Neuroception, as described by Dr Stephen Porges “is a neurobiological process, programmed into our DNA, which helps us evaluate our environment and distinguish whether the situations or people around us are safe, dangerous or life threatening. Neuroception is monitoring our body, environment and relationships. The first impression creates a physiological response which adjusts our perspective.”
Neuroception gives us:
• The cues of safety by directing our physiology towards social engagement (connecting with other people, sharing experiences & enjoying time together).
• Cues of threat (physical or emotional), increase our heart rate, shifting our response to fight or flight. In life threatening situations, our body can immobilize (freeze) which is an adaptive survival response.
When neuroception gives us cues of safety, we perceive the world in a positive light, we feel accepted and connected to others. It could be said that we see the world through pink coloured lenses. Life feels good.
When we don’t feel safe, our nervous system shifts towards defence, we become vigilant, suspicious, and ready for mobilization. We are attuned to threat as our “lenses” are focused on danger. We might perceive a safe environment as dangerous.
What begins as the wordless experience of neuroception drives a creation of a story that shapes our daily experiences and brings a meaning to the events in our lives.
We rely on the neuroception to send us accurate signals of safety so we can effectively switch between defensive responses and social engagement. We need well functioning Ventral branch of the Vagus nerve to shift with ease from defensive to a socially connected state.
When this system is disrupted, it creates a mismatch between the event or situation and our reaction to it. We can become “stuck” in the state of defence, interpreting safe cues as a sign of danger, having reactions which are out of proportion to the cue.
The Polyvagal Theory (Dr S Porges) stipulates that Ventral branch of Vagus nerve is responsible for regulating functions of our autonomic nervous system (ANS) by inhibiting Sympathetic NS (fight/flight) and Dorsal branch of Vagus nerve, Parasympathetic NS (freeze), bringing us back towards social engagement and connection.
Dr Stephen Porges suggests that faulty neuroception might be behind several psychiatric disorders including autism, anxiety disorders, depression, and reactive attachment disorder.
Author: Irena Woodward – Director/Occupational Therapist