Let’s try something: close your eyes, focus on your breathing, and feel the weight of your body in your chair or on the floor.
For those of us who practice regular meditation, these steps are as easy as breathing, but how are we able to focus on our breathing? How do we “feel” the weight of our body? The answer is interoception.
Most people would agree there are five senses – sight, smell, taste, touch, and sound. But there are actually three more: the vestibular system, which controls your balance and posture, and proprioception & interoception, which allow us to feel our body. Proprioception is the sense of the outside of the body – where your arms and legs are. Interoception is the sense of your internal organs.
While interoception by definition may seem purely biological, researchers and psychologists are discovering how interoceptive awareness – heartbeat, breathing, hunger, thirst, and bowel control – affects emotion and mood. Cognitive-behavioral therapists use a technique called interoceptive exposure to induce the physical sensations of a panic attack. This allows them to train patients how to cope when one arises in the real world. By focusing on the physical feelings of our bodies, we can better understand our emotions and how to make them work for us.
Why is improving our interoception skills important?
Interoception helps us to tune in to our physical and emotional cues
Regulating emotions is key to functioning in our social society. Those who have a high affinity for interoception tend to be more in tune with their emotions, which can be good and bad.
While a high level of emotional intelligence allows you to empathize with the people around you, we can easily be ruled and even paralyzed by our emotions. Strong emotional responses to stressful situations can hurt us as much as strong responses to joyful situations can be a benefit. Often people who suffer from anxiety have high interoception while those with stunted emotional growth, like people with autism, have low interoception.
The 2010 paper “Can you feel the beat? Interoceptive awareness is an interactive function of anxiety- and depression-specific symptom dimensions” reported the connection to interoception and anxiety: “Superior interoception was associated with anxiety-specific arousal symptoms.”
As for those on the autism spectrum, this paper by L. Fiene & C. Brownlow of the School of Psychology and Counselling, University of Southern Queensland reported, “Those in the ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) group reported a clinically significant lower body and thirst awareness compared to the control group…These findings are of clinical importance, as difficulty with sensing internal bodily states could theoretically impact on the physical and mental health, social interactions and self-awareness of adults with ASD.”
By tuning the mind to recognize the physical symptoms of stress in the body, we can better work through stressful situations. We can also use that heightened emotional intelligence to our advantage.
A 2014 paper by Vivien Ainley and colleagues noted that subjects with high interoception were quick to copy the hand movements of those they were in conversation with, what psychologists call “mirroring.” Mirroring is the subconscious replication of the posture, hand movements, and even speech patterns of the person one is speaking to. We see mirroring even in infants (“monkey see, monkey do”) and it creates a feeling of rapport. Mirroring is the physical manifestation of your ability to empathize. By copying the physicality and speech patterns of the person you’re speaking to, you ‘step into their’ skin, so to speak.
“Understanding or inferring of another’s intentions, feelings and beliefs is a hallmark of human social cognition,” says Sasha Ondobaka, James Kilner, and Karl Friston in their paper, “The role of interoceptive inference in theory of mind “(Theory of Mind). Interoception has been described as a cognitive ability to infer the mental states (intentions and beliefs) of others, through processing of their physical appearance and overt behaviour (e.g. clothes, bodily and facial expressions).”
Interoception helps us to react better in external triggers
How much easier must it be to process the physicality of others when you are fully in tune with your own?
To follow the external rhythms of other people when you are perfectly in sync with your internal rhythms?
If you hold your breath, after a few seconds, your body will start to suggest, hey, maybe we should take a breath. Soon, that suggestion will become a compulsion. You’ll have to take a breath, because if you don’t, you’ll pass out.
Apply that same principle to social interaction:
Someone asks you what you think of their shirt. It’s ugly, so you say so. Their face contracts, maybe they get a little red, they look away from you. Your social brain might suggest you apologize or compliment their pants to balance things out. If you stand there in silence, maybe that suggestion will turn into a compulsion: you’ll blurt something out, just to change the reaction you cause in the other person.
That physical compulsion, the sinking feeling in our stomachs when we know we’ve done something wrong or hurt someone, that’s interoception, too.
(Don’t try that experiment with the shirt at home, by the way.)
Often the physical feelings associated with our emotions cause us to panic. Someone cuts us off in traffic and we let our emotions rise with our heart rate. We yell out the window because it feels like the right thing to do is to release the anger we’re feeling inside. But ‘feeling’ isn’t fantastical, it’s physical, and understanding why we feel the way we do can help us control and shape our responses to those feelings.
How can we improve our interoception skills?
So how can we control those feelings? As with everything worth doing, it takes time. Breath control is key–how many times has someone told you to “take a deep breath” when you’re stressed or upset?
A quick physical inventory can be invaluable in emotional situations:
- Are my shoulder tense?
- Is my breathing quick and shallow?
- Are my knees locked?
- Am I on the balls of my feet or back on my heels?
Making small physical adjustments doesn’t just provide a physical benefit, the act of turning your focus inward slows down your thinking and might keep you from sending that angry email.
The Muse heart meditation experience can help you get in tune with your internal rhythm by playing your own heartbeat back to you in real-time. As part of a regular meditation practice, along with a physical inventory, the heart experience will allow you to get more in touch with your heart, and your other internal rhythms, than ever before. In time, the heart meditation experience will help you control your heart rate which is the first step in a greater understanding of interoception.
For more on interoception, and how an awareness of it can help us in our everyday lives, take a look at this article in Psychology Today or this piece about the 8 senses.