevant neural circuit is the second. In the state of mobilization, one no longer has access to the prefrontal lobe and the behaviors it supports—an ability to self-regulate, connect with others, receive support and offer support to others, and be flexible and resilient.

Such behaviors are replaced by an overriding sense of danger and alarm, a feeling of anger and anxiety, and preoccupying hypervigilance. It is called an “adaptive survival response.”

This appears to be Putin’s state. His nervous system is now looking only for cues of danger. He is no longer able to listen. He cannot self-regulate or easily cooperate with others. And his behavior manifests a dominant sense of injustice and unfairness in what, for him, is a dangerous world. His mental state may be affected by his isolation, but his nervous system is producing the isolation.

The BBC’s Russian correspondent, Farida Rustamova, quoted a source close to Putin as saying:

The Russian president has in his head that the rules of the game are destroyed and destroyed not by Russia, and if this is a fight without rules, then this is a fight without rules and the new reality in which we live. . . He is in a state of resentfulness and insults. It’s paranoia that has reached a point of absurdity.

François Heisbourg, the Special Advisor to the International Institute of Strategic Studies, drew the consequences, “When he is offered an off-ramp, he doesn’t know what is being mentioned. It’s not a notion which he seems to understand.” Off ramps in his current physical state are not cues of safety but danger.

The understandable outrage his decision to invade Ukraine has produced, the extraordinary worldwide support for Ukraine that it has generated, the vigorous U.S.-NATO effort to deny him a military victory in Ukraine, and their openly declared war on his country’s economy will, if the insights from polyvagal theory apply, vastly intensify the cues to which he is responding.

It is unclear who or what can alter the current dangerous and destructive state that his autonomic nervous system appears to be in. But as Washington and allied governments struggle to assess and then deal with his mental state, they also need to factor in the full range of biological factors shaping his behavior.

*Robert Legvold is Marshall D. Shulman Professor Emeritus (Political Science), Columbia University.

Nancy Rubbico is a clinical psychotherapist specializing in complex trauma and a trainer in polyvagal theory.

Stephen W. Porges developed polyvagal theory and is a Distinguished Scientist at the Kinsey Institute, Indiana University, and Professor of Psychiatry at the University of North Carolina.

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