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Neuroception: A subconscious system for detecting threat and safety

An article written for the 2013 autumn edition of Fidelity – the quarterly magazine for the National Council of Psychotherapists

Neuroception: A Subconscious System for Detecting Threat and Safety

“Do words have voices”? Anon

By Russ Henderson P.G.Dip (Psych) M.N.C.P. (Snr Accred)

Neuroception is a term that is used by Professor Stephen Porges of the University of Maryland, U.S.A. to describe how neural circuits distinguish whether situations and people are safe, dangerous or life threatening. It is a model of social development derived from his groundbreaking and revolutionary work over many years, the “Poly Vagal Theory”. The Poly Vagal Theory emphasizes “Phylogeny” (the evolution of an organ or another part of an organ) to govern the workings of well defined neural circuits to support “social engagement / social communication behaviours and the defensive strategies of fight / flight and freeze responses to varying stimuli”. (S. Porges)

Our autonomic nervous system (ANS) governs our subconscious responses to stimulus, ranging them from benign, friendly and hostile, allowing us to make immediate micro second decisions as to how to meet different kinds of our life experience.

Porges cites that there are three distinct developmental stages of the human autonomic nervous system: 1. Social Engagement / Social Communication, being the most recent in terms of our evolution (myoleanate new vagal): 2. Mobilisation (Fight / Flight): 3. Immobilisation / freeze: The vagal nerve is the largest nerve of the human body, and governs these responses. The vagal nerve is the 10th cranial nerve and runs from the back of the brain to the stomach via the heart area. The shut down response is activated from the oldest part of our vagal nerve system (dorsal old vagal) and serves to immobilise and then freeze a person when a threat stimulus is deemed to be so overwhelming, this is an involuntary evolutionary process, immobilisation with fear is a missing concept inside of psychology, psychiatry and modern medicine.

We are aware of a mouse that freezes when it is about to be killed by a cat, this is not a death feign, but a behaviour beyond “conscious decision making”, however if the cat disengages and walks away, after a few moments the mouse will come back to life and if able run away, this is similar behaviour to the human species when confronted by overwhelming life threatening odds, but the mouse once having experienced a full freeze response will die soon after their trauma. Human’s after freeze recovery / thaw, will likely start to develop acute stress symptoms if the nervous system is not “re-set”.

Traumatic events occurring inside of a person’s history that have created multiple freeze responses, carry a potent reservoir of unresolved vital energy that manifests inside of the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) when a person is exposed to original trauma signatures in the present. This stored vital energy automatically changes the person’s neurology, as the energy stored is a “phase locked frequency” which when activated re-creates a physiology that experienced the historic trauma, it is without saying that the Poly Vagal Theory has major potential influence for current and future P.T.S.D. and stress related condition work.

Porges also suggests that people who suffer repeated anxiety attacks throughout their lives may well be under the influence of repeated vagal reflex immobilisations.

Porges also sees that “faulty neuroception” might lie at the root of several psychiatric conditions, such as schizophrenia, anxiety disorders, depression, and reactive attachment disorders. Psychopathology (psychological disturbance) including trauma and insecure attachment along with varying levels of such disturbance or distress, could be the determining factor in which a person is unable to inhibit defence systems in a safe environment, plus conversely unable to activate defence systems in a risky environment.

Pre natal babies, newborn, small infants and young Children are most susceptible to trauma as their intelligence, emotional regulation and perceptional systems are underdeveloped, the absence of safe adults and insecure boundaries, exposure to threat and danger overwhelms the Young Person, shutdown and freeze serves to block an excess of emotional overwhelm. Later as the infant enters puberty and young adulthood, inaccurate neuroception likely becomes more “hardwired”, and a predictable response even if not an accurate appraisal of the events unfolding, become sought after, humans search and seek for predictability, what we do today, we will likely do tomorrow.

I have had the honour to work with many Children and Young Persons who have had diagnoses of autistic spectrum condition (A.S.C.). My training with Dr Porges and study of his Poly Vagal theory has made my life as a therapist so much more informed, and often led to what my clients saw as positive conclusions to our work together.

An aspect of the Poly Vagal theory is the subject of “hyperacousis”, whereby the behaviour of an autistic Child can alter to fight / flight when their neuroception detects sound frequencies which indicate threat, these low and high frequency sounds are decoded to a much more sensitive degree than “neurotypical” (non ASC) Children, hyperacousis is likely to be a major explanation for the often random and sometimes aggressive behaviours autistic Children can use.

Our middle ear muscles recalibrate to low frequency sound, hence footsteps, shouts, and low voice tone amongst other sounds are often decoded as potential threat, thus the autistic Young Person is likely to act with mobilised behaviours as their bodies enter a fight / flight pattern of readiness, certain low pitch sounds are sensed as impending doom, and various high pitched sounds such as screaming etc. prepare us to witness and or experience an attack.

An absolutely remarkable example of hyperacousis happened to me when I was at a school observing a group of 6 children aged around 8 years of age, inside of their home base class, who all had varying degrees of autism. They were all sat around a table drawing with their Teaching Assistant, every few moments one of the Children would start to hum, this was in an instant picked up and copied by the 5 other Children, there was a total absence of humour, absolutely no distress offered by any of the group that I could see, this was not disruptive behaviour as all the Children remained on task and seemingly oblivious of the input they were all offering, each individual Child humming in total harmony with each other.

I sat watching and looking for a clue as to what was going on, baffled until their Teacher returned with the rest of the class, she asked how I had got on, and I shared my wonderful story to her, to which she laughed and informed me that where the group were sat was a bundle of noisy water pipes. I listened to the pipes later that day when School had finished and as soon as water ran through them, a loud and angry sound rattled and vibrated around that area, obviously the Children were picking this sound up and in an instant blocked the incoming frequency out with a more pleasing frequency of their own making. I had no idea that there was an emergence of sound where they all sat as they somehow managed to detect the noise before it became obvious and blank it out, the collective effort and intelligence able to deal with this discomfort without any verbal communication with each other and pre planning seemed to me an awesome example that our Children who carry social deficits of one type are often very capable of balancing the equation well in their favour.

The whole experience again taught me that vulnerable young Children with what some call learning difficulties are, at a young age, masters of situational manipulation, able to engineer complex and demanding environments which are at best arduous into a manageable experience.

Russ Henderson is an independent psychotherapist and trainer specialising in stress disorders, whose clinical background is in special needs education, bereavement therapy, drugs / alcohol mental health and CAMHS (Joint Agencies Child Abuse Team). Russ studied and practised Martial Arts through the application of Zen with a master for 10 years.

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