We have been taught about the five senses – sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch – but most of us haven’t heard about interoception.
We have been taught about the five senses – sight, hearing, smell, taste, and touch – but most of us haven’t heard about interoception. This is the sense that makes us aware of our internal state. Interoception senses bodily signals and conveys important messages about hunger, thirst, temperature, heart rate, and even emotion.
The importance of interoception is significant – it seeks to ensure that the body is at its optimal state. It alerts us to imbalances and prompts us to act. A simple example is the feeling of thirst which is an interoceptive signal that lets us know that we should hydrate to maintain a healthy balance.
Interoception also senses and integrates messages that directly affect our mental and emotional health. Interoceptive signals make us aware of emotions from their onset, which in turn aids in the processing and interpretation. For example, a heated discussion might produce heart rate increase and muscle tension. Interoception allows us to recognize those signals and hopefully cues the body to help us to calm down.
How does this interoception awareness happen? In simple terms, there are receptors in various organs and areas of the body: heart, lungs, stomach, bladder, muscles, skin, etc. These receptors communicate with the brain and the brain in turn sends out signals which are clues to our physiological and emotional wellbeing.
We can also look at this awareness as emotional intelligence. Interoception allows us to identify our emotions. Noticing interoceptive signals is essential in understanding their meaning and adjusting our behavior accordingly. Noticing tension in our muscles or a racing heartbeat, or even goosebumps on our skin and connecting them to their meaning gives us the ability to manage and regulate our emotions.
Emotional awareness is not only essential for our own well-being but is also key in becoming aware of the emotions of others. In other words, becoming more self-aware aids in becoming more empathetic.
Can we improve interoceptive awareness? Yes, by taking time to really listen to our bodies, to notice interoceptive signals. Our busy world has made it difficult to tune into our bodies. We lead hectic lives and are exposed to a large number of external stimuli, which turns our attention outwards. By taking the time to ‘body check’ for signals, we can identify and process information such as what makes us anxious, angry, or sad. Knowing the source of our emotions significantly increases our emotional intelligence.
First, we need to learn how to sense internal signals. There can be several factors preventing us from perceiving and understanding these signals. Stress, chronic pain, trauma, hectic lifestyles, among others, can pose awareness challenges. However, learning and practicing awareness is indeed possible.
MABT (Mindful Awareness in Body Oriented Therapy)
There are several interoceptive therapeutic models that attempt to teach awareness. One of them is MABT as summarized in the chart below.
|Interoceptive Awareness Component
|MABT Key Processers
|Related Health Outcomes
|Improved sensory awareness
|Training Interoceptive Awareness Exercises
|Reduced distress and improved well-being
|Mindful Body Awareness Practice
|Improved regulation and resilience
The first step for increased awareness is called body literacy or the ability to identify and name sensory signals. For example, moderate physical pressure may be placed on an area of the body where an individual may be experiencing tension. The individual will then be asked to describe what he feels. Through therapeutic guidance the individual can develop a significantly higher awareness of all the interoceptive signals he is perceiving.
Everyone can become more body literate by carefully listening to the sensations and signals that our bodies are constantly transmitting. Being able to identify and describe interoceptive signals facilitates awareness and mindful attention to the body.
The second step is called accessing which means learning to focus on inner body experiences. This can be done using different strategies. One of them involves breathing which brings the flow of breath through the body into focus. The objective of this exercise is to promote mindful attention inside a particular internal space in the body.
With therapeutic guidance an individual can access interoceptive awareness. Moreover, accessing awareness can also become a strategy that facilitates self-care and self-regulation in daily life.
Sustaining awareness increases the ability to sense new sensory information. In other words, the more often we are aware of interoceptive signals, the more likely that new signals will also be sensed and identified. By practicing awareness and learning to continuously be attentive and present we can learn to link these sensory experiences to emotional states and behaviors.
Finally, through cognitive reappraisal we can learn to regulate our emotions by altering the response to a situation. For example, we can reappraise a stressful event into a meaningful experience through therapeutic guidance and practice.
The chart below shows key interoceptive practices; the process is a continuous cycle of becoming aware, deepening, sustaining and appraising awareness which leads to new awareness.
|Awareness – stage 1 Body Literacy
|Access – Stage 2 Interoceptive Awareness Exercises
|Appraisal – stage 3 Mindful Body Awareness Practice
|Identify body sensations Articulate body sensations Take home practice
|Breath flow exercise Tissue softening exercise Internal body attention practice Take home practice
|Capacity to sustain awareness Noticing internal shifts Re/appraisal based on experimental awareness and insight Take home practice
Now that we have seen how interoceptive awareness works and how it may be learned or practiced for overall well-being, let us delve a little deeper into the emerging science of interoception.
The concept may appear new, but it has been around for over 100 years. Back then it was defined as the physiological parameters that represented the normal body state.
More recently, interoception has been redefined as a process that perceives and combines information from the nervous system to maintain homeostasis or physiological equilibrium. It is important to note that this perception and integration of information does not occur unilaterally from the brain to other body organs, the connection goes both ways.
There is a general belief that everything happens in the brain, however it is also true that brain activity reflects input from other internal organs. The heart and digestive track create their own electrical activity… ‘during fetal development, these organs begin contracting before the brain becomes fully active. This suggests that the brain develops in response to these organs.’
This notion may be supported by the fact that 80% of the vagal nerve fibers ascend through the sensory pathways to the brain from other organs and only 20% descend in the opposite direction.
The mounting evidence that interoceptive signals influence our emotions seems to validate the contribution of our physiology to our emotional state. In this sense, we should not just listen to our brains but listen to our hearts, guts and entire bodies!
We at the Bee Me Project facilitate the development of interoceptive awareness, to help you truly listen to the signals your body is constantly sending you. Noticing, understanding and tailoring your responses will help you on your path to a more fulfilling, meaningful life.