Interoception: Beyond the Five Senses

· December 8, 2018

Interoception is the ability to recognize the stimuli and sensations that our body sends us. It’s the art of experiencing and understanding this beautiful physical collection of connections. Within it, there are receptors, cells, and delicate tissues that are all sending us a series of messages. However, they’re messages that we don’t always hear. In order to help us do so, we can try practices such as mindfulness.

Some people say that we should be grateful not to have this sense as well developed or as perfectly tuned as our other senses. They believe that nobody would really enjoy hearing how a leukocyte faces up to an infectious agent, nor would they want to know how our gastric juices are segregated or the sound a neuron makes when it dies.

Understanding the sense of interoception

However, we don’t have to go to these extremes to appreciate what the sense of interoception can really show us. Psychophysiologist Hirokata Fukushima carried out a study in 2011 that showed that this function is closely related to empathy.

When we connect with someone to understand their emotions, needs, or concerns, our body reacts in a very particular and almost fascinating way. Other people’s affective states are like stimuli.

Understanding the mysteries of the interoceptive function would allow us to discover more about how the body and mind relate. Likewise, it would also help us to take better care of our health. We’d understand how our bodies are warning us that something isn’t quite right inside us.

Drawing of a naked woman.


Interoception in our daily life

We usually dedicate a good part of our time to self-care. We take care of our hygiene, we feed ourselves in a balanced way, and we exercise. Having a good image is also important to us. Thus, we choose nice clothes, style our hair, and put on makeup. We also take care of our skin and try to have a good night’s sleep.

Now, strange as it may seem, there’s something that we overlook in this routine. We don’t listen to our own body. We ignore the messages it’s sending us. It tries to send us a message of pain using tension accumulated in the neck or a headache that we just can’t get rid of.

These symptoms may mean that our mind is stressed and our whole body is reacting to this destabilizing emotion. And yet we don’t give them the attention that we should. We don’t perceive what’s really happening inside of us.

Athletes, on the other hand, tend to have a well-developed sense of interoception. Good athletes are able to discern when a physical sensation is normal or not. They can tell whether muscle pain is just due to over-exertion or if it may be a sign of muscle damage. Sometimes they’re even able to push through that pain. They do this to reach the goal they’ve set for themselves or to give their very best in a game or match.

The mind-body connection in these cases is an effective alliance that may help us improve our performance when we need it the most.

A woman running on the beach.

Interoception and the insular cortex

Interoception has been a very common field of study in the area of psychophysics and the psychology of emotions, learning, and biofeedback. There are many studies on the subject that help us delve a little deeper into this special and highly important sense.

One thing we should keep in mind is that there are basic processes that our sense of interoception deals with. These include thirst, hunger, and sleep. These are mechanisms that guarantee our survival. Because of this, we need to be highly aware of them. Others, on the other hand, are more subtle and usually go unnoticed.

Thanks to a study published in 2012 in Neuropsychology journal, we know which part of our brain regulates this sense and all it’s trying to tell us. It’s the insular cortex, a very deep area located on the lateral surface of the brain. This is where the brain regulates processes such as the awareness of our emotions and bodily sensations. The insular cortex is a control center which sheds light on the fascinating connection between the mind and the body.

Mindfulness and interoception

We mentioned at the beginning of the article that one way of becoming aware of our sense of interoception is through mindfulness. This practice allows us to make this connection. We can connect our physical sensations with our inner being though it. Thus, it helps us come to understand our mind, our needs, and the way in which the environment and its processes impact our body.

Being able to listen to and discern each of the signals that our body sends us daily is a way of investing in our own health and quality of life. By doing this, we’ll be able to manage stress a lot better. We’ll even be able to anticipate signs of possible impending illnesses.

In addition to this, we’ll be able to sense our own limits and become more productive as a result. This will helps us become aware that we aren’t machines, but rather a wonderful yet delicate network of cells, tissues, and emotions.

Craig, A. D. (2003). Interoception: The sense of the physiological condition of the body. Current Opinion in Neurobiology. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0959-4388(03)00090-4