Interoception: What It Is and Why It Matters

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Interoception is the sense that allows us to perceive and understand the internal state of our body.

It involves sensing, interpreting, integrating, and regulating signals from within ourselves, such as our heartbeat, breathing, hunger, thirst, pain, temperature, and emotions.

Interoception is essential for maintaining homeostasis, the balance of physiological processes that keep us alive and healthy. Interoception also contributes to self-awareness, empathy, and decision-making.

How does interoception work?

Interoception relies on a complex network of neural and non-neural pathways that connect different parts of the body to the brain. Some of these pathways are:

  • The lamina I spinothalamic pathway: This pathway carries signals from the skin, muscles, joints, and viscera (internal organs) to the thalamus, a relay station in the brain that distributes sensory information to other regions.
  • The classical viscerosensory pathway: This pathway carries signals from the heart, lungs, stomach, and bladder to the brainstem, which regulates vital functions such as breathing and heart rate.
  • The vagus nerve and glossopharyngeal nerve: These nerves carry signals from the gut, heart, lungs, and other organs to the brainstem and the nucleus of the solitary tract (NTS), which integrates visceral information and sends it to higher brain areas.
  • Chemosensory pathways in the blood: These pathways detect changes in blood chemistry, such as oxygen, carbon dioxide, glucose, and hormones, and send signals to the brainstem and the hypothalamus, which controls the endocrine system.
  • Somatosensory pathways from the skin: These pathways carry signals from touch receptors in the skin to the spinal cord and the brainstem.

These signals are then processed by various brain regions that form a hierarchical interoceptive system. Some of these regions are:

  • The insula: This region receives input from the thalamus and the NTS and creates a subjective representation of the body’s internal state. The insula is involved in awareness of bodily sensations, emotions, pain, and empathy.
  • The somatosensory cortex: This region receives input from the thalamus and maps the location and intensity of sensory stimuli on the body surface. The somatosensory cortex is involved in perception of touch, temperature, pain, and body position.
  • The anterior cingulate cortex: This region receives input from the insula and modulates attention and emotional responses to interoceptive signals. The anterior cingulate cortex is involved in motivation, learning, memory, and social behavior.
  • The prefrontal cortex: This region receives input from the insula and integrates interoceptive information with cognitive and contextual factors. The prefrontal cortex is involved in executive functions such as planning, reasoning, decision-making, and self-control.

Why is interoception important?

Interoception is important for many aspects of our physical and mental health. Some of these aspects are:

  • Homeostasis: Interoception helps us monitor and adjust our physiological functions to maintain optimal conditions for survival. For example, interoception helps us regulate our body temperature by sensing when we are too hot or cold and triggering appropriate behaviors such as sweating or shivering.
  • Emotions: Interoception helps us experience and recognize our own emotions by linking them to bodily sensations. For example, interoception helps us feel fear by sensing changes in our heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, and skin conductance.
  • Empathy: Interoception helps us understand and share the emotions of others by simulating their bodily states in our own body. For example, interoception helps us feel compassion by sensing the pain or distress of another person.
  • Decision-making: Interoception helps us make choices that are beneficial for ourselves and others by providing feedback on the consequences of our actions. For example,
    interoception helps us avoid risky behaviors by sensing negative outcomes such as pain or regret.

What are some challenges related to interoception?

Interoception can be affected by various factors such as genetics, environmental influences, developmental stages, trauma, stress, and disease.
Some people may have difficulties with interoception due to:

  • Reduced sensitivity: Some people may have low interoceptive accuracy or awareness, meaning they have trouble detecting or identifying their internal signals. This can lead to problems such as overeating, under-eating, dehydration, poor self-care, or difficulty expressing emotions.
  • Enhanced sensitivity: Some people may have high interoceptive sensitivity or reactivity, meaning they have heightened or exaggerated responses to their internal signals. This can lead to problems such as anxiety, panic attacks, depression, chronic pain, or somatic symptoms.
  • Mismatched signals: Some people may have interoceptive discrepancies or incongruence,
    meaning they have a mismatch between their actual and perceived internal signals. This can lead to problems such as body dysmorphia,
    eating disorders, or dissociation.

How can we improve interoception? Interoception can be improved by various methods such as:

  • Education: Learning about the anatomy and function of the interoceptive system can help us understand how our body works and what it needs. This can also help us recognize and label our internal signals and emotions more accurately.
  • Attention: Paying attention to our internal signals can help us improve our interoceptive accuracy and awareness. This can also help us regulate our physiological functions and emotional states more effectively.
  • Training: Practicing interoceptive exercises can help us enhance our interoceptive sensitivity and reactivity. This can also help us reduce interoceptive discrepancies and incongruence. Some examples of interoceptive exercises are:
  • Heartbeat perception: This exercise involves counting or tapping along with our heartbeat without using our hands or any external device. This can help us improve our cardiovascular interoception and awareness of emotions.
  • Breathing awareness: This exercise involves observing or controlling our breathing pattern without changing it too much. This can help us improve our respiratory interoception and regulation of stress and arousal.
  • Body scan: This exercise involves scanning our body from head to toe and noticing any sensations, feelings, or thoughts that arise in each part. This can help us improve our somatic interoception and integration of body and mind.
  • Spinning: This exercise involves spinning around on a swivel chair or turning your head from side to side to simulate feelings of dizziness or light-headedness. This can help us improve our vestibular interoception and tolerance of unpleasant sensations.
  • Running: This exercise involves running up stairs or on a treadmill and experiencing being out of breath to simulate breathlessness. This can help us improve our cardiorespiratory interoception and coping with physical discomfort.
  • Touching: This exercise involves touching different textures, temperatures, or pressures on the skin to simulate various tactile sensations. This can help us improve our cutaneous interoception and awareness of touch.

Conclusion

Interoception is a vital sense that helps us perceive and understand the internal state of our body. It involves sensing, interpreting, integrating, and regulating signals from within ourselves, such as our heartbeat, breathing, hunger, thirst, pain, temperature, and emotions. Interoception is essential for maintaining homeostasis, the balance of physiological processes that keep us alive and healthy.

Interoception also contributes to self-awareness, empathy, and decision-making. Interoception can be affected by various factors such as genetics, environmental influences, developmental stages, trauma, stress, and disease. Some people may have difficulties with interoception due to reduced sensitivity, enhanced sensitivity, or mismatched signals. Interoception can be improved by various methods such as education, attention, and training.

References

: Your Ultimate Interoceptive Exposure Therapy Guide – PositivePsychology.com
: What Is Interoception – Understood
: Interoception – Wikipedia
: The Emerging Science of Interoception: Sensing, Integrating, Interpreting, and Regulating Signals within the Self

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