NEUROCEPTION: A Subconscious System for Detecting Threats and Safety


The University of Illinois at Chicago

What determines how two human beings will act toward each other when they meet? Is this initial response a product of learning from culture, family experiences, and other socialization processes?

Or is the response the expression of a neurobiological process that is programmed into the very DNA of our species? If the response has a neurobiological basis, are there specific features of the other person’s behavior that trigger either feelings of safety, love, and comfort or feelings of danger?

According to the Polyvagal Theory (including the concept of neuroception), our range of social behavior is limited by our human physiology, which has evolved from that of more primitive vertebrates.

When we are frightened, we are dependent upon the neural circuits that evolved to provide adaptive defensive behaviors for more primitive vertebrates. These neural circuits provide physiological mechanisms that reflexively organize mobilization or immobilization behaviors before we are consciously aware of what is happening.

When, on the other hand, neuroception tells us that an environment is safe and that the people in this environment are trustworthy, our mechanisms of defense are disenabled.

We can then behave in ways that encourage social engagement and positive attachment.

Focusing on biologically based behaviors common to all humans allows practitioners to imagine new intervention paradigms .

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