How well do you know yourself? A loaded question with dynamic answers depending on which angle we are looking from. Many of us think of self-reflection as a mental process by which we critically analyze and think about what defines us. In essence, this a one-dimensional perspective that denies the biological processes involved in self-understanding; one often referred to as interoception, or the 8th sense.
Many of us are familiar with what we refer to as the first five senses: smell, sight, sound, taste, and touch. The remaining three senses of vestibular sense (balance), interoprioception (awareness of our body in space), and interoception (the conscious awareness of internal body signals) are often overlooked as they focus more specifically on whole-body awareness. Both our sense of balance and our ability to discern where our bodies begin and end in relation to the environment are critical in helping us function. Without these two senses specifically, we would find it difficult to walk without bumping into things repeatedly (Goodall et. Al., 2022). Supplementally, what is the purpose of interoception and what role does it play in enhancing our quality of life?
Interoception refers to our ability to know our body’s internal cues, our capacity to interpret its collection of signals (which we then translate to emotions and feelings), and additionally our capability to notice external signals and interpret its impact on the body (Goodall et. Al., 2022). Our aptitude to detect the early signs of danger, experience degrees of comfort/ discomfort, know when we are hungry, and even our capacity to discern whether we really want to take on that additional assignment on work IS interoception.
Through interoception we can maintain biological homeostasis by responding to sensations such as hunger, thirst, fatigue, and the need to use the bathroom. Additionally, through interoception we can regulate our emotions through active self-care practices in response to experiencing anger, annoyance, sadness, boredom, etc. When interoception is stifled because of conditioning and/or conditions, we risk entering a state of hyperarousal as survival mode kicks into high gear (Siegel, 2010). Interoception requires parts of the cortical brain (the insular cortex and anterior cingulate cortex) and medial temporal
lobe (Goodall et. Al., 2022), who’s activity is impaired when a person enters panic mode. Fundamentally, interoception is a necessary tool that engages our “thinking brains” and Dan Siegel, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, and the founding co-director of the Mindful Awareness Research Center at UCLA, suggests that through mindfulness practices, we can activate these parts of our “learning brain” and operate from our parasympathetic nervous system even in highly stressful situations. In essence, interoception has turned out to be a fancy word for mind-body awareness which
research has now proven to show is necessary for mitigating threat and maintaining biological, emotional, and psychological balance before entering survival mode.
This research has major implications not only for individuals, but also communities of people
striving to meet their very human needs. What does this impactfully mean in how we view culture, diversity, and inclusivity? Understanding interoception as a process designed to better know our unique needs and creatively tailor our responses to them is dependent upon living in spaces that allow for people to be divergent. Could this potentially be a key ingredient in addressing social unrest in which communities of people are denied access to the support they need in reinforcing that their internal signals are biologically and psychologically valid. Much of this answer depends on the distinction we make between interoceptive awareness, interoceptive sensibility and interoceptive accuracy.
Interceptive awareness refers to the metacognitive process by which we use both interoceptive sensibility and accuracy as measuring factors (Murphy et. Al, 2019). Interoceptive accuracy more specially refers to the correlation an individual’s awareness of something tangibly measurable, i.e., their heartbeat in relation to their actual heartbeat that is being tracked (Cali et. Al., 2015). Interoceptive sensibility is defined as a person’s self-reported beliefs about their interoception (Murphy et. Al, 2019).
One might argue and use “low” interoceptive accuracy scores or a poor self-report as a tool to invalidate people who are attempting to express some level of unmet needs. This is not a comprehensive approach to truly fostering interoceptive awareness and empowering society because it denies critical variables that influence both accuracy and sensibility: access to resources and relational supports over time (Goodall et. Al., 2022).
The key piece in validating the interoceptive awareness of individuals and potentially
marginalized/ underserved groups of people is in noting that accuracy is not a static measurement, but one that is dynamic in relation to time and one that that can be influenced through somatic awareness practices (Siegel, 2010). Hence, one can argue that the more we empower ourselves and one another through connection to ourselves and mind-body awareness, the more we can trust our accuracy in knowing what our needs are specific to who we are. By no means, will this make like “easier,” but certainly richer with nuance and sophisticated intra/ interpersonal relationships where more individuals
and communities are operating from a place of homeostasis and equilibrium. Could this be a key factor in a more peaceful, respectful society in which both individuals and communities maintain a threshold of self-empowerment? Yes, I believe so.
Anjana Khosla, a licensed marriage and family therapist specializing in trauma, with peace, self-love, and a positive self-image at the core of her teachings, supporting those with relational dysfunction, mental health challenges, and emotional isolation. Anjana is EMDR-certified and her approach includes creating safety for clients, utilizing a model of Non-Violent Communication, in which empowerment is both self-proclaimed and relational while supporting clients in experiencing embodiment and integration of self.
Cali, G., Amborsinis, E., Picconi, L., and Mehling, W. (2015) ‘Investigating the relationship between
interoceptive acuriacy, andteroceptive awareness and susceptibility.’ Frontiers in Psychology.
Goodall, E., Brownlow, C., Interoception and Regulation: Teaching Skills of Body Awareness and
Supporting Connection with Others. London. Jessica Kingsley Publishers.
Murphy, J., Catmur, C. & Bird, G. ‘Classifying individual differences in interoception: Implications for the
measurement of interoceptive awareness.’ Psychon Bull Rev 26, 1467–1471 (2019).
Siegel, D.J. (2010) Mindsight; The New Science of Personal Transformation. New York, NY: Bantam Dell