top of page
  • Writer's pictureRae'Anne Tan

Neuroception: The Silent Operator

“But There’s Nothing Unsafe!”

A child playing with sensory items

Neuroception isn’t easy to grasp, even within the context of neurotypical development. The real challenge lies in its silent operation beneath our conscious awareness. Yet, its influence on every aspect of our lives is profound.

The Polyvagal Theory by Dr. Stephen Porges

From the Polyvagal Theory by Dr Stephen Porges, Neuroception is defined as the nervous system’s ability to make moment-to-moment decisions on safety and threat via our senses. These decisions happen subconsciously without involving thinking parts of our brains.

The importance of Neuroception and creating an environment of emotional safety cannot be overstated. Every interaction sends potent signals of safety or danger, and understanding this is imperative for us to foster safety for children and others around us.

Cultivating Safety in Therapeutic Relationships

Let’s look at the various relationships that exist in the context of therapy:

Parents and child playing with kid
  1. Parent and Child: The parent-child relationship lays the foundation for a child's sense of safety. A child's nervous system is highly intertwined with that of their parent. From early interactions, the child's nervous system is tuned to either rest in security or scamper in anxiety. Simple, demand-free activities – like simply cuddling with your child, taking a walk in nature with your child, cooking together, these interactions are moments of opportunity where a child’s neural circuits form ‘connections of security’. These connections then form the foundation of their ‘safety detection system’ (aka Neuroception).

  2. Therapist and Child: As a therapist, knowing that every word and gesture is being deciphered spontaneously by the child is a pretty responsibility-laden knowledge. But as an adult, it is our duty to regulate our own nervous systems and share that calm with our clients. Understanding neuroception equips us with the empathy and sensitivity to navigate potential challenges and send necessary cues of safety, especially if the child’s past is fraught with triggers of threat.

  3. Therapist and Parent: To build a coherent environment for the child, a therapeutic relationship and effective collaboration between parents and therapists is essential to the child’s growth. But we acknowledge that within this diad, like in many others, there often lies a unique yet unspoken power dynamic: parents know their child best, but it is often the therapists who may possess a better understanding of the nervous system or more specific intervention strategies. In these cases, the responsibility lies in both adults to be self-aware and emotionally regulated enough to become the child’s agents of safety and advocate in a cohesive manner. Both adults have equal share in holding up their end of the stick to ensure an effective collaboration for the child’s best benefit.


When we don’t feel safe

If anyone doesn’t feel safe, it is often the informed adult’s responsibility to regulate their own nervous system and share that calm. 


This may require cognitive effort, examining our assumptions, empathizing with the other’s sense of competence, and understanding their triggers.

The Bottom Line

With great power comes great responsibility. Understanding and applying neuroception is not just a therapeutic tool; it's a mandate to foster safety, empathy, and resilience in every interaction.


Important Links:

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page