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Neuroception – The Brain’s Subconscious Threat Detector

| What is neuroception? | Polyvagal theory | Changes in neuroception | Faulty neuroception and children’s behavior | Psychiatric disorders |

What is neuroception?

Neuroception is an automatic neural process of evaluating risk in the environment and adjusting our physiological response to deal with potential risks subconsciously. This mechanism scans the environment for safety and danger continuously without us noticing.

Essentially, neuroception is the process by which neural circuits determine whether a situation or person is safe, dangerous, or life-threatening.

As opposed to perception, which is a cognitive thought, neuroception involves  brain processes that work outside of conscious awareness. Neuroceptive evaluations can occur extremely quickly and without your knowledge.

If social cues trigger a neuroception of safety, our bodies enter a calm behavioral states. We feel calm and can easily engage with others socially or attend to issues.

If the cues trigger a neuroception of danger, our body becomes tense and prepares for a fight-or-flight response in a survival mode.

If the cues trigger a neuroception of life-and-death, then we lose social contact and our entire body becomes immobilized. In this freeze response, our blood pressure and heart rate drop, muscles relax, and apnea can occur. We faint and feign death.

The perception of risk and safety do not have to be conscious. They can subconsciously activate our automatic state, which affects our social engagement behaviors and interactions.

Because our nervous system constantly scans the environment to assess risk at any given moment, our bodies can act scared without us being aware of the cues or knowing that we are scared​1​.

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Polyvagal theory

Neuroscientist Dr. Stephen Porges proposed the Polyvagal Theory, which

The Polyvagal Theory, proposed by Dr. Stephen Porges, describes how the autonomic nervous system is influenced by the central nervous system and how it responds to signals from the environment and internal organs.

There are three types of behavior that are impacted by our autonomic nervous system: mobilization, immobilization, and social engagement. Each one is regulated by a different part of the nervous system​2​.

Sympathetic nervous system

This is one of the two primary defense systems in mammals.

When there is perceived threat, the sympathetic nervous system can mobilize the fight-or-flight behavior by inducing faster heart rate, restricting digestion, and heightening attention.

Parasympatheic nervous system

When a life-threatening situation arises, the parasympathetic nervous system can shut down the autonomic function, resulting in immobilization defense behaviors. The individual then appears frozen and pretends to be dead.

Social engagement system 

This system is associated with connection, calmness, safety, and a focus on the present moment. A neuroception of safety must be present before social engagement strategies and the corresponding circuits can be activated. 

Neuroception determines whether a situation or person is safe, and when it does, the neural circuit actively inhibits the areas of the brain that execute the defensive strategies of fight, flight, and freeze, allowing social interactions to occur.

Changes in neuroception

When a child’s nervous system detects cues of safety, their brain’s active inhibition of the defense strategies can allow for social engagement. The child is calm, confident, and social. They are playful, agreeable, open to hugging, and playing nice.

Neuroception is a reflexive mechanism that can instantly change from one physiological state to another.

When situations appear risky, the specific areas of the brain regulating defense strategies are activated. Then even neutral or social behavior is met with aggression or withdrawal instinctively​3​.

Biological movements including voices, faces, eye contact, gestures, and hand movements are likely to contribute to the subconscious detection of threat.

It only takes a tiny change in these movements for the neuroception to shift from “safety” to “danger”. When this occurs, prosocial neural networks are disrupted, and defensive strategies are activated.

Faulty neuroception and children’s behavior

Faulty neuroception could be responsible for some children’s challenging behaviors.

Human beings evaluate risk and match it with their neurophysiological level. When the social environment is deemed safe, defense responses are inhibited, allowing social engagement to flourish. 

Some individuals, however, have a mismatch and interpret safe environment stimuli as cues of danger. Their neuroception is impaired and their neural circuits cannot detect accurately when their environment is safe. Due to the mismatch, their nervous systems activate flight, flight, or freeze behaviors even under neutral or positive situations. 

Kids with faulty neuroception tend to detect danger even when no real threat is present. Simple changes such as entering new situations, seeing strangers, losing their favorite sippy cup, or having toys taken away can be mistaken as a cue of danger triggering defensive reaction.

In the eyes of outsiders, these children are easily set off by anything that doesn’t go their way. 

Children’s defensive mechanisms tend to be disruptive. They are viewed as spoiled or unruly.

If parents believe their kids lack discipline, or punish them severely to correct their behavior, they create more threats (real ones) to their child. 

Without the help of their parents to calm their autonomic nervous system and with further threats introduced, these children may have difficulty developing emotional regulation​4​ in the early years. They are more likely to develop externalizing behaviors such as delinquency, aggression, oppositional defiant behavior (ODD), and conduct disorder (CD) later in middle childhood​5​.

Psychiatric disorders

According to Dr. Porges, faulty neuroception could contribute to psychiatric disorders such as depression, generalized anxiety disorder, and reactive attachment disorder​6​:

  • Depression and anxiety disorders are associated with difficulty regulating the heart rate, which reduces facial expression. Their social communication and behavior are often compromised.
  • Children suffering from Reactive Attachment Disorder are either emotionally withdrawn and unresponsive, or indiscriminate in their attachment behavior. In both cases, the behavior suggests a faulty neurocognition of the environment’s risk​7​.

References

  1. 1.
    Porges SW. The emergence of polyvagal-informed therapies. In: Polyvagal Theory: A Primer. Clinical Applications of the Polyvagal Theory. ; 2018:69.
  2. 2.
    PORGES SW. Social Engagement and Attachment. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences. Published online December 2003:31-47. doi:10.1196/annals.1301.004
  3. 3.
    Porges SW. Making the World Safe for our Children: Down-regulating Defence and Up-regulating Social Engagement to ‘Optimise’ the Human Experience. Children Australia. Published online June 2015:114-123. doi:10.1017/cha.2015.12
  4. 4.
    Hastings PD, Nuselovici JN, Utendale WT, Coutya J, McShane KE, Sullivan C. Applying the polyvagal theory to children’s emotion regulation: Social context, socialization, and adjustment. Biological Psychology. Published online December 2008:299-306. doi:10.1016/j.biopsycho.2008.07.005
  5. 5.
    CAMPBELL SB, SHAW DS, GILLIOM M. Early externalizing behavior problems: Toddlers and preschoolers at risk for later maladjustment. Dev Psychopathol. Published online September 2000:467-488. doi:10.1017/s0954579400003114
  6. 6.
    Porges SW. Neuroception: A subconscious system for detecting threats and safety. Zero to Three. 2004;24(5):19-24.
  7. 7.
    Zeanah CH. Disturbances of attachment in young children adopted from institutions. Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics. 2000;21(3):230–236.

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