What causes oppositional defiant children to react intensely and throw aggressive tantrums? Neuroception, it turns out, may help us understand these children’s challenging behaviors.
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 process 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. These evaluations can occur extremely quickly and without one’s conscious awareness.
If an environmental cue triggers a neuroception of safety, our body feels calm and we can easily socially engage or attend to issues.
If the cue triggers a neuroception of danger, our body becomes tense and prepares for a fight-or-flight response.
If the cue triggers a neuroception of life threat, then we lose social contact and our entire body becomes immobilized. During this freeze response, our blood pressure and heart rate drop, our muscles relax, apnea can occur, and we faint and feign death.
The perceptions of risk and safety do not have to be conscious. They subconsciously affect our automatic responses, which, in turn, affect our social engagement behaviors and interactions with others.
The nervous system constantly scans the environment for cues of safety or danger to assess risk. Basically, our bodies can act scared without us being aware of the cues or thinking that we are scared1.
Neuroscientist Stephen Porges proposed the polyvagal theory, which states that 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 system2.
Sympathetic nervous system
This is one of the two primary defense systems in mammals.
When threatened, 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. They appear frozen and pretend to be dead.
Social engagement nervous system
This system is associated with connection, calmness, safety, and a focus on the present moment. A neuroception of safety must exist before social engagement 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.
Neuroception in children
When a child’s nervous system detects cues of safety, their brain’s active inhibition of the defense strategies can allow for social engagement. They are calm, confident, and social. They are playful, agreeable, open to hugging, and playing nice.
Neuroception is a reflexive mechanism that can instantly change one physiological state to another.
When situations appear risky, brain circuits regulating defense strategies are activated. Then even social approaches are met with aggressive behavior or withdrawal instinctively3.
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.
Neuroception and oppositional defiant disorder
Preschoolers with symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) are at risk for externalizing behaviors, conduct disorder (CD), delinquency, and aggression later in middle childhood4.
There is evidence that faulty neuroception may be at play.
Most people evaluate risk and match their neurophysiological state with the actual risk they face in their environment. When the environment is deemed safe, defense responses are inhibited, allowing social engagement to flourish.
Some individuals, however, have a mismatch and interpret a safe environment as dangerous. Their neuroception is impaired (faulty neuroception) and their neural circuits cannot detect accurately whether their environment is safe. Due to the mismatch, their nervous systems support flight, flight, or freeze behaviors while preventing prosocial behaviors.
Children with poorer parasympathetic influence are prone to feelings of threat even when no actual threats are present.
For these vulnerable children, their neuroception tends to detect danger even when it is not present. Simple changes in the social scene from a quiet state with a mother to a social interaction with strangers can trigger defensive reactions in these children.
Children’s self-regulation can be negatively impacted if their mothers use negative control in these socially challenging situations, especially during their early years, resulting in oppositional and defensive behaviors5.
Faulty neuroception and psychiatric disorders
According to Dr. Porges, faulty neuroception could also contribute to psychiatric disorders such as depression, generalized anxiety disorder, autism, and reactive attachment disorder6:
- Social connections are often difficult for an autistic person. Their brain areas that inhibit the fight, flight, or freeze reaction are usually not active.
- 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 risk7.
- 1.Porges SW. The emergence of polyvagal-informed therapies. In: Polyvagal Theory: A Primer. Clinical Applications of the Polyvagal Theory. ; 2018:69.
- 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.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.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
- 5.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
- 6.Porges SW. Neuroception: A subconscious system for detecting threats and safety. Zero to Three. 2004;24(5):19-24.
- 7.Zeanah CH. Disturbances of attachment in young children adopted from institutions. Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics. 2000;21(3):230–236.