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Neuroception: How Your Brain Decides if Your World is Safe

by | Feb 23, 2021 | MENTAL HEALTH, NEUROSCIENCE, RELATIONSHIPS, TRAUMA

Neuroception helps the brain decide what is safe.

Have you ever heard the phrase, “live in the moment”? Turns out, it’s an impossible task. See, we can consciously perceive each moment as we become aware of it. But in reality our brain uses neuroception to make snap decisions up to ten seconds before we’ve even realized we the the opportunity to do so.

Neuroception is the term used to describe the process that the brain undergoes to immediately recognize danger and keep us safe. Read on to learn how we unconsciously use neuroception to assess threats and feel safe, and how we can use this knowledge to improve our health and relationships.

A Brief Overview of the Nervous System

Humans have unique brain structures that are capable of processing a ton of information, before conscious awareness, in order to assess threats at lightning speed and keep us safe from dangerous or life threatening situations. The many parts of the brain control every aspect of a persons life, from breathing to deciding what to cook for dinner every day. The nervous system is made of many moving parts and all of them work together to take information from your environment through our senses to tell your body what is the safest plan of action at any given moment.

The central nervous system (CNS), made of the brain and spinal column, is composed of many parts that work together to regulate our bodies. Working in unison with the CNS, connected via nerve pathways along the spinal cord, is our autonomic response system (ANS). The ANS is responsible for unconscious actions, such as:

  • Heart rate
  • Blood pressure
  • Respiration
  • Pupil dilation
  • Digestion
  • Urination
  • Sexual arousal

There are three arms of the ANS, the sympathetic, parasympathetic, and enteric nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system is what activates the fight-or-flight response and controls the level of action or anxiety in the body, and the parasympathetic arm tells the brain when it’s time to rest and eat. The enteric nervous system lives in the gut where it works with the digestive system and controls much of our bodies hormone production, though it’s exact nature hasn’t been completely studied yet. All of these systems tell the ANS how we need to respond to our environment and if any of them sets off alarms bells the ANS will activate survival mode.

When survival mode is activated, people will experience heightened heart rates, dilated pupils, and enhanced hearing in order to easier detect danger and run away. If we are too stressed we’ll find ourselves unable to function like normal, possibly finding ourselves unable to eat, sleep, or relax. You can see how this might affect our moods and relationships, but don’t worry because there are many ways to self-soothe an anxious nervous system and faulty neuroception.

Why Neuroception Keeps Us Safe

Every moment, our brains are making decisions behind the scenes that are designed to protect us from danger. When we meet someone new, we scan that person’s face to automatically detect signs of malice or deception. We also have the incredible ability to detect danger from afar, using our senses to figure out if an upcoming area is safe dangerous or life threatening. Decisions such as who to say hello to in a crowded room and at what moment to cross a city street are made at a subconscious level, based on ancient survival mechanisms that affect the entire body.

Think about it— back in ancient times, humans were constantly under threat of danger, such as the presence of wild animals that hunted them. If we evolved with the need to be constantly aware of the possibility that a lion might sneak up on us at any given moment, we would have needed to be on high-alert at all times, and so we evolved an automatic response system that evaluates risk and keeps an ear out for cues of safety as well as threats.

The ability to recognize danger is present at birth. The moro reflex, or startle reflex, is present in infants and can be activated by even a seemingly insignificant trigger. If a baby is in the arms of a trusted caregiver but cries unexpectedly, it could be the startle reflex was activated by an unexpected sound or motion, such as the sound of their own cry.

How Social Cues Affect Our Neuroception

Humans are social animals, and we have evolved with survival mechanisms that are firmly rooted in social situations. Neural circuits distinguish between cues of safety and dangerous or life-threatening people or situations in a split second, as soon as our brains pick up a voice or see a facial expression. The ability to discern what is a safe or threatening person or situation is learned throughout childhood as neural circuits are formed while experiencing life and observing caregivers.

In early childhood, the baby’s brain is forming rapidly and using social cues to facilitate neural growth. A loving environment with attentive caregivers is critical for the healthy growth of a child. When the body communicated with the brain, neural circuits distinguish whether situations and people are safe dangerous or life threatening. While the neural circuits are forming in the growing brain, emotional neglect causes physical harm because it impedes the formation of neural circuits that respond to things such as facial expression. Research shows that a loving touch is required for the healthy growth of neurons in a child’s brain as well as for overall health throughout our lives.

The polyvagal theory says that the nervous system of mammals all work in coordination and are influenced heavily by social cues that indicate whether we should feel safe or afraid. The vagus nerve is a cable-like nerve that runs from the brain to the base of the spine, and is connected to all the internal organs and the autonomic nervous system. The vagus nerve runs through the lifeline from the brain to the body, and information garnered from the neural circuits as soon as they receive information by neuroception and sensory input.

Information we receive from touch and sight along with our other senses immediately affect the entire body. Because of the intimate relationship between the nerves on our skin and the inner workings of our brains, the polyvagal theory explains that human connection in the form of physical touch is an important factor in many processes that lead to overall health.

Hack Your Neuroception and Feel Better

There are modern and ancient techniques to soothe an anxious nervous system. Research into the vagus nerves and their effects on our nervous system have produced technology that has proven to reduce anxiety and depression by stimulating the nerve with a mechanical device.  For a more natural way to stimulate healthy nerve responses and correct faulty neuroception, look into trauma-sensitive yoga.

If you want to convince your body that you don’t need to currently flee from a predator, then physically slow down and take deep breathes with long exhales. This lets our nervous system know for sure that we are in a safe place and can relax— deep breaths in front of an anxious friend can cause them to mirror your cool demeanor and relax, too.

Sound therapy is another ancient form of medicine that has been researched in recent years and found particularly effective for reducing anxiety. The use of low and mid-range frequencies in music and sounds produced with singing bowls is used in meditation and energy healing practices. A modern take on this phenomenon can be found in the use of ASMR, where gentle noises are used for the same purpose.

With a better understanding of our bodies and neuroception, we can learn small ways to improve our mental health and heal from trauma every day. Simply listening to lo-fi music and taking deep breaths can achieve a wealth of health and relationship benefits, so don’t be afraid to take five minutes for yourself and relax.

Modern Intimacy is a group therapy practice, founded by renowned Psychologist and Sex Therapist, Dr. Kate Balestrieri. This inclusive blog is designed to provide a wealth of information and resources for mental health, relationships, and sexuality. Subscribe today to get the latest information from our expert contributors from all around the world.

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Author Bio

Dr. Kate Balestrieri is a Licensed Psychologist, Certified Sex Therapist, Certified Sex Addiction Therapist, and PACT II trained Couples Therapist. She is the Founder of Modern Intimacy. Follow her on IG @drkatebalestrieri and @themodernintimacy.

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