Your Eighth Sensory System: Interoception
Neglected, Atrophied, and Faded From Consciousness
Smell. Taste. Touch. Sound. Sight.
We live in a world that consumes us with the outer sensory stimulation of our five senses.
But did you know there have long been 3 more accepted senses?
There's your vestibular system, which controls the sense of your head in space. Your brain knows the orientation and position of your body relative to gravity, depending on the position of your head.
Then there's our proprioceptive sense. This sense lets us perceive the location, movement, and action of parts of the body. It makes it possible for us to walk in the dark without losing our balance or point to our noses with our eyes closed.
And then the third one, the one I'd like to talk about here, is known as Interoception. A fine inner sense worth cultivating through:
- Emotional regulation
- Embodied exercise
Let's first start with a brief intro to what it is–and why you should care.
A Fine Inner Sense
Intero (internal) — ception (awareness)
Interoception is the sense of our bodies' internal state; our capacity to accurately detect and interpret bodily cues.
This innate sense allows us to 'feel' the inside of our bodies.
In typical Mother Nature genius, there are little receptors located throughout the inside of our body, organs, muscles, skin, and bones. These receptors gather information from the inside of our body and send it to the brain.
This information stream helps us detect many important feelings such as hunger, fullness, pain, nausea, need for the bathroom, itch, tickle, body temperature, heart rate, and muscle tension. This sense also helps us feel our emotions.
This body-to-brain signaling has long been underrated in medicine and science.
Once science observed that all information enters the brain from the senses, interoception took on a whole new level of importance to brain function.
Many researchers have proposed that bodily awareness (the body’s position in space, i.e., proprioception, or internal bodily sensations like your heart beating, i.e., interoception) is an early, foundational part of our sense of self. The body constantly sends signals via the spinal cord up to the brain, communicating about its current resources and needs, which the brain then uses to guide how we feel, think, and react. Cognitive science has not always appreciated this bottom-up, body-to-mind path. We’ve long focused on the brain as the central driver of the ‘self.’ - Psychology Today
Neglected, Atrophied, and Faded From Consciousness
Most of the time, we're unaware of this body-brain feedback loop. We're oblivious to our brain and body trying to stabilize our sugar levels or manage our blood pressure (Phew!).
Other cues are obvious–like a pang of hunger or a pounding heart when nervous.
So if we don't notice the stuff we don't need to be involved in, and the urgent ones break through our awareness at some point anyway–why should you care about Interoception?
Interoceptive signals play an important role in how you feel and what you think.
As well as having a strong influence on your emotional states, they also subtly affect how you perceive the outside world and can influence decision-making and other cognitive processes in various ways.
And I can imagine rising mental health issues today are in part because of a lack of understanding of our own bodies, and, thus, a lack of interoceptive awareness.
We've completely lost touch with our physical bodies. They’ve become these vessels we feed and (kind of) take care of.
Yet our bodies send us clear signals when we need a break. Fidgetiness, hunger, drowsiness. Mostly, we override them. We find artificial ways to pump up our energy. We keep eating even though we’re full. We watch another Netflix episode even though we're dead tired.
We rely on watches and rings to tell us how our heart is beating and how well we’ve slept. They offer up-to-the-moment data on our heart rate, body temperature, and blood oxygen. We only get up when our Apple Watch reminds us to get up.
Why pay attention to our bodies when these devices can do it for us?
And if there’s really something feeling off, we go to the doctor and have them figure it out. Maybe pop some pills. What’s in them? Who knows.
As River Kenna writes, “We are perhaps the most “living-above-the-shoulders-behind-the-eyes and-between-the-ears” culture that has ever existed.”
Now, the good news is that interoception can be activated and cultivated, so it becomes a prominent guiding sense.
3 Areas Where You Can Cultivate Interoceptive Awareness
I lived the first 32 years of my life in a very ‘thinking-centric’ way.
I paid little attention to my body.
Only once I picked up yoga and meditation, I started appreciating that I have, in fact, a body. And it’s much more than just this vessel to get me from A to B.
I think it’s why discovering the concept of ‘expanding your awareness’ was so mind-blowing for me. It pulled me out of my head and into my body.
I've now become committed to working on this sense because I have seen the difference it has made for me in terms of managing my energy levels, my stress levels, and just overall appreciation for my body.
I've been doing this by focusing on 3 areas.
When it comes to our emotions, many of us are very reactive. We snap at someone and feel bad about it afterward. We nervously rush through a presentation and later regret that we weren’t more present.
This is often because we are not attuned to what is happening inside our bodies. In the moment, we don’t feel like we have any control over our behavior.
Research suggests that the more sensitive you are to your body signals, the greater your ability to regulate and cope effectively with stress and other emotions.
As Annie Murphy Paul writes in her book The Extended Mind:
“People who are more interoceptively attuned feel their emotions more intensely, while also managing their emotions more adeptly. This is so because interoceptive sensations form the building blocks of even our most subtle and nuanced emotions: affection, admiration, gratitude; sorrow, longing, regret; irritation, envy, resentment.”
Low interoceptive awareness means there is little space between those body cues and our reactions. We’re reacting — habitually, unconsciously, defensively.
Higher interoceptive awareness can help you spot specific triggers early on:
- Is your heart rate accelerating?
- Are your palms getting sweaty?
- Does your chest feel tight?
- Is your breath very shallow? Or are you holding your breath?
- Are your shoulders tense?
What happened right before you noticed those body sensations?
By paying close attention to these body sensations, you are training your interoceptive sense. You’ll start understanding your triggers and patterns.
You can observe what’s happening, almost like an outside observer.
So next time you’re experiencing strong emotions, like stress, anger, or annoyance–try this:
Pay close attention to where you’re feeling this in your body. Don’t react just yet. Be curious about the sensations. Feel them fully in your body. Focusing on your heart rate, the heaving of your chest, your breath.
You’re creating time and space to decide how to respond instead of reacting instinctively.
As The Guardian article puts it: “If you are more adept at accurately detecting your bodily signals, you will be able to form more nuanced interpretations of your feelings about a situation, and this, in turn, should help you to make wiser choices about the best ways to respond.”
It can be difficult to remember to pay attention to our bodies' sensations when we’re sitting still, working. Our awareness tends to collapse into the screen.
(I find that such a depressing image. Hunched over. Wide eyes. Shallow breathing. I'm not judging because I am doing the exact same thing, but... feels like such a waste of our bodies. Anyway, back to the point.)
It’s easier to do when moving.
The idea of embodied movement is to bring your entire attention from your mind into your body.
Yoga is a classic example of an embodiment practice. The generally slow and measured movements; focus on the breath and body.
I have become so much more intimately familiar with my body. I know which joints will click and which areas feel tight. Having a regular yoga practice has had a noticeable effect on my sense of self-awareness and self-confidence.
I’ve also been experimenting with interoception on my runs.
Instead of zoning out listening to music or a podcast, I do a body scan. I relax my shoulders. I pay attention to my feet hitting the pavement. The wind on my face. My cold cheeks. The sound of my breath and the feeling of my pounding heart.
And it’s so fascinating. It (almost) makes me forget about the pain of running.
It makes me feel alive. I don’t feel the same constant urge to stop running.
I struggled with shin pains for the longest time — and while I have been doing other things (like physio and targeted exercises) and can in no way know this body awareness has anything to do with it — I have been more aware and intentional about my running stride. And now, no more shin pains.
I’ve also noticed that when I am distracted, my running gets sloppy. I don’t lift my feet as high. My posture slumps. The second I remember to pay attention to my body again, I get a new burst of energy.
Become one with your run or exercise, merging body, mind, and activity together. Move with every cell of your body, from the top of your head to the tips of your toes. When engaged in an activity, there is no point in just going through the motions. One needs to become the activity. As you run, feel each gentle connection between your feet and the ground as you propel yourself forward. Avoid pounding the pavement, as this will lead to sore hips, sore joints, and possible injuries. Instead, bring a feeling of lightness to your body, and visualize yourself barely touching the ground as your run. - Patrick McKeown, The Oxygen Advantage
NSDR or Non-Sleep-Deep-Rest is a scripted session guiding you through a body scan.
It’s similar to meditation, but rather than sitting upright, you’re lying down, and following guidance from an instructor. You may be asked to scan your body for places of tension, bring awareness to different parts of your body, or focus on your breathing.
The goal is to enter a conscious sleep state and totally relax your brain, thereby releasing unwanted tension in your body and achieving calm.
This has been my favorite so far:
A Skill Worth Cultivating
I love how Antonia Malchik describes it: “What we need is not escape from our bodies, but a re-found awareness of them, an appreciation for the millions of years of evolution that have gifted us with an ability to experience the world in ways we barely understand.”
An Important Caveat
The ideas and resources I've shared in this post will not be suitable for everyone.
People with anxiety disorders may experience heightened interoceptive awareness. They’re aware and are focusing on the millions of little things inside, which becomes counterproductive.
Clinical and scientific data indicate that too much interoceptive awareness can exacerbate that anxiety and depression.
The goal is to be able to dynamically shift and split between interoception and exteroception at will.