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Neuroception: How your body detects threat before you

Misty view of jagged mountain tops with wildflowers in the foreground
- Oct 03, 2022

Neuroception refers to the neural circuits that allow our bodies to register whether an environment is safe or dangerous. Unlike perception, which delivers cognitive insights in the form of thoughts and sensory data, neuroception occurs outside of conscious thought.

Since neuroception is primitive, generated by parts of the brain that evolved much earlier than our conscious minds, our bodies sometimes detect and respond to signs of danger even in circumstances we consciously recognize as safe. 

This mind-body friction can become a source of stress, disrupting sleep, focus, and other processes we need to show up as the best versions of ourselves. 

Polyvagal theory: How neuroception guides your autonomic states

Neuroscientist Dr. Stephen Porges coined neuroception as part of the polyvagal theory. This perspective articulates how the nervous system evolved to detect danger throughout our evolutionary history. 

Whether your heart is racing or your mind is clear and calm depends on the neuroceptions your autonomic nervous system is receiving, internally and from the environment. Neuroception works tirelessly to let your autonomic nervous system know whether people, environments, or situations are safe or dangerous. These signals go on to direct automatic processes, like heart and breathing rate. 

You might already know about the fight-or-flight (sympathetic) or the rest-and-digest (parasympathetic) divisions of the nervous system. (If not, read our Guide to the Autonomic Nervous System). The polyvagal theory goes a few steps further to explain how the ANS evolved a hierarchy of autonomic responses to contend with stimuli in our environment. 

According to the polyvagal perspective, long ago, as our species developed a wider set of behaviors, neural circuits evolved to “turn off” our defensive responses so we could convey and interpret social signals from others, learning to cooperate and co-regulate for the benefits of all [1]. 

Porges refers to these circuits as the social engagement system, and it’s what enables communication, cooperation, and even creativity, along with other uniquely human processes.

Interestingly, our automatic responses become increasingly primitive the more stressed we become. When we don’t feel physiologically safe, our bodies lose the ability to “down-regulate” or shut down our ancient defense systems [1]. 

This is why stress can feel so debilitating: in these defensive states, it’s physiologically harder or impossible to access higher-order states like creativity, focus, and the ability to connect with others [2].

Three parts of the autonomic nervous system, from most primitive to most recently evolved

Dorsal vagal: In the gravest of dangers, we trigger our most primitive autonomic circuit, the immobilization or freeze response. We share this response with reptiles, who become motionless in response to threat, and mammals, who play dead. For us, this looks like fainting or defecating during an emergency. 

Sympathetic: When we detect a threat, our ANS releases stress hormones that mobilize us into action, increasing heart rate, breathing rate, etc. 

Parasympathetic/ventral vagal: When we detect safety, our nervous system enters the rest-and-digest mode where we can feel empathy, enthusiasm, curiosity, and engage in rejuvenating processes like sleep, relaxation, and digestion [2]. 

When our nervous systems are balanced, we have a natural ability to deploy the autonomic responses best fit for the scenario at hand. We respond to stress as it arises and recover as it fades. 

When neuroception misfires

This natural responsiveness goes awry in what is known as faulty neuroception, where a person struggles to respond appropriately to internal or outer stimuli, becoming involuntarily locked in defensive states or unable to mobilize in response to stressors. 

Each person has a unique window of tolerance or the optimal zone for approaching daily stress and challenge. Chronic stress or childhood trauma can narrow this window [3]. The more narrow our window of tolerance becomes, the more we struggle to adapt to and recover from stress. 

When it comes to chronic stress, our window of tolerance goes down for a simple reason: in the face of unrelenting stress and incomplete recovery, the body will struggle to adapt and deploy responses that are appropriate to the environment.

Similar problems can occur as a result of developmental stress. Infants aren't capable of regulating their emotional states independently. Instead, they depend on their caregivers to do so through their soothing voice or touch. During this time, the neural circuitry that helps us detect safety depends on these inputs [4]. 

When infants don't receive these signals of safety, it interferes with the development of neuroception, which is a central feature of the biology of trauma. This is why Porges and other researchers have cited neuroception as a root cause of depression, autism, and other conditions related to maintaining and repairing physiological states [5].

Why faulty neuroception is not a friend to your health

The problem is that if we linger in defensive, fight-or-flight mode, we lose access to processes our social engagement system brings with it: the ability to connect and feel safe with others, focus on meaningful projects, and more. 

From a social standpoint, faulty neuroception makes it harder to register what are ordinarily cues of safety: smiling, eye contact, and open body language. This occurs because these cues evolved as part of the social engagement system [2]. When the older, defensive parts of our nervous systems are activated, we lose the ability to register and deliver these higher-order signals. 

In this highly stressed state, the environment can also be a source of neuroceptions of danger. According to the polyvagal theory, a stressed nervous system can register (or “neurocept”) low-frequency noises, like thunder, loud trucks, or the hum of appliances like refrigerators, as signals of danger [2]. 

Though consciously, we recognize these inputs for what they are, our bodies can still respond physiologically as if we were under threat, producing stress hormones and leading to symptoms we associate with stress: feeling “on-edge” or having trouble sleeping or focusing. 

Stressors add to our allostatic load (the accumulated tolls of stress on the body). The higher the allostatic load, the higher our risk for cardiovascular, metabolic, autoimmune, and other types of health risks [6]. 

3 ways to repair neuroception  

The good news is this research has led to incredible insights into the body’s natural ability to regain balance when given the right resources. 

By reverse engineering findings about the parasympathetic nervous system, researchers have identified a wide array of tools we can use to communicate safety to our bodies on a physiological level. 

Over time, these practices can help us rewire patterns of reactivity so we become more resilient to stress. 

There are four approaches for repairing neuroception:

Trauma-informed therapy. Modalities like somatic experiencing, brain spotting, and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) rest on the notion that trauma is emotional and physiological. As a result, the only way to process and relieve its lingering effects is to involve the body. Trauma-informed approaches use body-centered processes to help people disentangle automatic reactions from painful memories and emotions. 

Vagus nerve stimulation. The vagus nerve is a primary part of the parasympathetic nervous system. This cranial nerve is the body's information superhighway, conveying information between the brain and inner organs (and vice versa). Because the vagus is a central part of the parasympathetic system, stimulating it ignites a chain of events that promote stress relief and relaxation. 

The Apollo wearable is one non-invasive, easy way to stimulate the vagus nerve. The device emits vibrations that match natural oscillation patterns between the heart and lungs during deep breathing. You can select Apollo modes to support relaxation and meditative states that have been demonstrated to improve heart rate variability (HRV), a marker of nervous system balance, within minutes [7].

Self-soothing.  The therapeutic effects of contemplative practices, such as pranayama yoga, for example, are well-known. Exercises centered on controlled breathing—whether yoga, meditation, or singing—trigger mechanisms that lower sympathetic responses within minutes while supporting nervous system balance when practiced over time [8]. 

Neuroception: where the mind meets body and environment 

When you understand the role of neuroception in the way you feel, you have a strategy for influencing the constant crosstalk between the conscious mind, the nervous system, and the environment. 

Without recognizing these interactions, it can be easy to attribute chronic stress or tension to circumstances alone. 

While these factors play a role in stress, changing cities, jobs, or other outer arrangements don’t always address its root cause. Many people take massive action to change the surface-level problems in their lives, only to find that they still feel a lack of ease and grounding. 

Our bodies, conscious minds, and environment are in a constant feedback loop: any long-term change demands transformation in all three areas. Signaling safety to your body can not only relieve stress in the moment, but it can lay the long-term foundation for a calm and resilient mind. 



Sources:

 

  1. Porges, S. The polyvagal theory: New insights into adaptive reactions of the autonomic nervous system. Cleveland Clinic Journal of Medicine. 2011, 76(Suppl 2): S86-S90. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3108032/
  2. Porges, S. (2017). The pocket guide to the polyvagal theory: The transformative power of feeling safe. WW Norton & Co. https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2012-32693-000
  3. Nguyen P. & Wall, S. (2021) Looking at Trauma: A Tool Kit for Clinicians. The Pennsylvania State University Press. https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=pE8_EAAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PA25&dq=window+of+tolerance&ots=XsXgOG45WA&sig=YvYlvsN0vOfVQm6g9-9x2GWdpJA#v=onepage&q=window%20of%20tolerance&f=false
  4. Tronick, E. (2007). The neurobehavioral and social-emotional development of infants and children. WW Norton & Company, Inc. https://www.google.com/books/edition/The_Neurobehavioral_and_Social_emotional/wDgGrlkvQbwC?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=neuroception+development+in+infancy&pg=PA8&printsec=frontcover
  5. Rosenberg, S. (2017). Accessing the healing power of the vagus nerve: Self-help exercises for anxiety, depression, trauma, and autism. North Atlantic Books. https://www.google.com/books/edition/Accessing_the_Healing_Power_of_the_Vagus/6MZfCgAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&dq=polyvagal+theory+and+autism&printsec=frontcover
  6. Juster, R, McEwen, B, Lupien, S. Allostatic load biomarkers of chronic stress and impact on health and cognition. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews. 2010, 35(1). https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0149763409001481
  7. Rabin, D., Siegle, G. Toward emotion prosthetics: Emotion regulation through wearable vibroacoustic stimulation. Biological Psychiatry. 2018. 83(9): S380-S381. https://www.biologicalpsychiatryjournal.com/article/S0006-3223(18)31080-1/fulltext