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  • Writer's pictureSam Alvis

Context is Key (Part Two): Why Context Clues Help Your Brain Name the "Story" of Your "State"

Last week, we looked at some real life examples of how offering practical context clues in a particular event can alter a person’s experience and perception of said event. Often, these context clues have the power to offer a person comfort in place of fear, and predictability in place of unpredictability (commonly experienced as the feelings of “panic” and “chaos”).

In case you missed last week’s article…

  • If you’ve got 3-5 minutes, feel free to click here to give yourself some context as to what I’m talking about, or

  • Here’s a brief (and common) example to catch you up to speed:

Many people have had the experience of being told cryptically over text some version of these panic-inducing words: “We need to talk…” or “I need to talk with you…

Now- if you have the same reaction as me- you’d probably brace for a challenging conversation and anxiously stew until said interaction takes place. Do you need to talk to me about how I hurt you? About what you want for your birthday? About a recently diagnosed terminal illness? About the latest Marvel movie that was released?!? The options are endless!

Although I’m being slightly facetious, we all know how nerve-wracking it is to be on the receiving end of a text or comment like that. What if, instead of just saying “We need to talk. Period. End of sentence,” the text included exactly what you need to talk about, such as “I need to talk with you about you leaving your dishes in the sink” or “We need to talk about our plans for this holiday season.”

This wouldn’t necessarily make you look forward to the conversation, but at least you’d have some sort of context as to the conversation you’re heading into, rather than walking in blind, braced, and believing the worst is about to unfold.

As we can see above, it doesn’t take much to shift our experience from one of uncertainty, to one that knows how and what to anticipate. So what exactly is happening within our brains and bodies that can cause such a profound shift? What are some of the mechanisms at play that can foster an experience of certainty versus chaos? To answer these questions, we’ll look at some of the available research* regarding what is happening on a neurobiological level.

Neuroception and The Stories We Tell Ourselves

Before thinking about how having context (i.e., information) impacts our perception and therefore, our experience of an event, we must consider how exactly “perception” happens.

Although we don’t often put it in such stark language, when we think about the concept of perception, we usually think about it as a strictly cognitive process. Namely, perceiving something is what we do with our mental faculties (i.e., our brain) and how we think. This posture also assumes that our brains are somehow disconnected from the rest of our nervous system that is embedded within our body, and that we can always have the power of “mind (brain) over matter (body).”

What if, however, our perception started first with our physical, felt senses that then sent information to the brain, rather than the brain being the seat of all knowledge and awareness? What if our bodies actually held more “knowledge” and information? What if our mind and matter were actually inextricably linked?

For the sake of simplicity, I’ll spare you an entire neuroscience course, but let’s just say that our body’s perception through the senses (i.e. touch, hearing, sight, smell, taste), work in tandem with our cognitive capacities to “make sense” of our experiences and world around us. For example, the only reason you cognitively “know” that a ghost pepper is spicy, is because you’ve first tasted it with your senses.

But where does your perception from your senses come from? What’s the building block of your sense of taste? How in the world are your neurons and neural circuits involved? And what does this have to do with mental health, trauma, and relationships?

That, my friends, is where we get to learn about neuroception, the term coined by Dr. Stephen Porges, fellow nerd and researcher whose landmark Polyvagal Theory has created a multidisciplinary shift in how we conceptualize trauma and the role of the body (specifically, the vagus nerve).

In essence, neuroception describes how our nervous system processes information through our viscera (i.e. our felt senses) and neural circuits to help us continuously evaluate risk. Meaning, our nervous system is constantly scanning in the background whether a situation or person is safe, dangerous, or life-threatening. Neuroception communicates to us if the state around us or within us feels safe, dangerous, or life-threatening. This state occurs first- outside of conscious awareness- and then we create a story to make sense of that state.

To put it in the words of Deb Dana- the renowned trauma clinician who has translated these neuroscientific principles into the practical interventions found within the therapeutic relationship between counselor and client- our story follows our state. The explanations and narrative (i.e. the context) we develop to make sense of our experiences arrive after we viscerally experience said experience- capisce?

Now let’s get back to how context can help foster an experience of comfort and predictability, in lieu of chaos and unpredictability.

Context Informs Our State and Story

Applying all that we just learned about neuroception and its influence on our felt and cognitive experiences, we can see how being provided context can drastically influence our state and our stories.

Let’s look at another practical example to help wrap our heads (and bodies) around this concept:

One morning, while walking your dog, you suddenly get a strong whiff of something burning (sense of smell). Before you consciously think of where it could be coming from, you notice your heart rate increases, your hearing becomes sharper, and you begin to feel anxious (neuroception informing you of your state of danger). Without intentionally thinking about it, your mind starts to race with possibilities: “Is there a wildfire somewhere close? Is someone having a bonfire in the morning!? Has someone’s home caught on fire!?!” (trying to come up with context and story).

Then, a neighbor pops out of his house, and informs you that he was conducting a controlled burn in his backyard and that it would be put out shortly (the actual context and story). You notice your heart rate decreases, your breath steadies, and you continue on to enjoy the rest of your walk (return to a neuroceptive state of safety).

Of course, most situations- especially ones embedded within complicated and often harmful human relationships- are not this cut and dry. Having the context of an event or experience doesn’t always help us return to a state of safety (which can be good- because some situations actually aren’t safe and we need to feel the state and story of danger to help us get away from the threat!).

Humans are complex beings with complicated histories, which means that we have countless stories and contexts informing our state and experience of any given single event. These compounding experiences over a lifetime can create a nervous system that is either primed for predictability/unpredictability, or comfort/chaos.

So while providing context cannot always automatically “fix” a person’s perception and neuroception, repeated, ongoing interactions of safety (which often needs context in order to occur), over time can actually shift someone’s experience of the world and of themselves into a state of comfort and predictability.

Repeated experiences of safety embedded with human relationship can bring goodness where there was only evil, and joy where there was only fear.

Stay tuned for the final post in this series, we’ll look at some practical ways to offer others (and yourself) repeated experiences of safety by providing the context necessary to foster predictability and comfort.

*Here are some of the leading voices in the field of trauma, counseling, and neurobiology that have much more credibility and expertise than I on these matters. I’d recommend reading some of their work if you’d like more detailed knowledge:


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