Have you ever had the experience of meeting someone for the first time, where you felt completely at ease, as if you had known this person for ages? Where you felt open and free to share who you are? Or have you had the opposite experience, where you felt your defenses come up immediately when meeting someone and your first instinct was to flee? In either case, your initial response is directly related to your perception of safety.
Without ever thinking about it, our body and brain are at work 24/7, evaluating the environment, to determine whether or not we are safe. In the social arena, this ongoing process of evaluating risk has been termed neuroception and has been described as our “safety-threat detection system” by Dr. Stephen W. Porges, Professor of Psychiatry and Biomedical Engineering and the director of the Brain-Body Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Porges conceptualized a system of social engagement that has received wide acceptance in the human sciences.
Put simply, before we can engage socially with anyone, two things have already happened, below our level of conscious awareness. First, our body and brain have assessed the situation (neuroception). If the environment feels safe, then we are free to approach another or be approached. Second, approach and proximity to another person becomes possible when our defensive behavioral mechanisms have received hormonal signals to “stand down.” The sense of safety is therefore an embodied experience, our body’s response to environmental cues. When we feel safe in the presence of another, our breath comes easily, our heartbeat is regulated, we don’t sweat nervously, and we feel open, expansive, empathetic, and in sync.
Functional MRI brain image studies have identified the temporal lobe as a key structure that helps humans evaluate whether or not the environment is safe, dangerous, or life threatening. Apparently, the temporal lobe evaluates facial expression, vocalizations, and movements to help us determine whether or not we perceive another individual as trustworthy and safe. However, even a slight variation in these stimuli can immediately signal the amygdala (the brain structure that evaluates fear) to evoke the defensive responses of fight, flight, or freeze. Since the neurobiological mechanisms that underlie social engagement (approach behavior) as well as the defensive strategies of fight, flight, and freeze, share the same neural systems, it can be quite tricky to tease them apart, especially if one suffers from anxiety disorders, learning disorders, or PTSD.
Sensorimotor Experiment: Think back to a time when you felt open and safe in the presence of another. As you recall that experience, notice what happens to your breath, your muscle tone, and your sense of time and space. Please feel free to comment and share your experience.