Previously, I’d been taught that children and teens primarily “use” behavior either to get something or to get out of something. In other words, children’s behaviors are always driven by incentives. But after several years of studying neurodevelopment, I came to realize that this notion was wrong. Studying the work of neuroscientist Stephen Porges, I learned about the brain-body highway known as the autonomic nervous system (ANS). When we understand the ANS, we understand that the behaviors we observe are only the tip of the iceberg; their myriad causes are hidden from view.
Porges’s Polyvagal Theory shows that the drive to avoid threat and secure safety is what guides human behavior. As such, what we often label as “bad” behaviors are actually fight-or-flight behaviors, adaptations of the ANS, developed to protect human beings from perceived harm. Porges has a term for the process of subconsciously detecting safety and threat: neuroception.