I was walking with one of my teen clients around the school block when he stopped and watched a car. His body tensed, his eyes went wide and breathing paused for a few moments as he watched. There was something he was neurocepting that I wasn't. He was in a more sympathetically charged state, poised and ready for action. I asked him what was going on and he said cars don't typically drive that slow in this area. He said the people in that care were looking for someone.
Was my client neurocepting potential cues of danger or does he have a spidey-sense?
I have to let the inner comic nerd come out. One of our regular Instagram Live viewers (we see you and appreciate you, Daisy!) used this analogy, which is fitting, but I feel compelled to reign it in a bit.
Yes, you do have neuroception. Just like my client in the opening paragraph. But no, you do not have a Spidey-sense, sorry. And neither did my client. Spider-Man has a spidey-sense, but he also has neuroception. We need to discuss what these two things are first...
What is neuroception?
Neuroception is the word that Dr Stephen Porges created to better discuss the concept of unconsciously detecting cues of safety or danger from the internal world or the external world and then shifting into defensive or safety behaviors. It's part of his larger Polyvagal Theory, which you really must learn more about.
By processing information from the environment through the senses, the nervous system continually evaluates risk... [N]eural circuits distinguish whether situations or people are safe, dangerous, or life threatening... [N]euroception takes place in primitive parts of the brain, without our conscious awareness. The detection of a person as safe or dangerous triggers neurobiologically determined prosocial or defensive behaviors. Even though we may not be aware of danger on a cognitive level, on a neurophysiological level, our body has already started a sequence of neural processes that would facilitate adaptive defense behaviors such as fight, flight, or freeze.
Dr Stephen Porges, NEUROCEPTION: A Subconscious System for Detecting Threats and Safety
What is the "spidey sense"?
The Spidey sense is, well, this...
Spider-Man possesses a precognitive "danger" or "spider" sense which warns him of potential or immediate danger by the manifestation of a tingling sensation in the back of his skull, and links with his superhuman kinesthetics, enabling him to evade most any injuries, unless he cognitively overrides his automatic reflexes. The precise nature of this sense is unknown, though the Master Weaver states it is enabled by his connection to the Web of Life and Destiny. It appears to be a simultaneous clairvoyant response to a wide variety of phenomena (everything from falling safes to speeding bullets to thrown punches), which has given several hundredths of a second warning, which is sufficient time for his reflexes to allow him to avoid injury.
(BTW - Does it scare you that I understand absolutely everything that was said here? I'm not just a polyvagal or trauma nerd.)
How They Are Alike
Both neuroception and the spidey-sense are there for increasing the likelihood of survival. With the spidey-sense, it's directly an advantage over his opponents. If he can see where the pumpkin bomb is going to explode before it does, he can avoid that blast radius. If Spider-Man can detect which sand on the beach is actually alive, he'll be able to better his chances of defeating the Sandman. Probably with cement.
Same with neuroception though. The ability to detect danger and safety is going to increase our chances of survival. We mobilize when we detect danger. Mobilization means we can escape or use physical force. And we shutdown when we detect that our life is under threat. This results in the "playing dead" collapse which may be handy when a bear is around.
But neuroception is underneath everything we do, including raising our babies. When a parent hears the cry of their infant, it mobilizes the parent to solve the problem. Changing them, soothing them, socializing, feeding, whatever it is. The parent mobilizes and then co-regulates or provides for a need. This directly increases the chances of the baby surviving, obviously.
But first there is the neuroception of danger from the external cue of the crying. That danger detection shifts the parent into a sympathetic/mobilized state along with their access to their safety/social engagement system. With both of these active, co-regulation can happen.
Neuroception and the spidey-sense are also both unconscious. Spider-Man does not choose to use the spidey-sense, it just happens. When there's danger around, his head buzzes like crazy (and his hairs stand up straight too apparently). The parent above with the crying baby does not choose to become more sympathetically active. They simply become more sympathetically active.
If we had to consciously choose to climb down the polyvagal ladder into our defensive behaviors, our chances of survival would decrease. The time it takes to analyze a situation would leave us susceptible to being prey.
Although we can consciously choose to alter our behavior to regain access to our safe and social state. Things like changing our breathing can help with this. Slowing down the exhale will trigger the parasympathetic system that is important for "rest and digest" stuff, including social engagement as well.
Fun things like singing, dancing and riding a bike can also help to climb the polyvagal ladder, back into a safe and social state. But it needs to be done mindfully. We can't just move around. I mean, we can. But if the goal is to climb the polyvagal ladder, the movement needs to be combined with a curious mindfulness. The combo of mindfulness and movement is what allows the stuck freeze energy to discharge or for the sympathetic energy to return from a shutdown place.
How They Are Different
The first way they are different is that Spider-Man is able to "see" into the future enough to react to the danger that is about to happen. He'll spidey-sense the bullet's direction before the finger squeezes the trigger. This is different than neuroception, which is not a future-seeing ability. Although accurate neuroception can absolutely detect subtle cues of danger that may indicate a coming danger. But it's based in the here and now.
Detecting someone's more monotone voice is a potential neuroception of danger. That type of voice may cause our own sympathetic system to kick on ever so slightly. That's literally our flight/fight circuitry. But this doesn't indicate their potential for harming someone. It's just our own personal autonomic nervous system response reacting to the here and now monotone cue of danger (though also passing through other filters: culture, our autonomic state, beliefs and more).
Our feelings of danger don't necessarily indicate actual danger. Just like with my client in the opening paragraph. He neurocepted potential danger based on the speed of the car. And he might have been right. But Spider-Man's spidey-sense is always indicative of actual, impending danger.
The second way that they are different is that neuroception evolved within living organisms. The ability to detect risk through the senses was an evolutionary advantage, allowing for species to recognize movements to approach or avoid. Identifying dangerous movements meant that a species could immobilize and potentially blend into its environment. Or mobilize and avoid the potential danger.
The Polyvagal Theory explains that mammals in particular have all three evolutionary building blocks of the autonomic nervous system:
1. Immobilization • Feigning death, behavioral shutdown. • The most primitive component, shared with most vertebrates. • Dependent on the oldest branch of the vagus nerve (an unmyelinated portion originating in an area of the brain stem known as the dorsal motor nucleus of the vagus).
2. Mobilization • Fight–flight behaviors. • Dependent on the functioning of the sympathetic nervous system, a system associated with increasing metabolic activity and increasing cardiac output (e.g., faster heart rate, greater ability of the heart to contract).
3. Social communication or social engagement • Facial expression, vocalization, listening. • Dependent on the myelinated vagus, which originates in an area of the brain stem known as the nucleus ambiguus. The myelinated vagus fosters calm behavioral states by inhibiting the influence of the sympathetic nervous system on the heart.
Dr Stephen Porges, NEUROCEPTION: A Subconscious System for Detecting Threats and Safety
Conversely, the spidey-sense did not evolve in Peter-Parker. It is the result of a radioactive spider bite which somehow alters his very DNA (which it turns out is probably unrealistic). His development of his powers and spider-sense was instantaneous.
Spider-Man Has Both. You Don't.
He has the spidey-sense to warn him of actual, imminent danger. But he also has neuroception which detects cues of "danger." Not necessarily actual danger, but things like ruptures in co-regulation.
Like if he were talking to Captain America about some insecurities he has about defeating the Green Goblin and Captain America looks down at his phone. Spider-Man would see that removal of Cap's gentle, empathetic eye contact and neurocept it as a rupture in the co-regulation. Spider-Man's sympathetic circuitry would activate enough so that he felt some insecurity; some anxious energy. Then his story would follow his state, leaving him with doubts about Cap's level of caring and his own worth of being listened to.
You're still superhuman. But not literally.
I mean, this neuroception stuff is incredible. If you think about it, it's really this awe-inspiring thing. That we can detect super subtle cues from the outside and inside world. Which then shifts us up and down the polyvagal ladder to approach safety or avoid danger. These fundamental approach/avoid feelings are the building blocks for our emotions and behaviors. But without neuroception, we'd have none of it.
So in my opinion, you're still superhuman. We all are. But not literally. Sorry.