The Neuroception Gauge

Polyvagal Theory for me has been lens changing.  It explains the evolution of the autonomic nervous system and gives us a window into how the brain and nervous system regulate our physiology, allowing us to understand the often overlooked brain-body connection.

Polyvagal Theory sets out the three primary circuits that make up our autonomic nervous system.  It describes how these circuits are arranged in a hierarchy, that we move through in sequence.  The newest circuit of the autonomic nervous system is the vagal branch of the vagus nerve and this is referred to as safe and social. The second is our sympathetic adrenal system, which we know best as fight- flight.  And the third and oldest circuit, is the dorsal branch of the vagus nerve, which is often referred to as shutdown. 

Dr Stephen Porges coined the term Neuroception to describe how our autonomic nervous systems take in information through our senses, without involving the thinking part of the brain.  Neuroception is the process of ‘coding’ the information we receive as safe, dangerous or life threatening. This then determines our autonomic state. 

Our neuroception assesses information inside our body, outside in the environment and between us, in our relationships (Dana, 2018). 

I have found it helpful to visualise the process of neuroception on a gauge.  I created the Neuroception Gauge visual below so that we can see at a glance how our neuroception moves us between our nervous system states in both directions. 

The Neuroception Gauge visual is based on Dr Porges’ Polyvagal Theory and has been influenced by the work of Deb Dana, Justin Sunseri and Janae Elisabeth.

I have included the Five Fs (Flight, Fight, Freeze, Fawn, Flop) on the Neuroception gauge, so that we can appreciate where they sit in the hierarchy. 

Just as the hand on a pressure gauge indicates to us when pressure increases, the metaphorical neuroception gauge also indicates (to the autonomic nervous system) when danger increases.  It then moves in the opposite direction as the danger subsides and as a Neuroception of safety is restored.

The red arrow is bi-directional and moves through each state in sequence. 

The hand moves clockwise as our neuroception of threat increases and anti-clockwise as our neuroception of safety increases. 

• When we are in Safe and Social (Ventral), we are able to learn, connect, feel calm, safe and secure. 

• With a little flight-fight (sympathetic) energy, mixed with (ventral) our safe and social state, we are able to play actively.  We are motivated, driven and focussed.

• If our neuroception detects a threat, we will move into Flight – Fight (Sympathetic).  With this increased activation and mobilisation, we become agitated and unable to settle. With this we may try to flee, or if that is not possible, we may fight.

• If it is not possible to flee or fight, we will freeze.  Freeze is a mixed state, a blend of Shutdown (Dorsal) and Flight-fight (Sympathetic).  In freeze the body becomes still and fight or flight is essentially ‘on pause’.

• Fawning, is also a mixed state, a mix or ‘blend’ of flight-fight and shutdown.  When we fawn, we surrender our own needs and defer to the needs of others, in an attempt to protect ourselves from the perceived harm of an unknown response.  This can be seen as uncharacteristic people pleasing, and it is done in service of survival.

• If none of these defence strategies are available, our neuroception will move us more fully into Shutdown (Dorsal) our third and oldest state.  Here lies immobilisation and collapse, sometimes referred to as (Flop).

• The neuroceptive gauge visual shows how neuroception moves us between states, in both directions and in sequence.  It also shows the stop point at the top where the line is thicker.  From here, our autonomic nervous system has to go back through fight flight to return to safe and social.I’m interested to hear how the Neuroception Gauge visual works for others.For more on how this relates to Autism and PDA you can read my articles here:

And here:

To hear me talk about Neuroception and how, through a Polyvagal lens, I believe that Highly Sensitive (or finely tuned) Neuroception May Be At The Heart of PDA, you can register for the online PDA summit here:

By Jessica Matthews

Neurodivergent Mother, Independent Researcher, and Writer. Background in Psychology and Counselling with postgraduate training in Clinical Psychology (BSc Hons Psychology and Trained Integrative Counsellor). Passionate about Neurodivergent Identity, Non-neuronormative Narratives and Polyvagal Informed Parenting.

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