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Neuroception is a subconscious process through which our nervous system detects and evaluates cues of safety, danger, or threat in our environment.

Coined by Dr. Stephen Porges, the concept/term Neuroception also encapsulates the body’s ability to perceive and interpret sensory information related to safety and risk, even before conscious awareness.

Neuroception: physiological and emotional responses

Unlike perception, which involves conscious awareness and cognitive processing, neuroception operates at a more automatic and primitive level. It occurs through the interaction of the autonomic nervous system (ANS), particularly the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches, and various sensory pathways.

Our brain’s ability to sense and interpret signals from the environment (neuroception) is essential in controlling how our bodies and emotions react and ultimately shapes our overall feelings of safety and well-being.
It helps us navigate social interactions, establish trust, and respond appropriately to potential threats or challenges in our surroundings.

Neuroception and Polyvagal Theory

The concept of neuroception is closely tied to the Polyvagal Theory (also developed by Dr. Stephen Porges), which suggests that the nervous system has evolved to prioritise safety and survival.
Through neuroception, our body continuously scans the environment for cues that signal safety, such as facial expressions, vocal tones, body language, and environmental conditions.
It also detects cues of potential danger or threat, such as sudden loud noises, aggressive behaviours, or other perceived indicators of harm. Based on these sensory cues, neuroception triggers physiological responses that prepare the body for action.
In safe situations, the parasympathetic branch of the ANS predominates the body and mind, promoting relaxation, social engagement, and connection. This is sometimes referred to as the ‘rest and digest’ system.
In potentially threatening situations, the sympathetic branch of the ANS activates the fight-or-flight response, preparing the body for quick action and self-defence. In extreme situations of perceived danger, the body may enter a freeze response, characterized by immobilisation and dissociation. Dissociation describes when a person separates from their thoughts, feelings, or sense of self to distance themselves from overwhelming or traumatic experiences.
Neuroception plays a significant role in trauma. Traumatic experiences can profoundly impact neuroception, leading to alterations in how the nervous system perceives and responds to safety and threat cues.

Neuroception and trauma

In individuals who have experienced trauma, neuroception can become dysregulated. Experiencing overwhelming or life-threatening trauma can sensitise the nervous system, making it more alert to potential threats in the environment. This heightened sensitivity can lead to challenges in effectively managing arousal levels and transitioning between states of calmness and activation.
This heightened sensitivity can lead to hypervigilance, an exaggerated response to perceived danger, and difficulties in accurately assessing safety.

For example, trauma survivors may have a lowered threshold for detecting threat cues, causing them to perceive ordinary situations or neutral stimuli as potentially dangerous. This can lead to increased anxiety, a sense of constant danger, and difficulty relaxing or feeling safe.

Impact of trauma on neuroception

Understanding the impact of trauma on neuroception is crucial in trauma-informed approaches. Professionals and caregivers who work with trauma survivors can create safe and supportive environments that take into account the potential dysregulation of neuroception. This involves providing clear cues of safety, fostering a sense of predictability, and avoiding triggers that may retraumatise or overwhelm the individual.

Watch and reflect

Watch the above clip of Assoc Professor Liz Temple speaking about the body’s ability to perceive and interpret sensory information related to safety and risk, even before conscious awareness.

Then, watch the video from The Trauma Foundation on the polyvagal perspective of trauma below.

This is an additional video, hosted on YouTube.

Once you have viewed the videos, reflect on how being stuck in different states such as flight/fight, freeze, or fawn impacts people’s behaviour. List some practical ideas to support others to build more resilient and flexible nervous systems.


Porges, S.W., 2004. Neuroception: A subconscious system for detecting threats and safety. Zero to Three (j), 24(5), pp.19-24.

Porges, S.W., 2022. Polyvagal theory: a science of safety. Frontiers in integrative neuroscience, 16, p.27.

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Trauma, Neuro, and Shame Awareness: Best Practice for Professionals, Organisations, and Communities

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