Even if you've never heard of interoception, it's something you have done every day of your life: sensing the internal state of your body. It's what tells you of the position and balance of your body in space, or whether you are sitting or walking. It's how you experience butterflies in your tummy or the relaxing feeling of sinking into a comfortable chair. When we practice the body scan, in which we systematically tune in with sensations in different parts of our body, or meditate focusing on breathing, we are cultivating our capacity for interoception. Its opposite is exteroception, when we react to external stimuli, for example impressions arriving through sight, sounds and the other senses.
That Interoception is essential to our physical health is obvious: it's important to be able to recognise and take action when we are exhausted or unwell; overheated or cold, or (genuinely!) hungry or thirsty, in order to be able to take appropriate actions to keep our health stable.
We tend to think of the brain as a sort of control centre, sending out all sorts of signals to the body, which is somehow separate. However, if we look at the body's sensory pathways, a different picture emerges: some 80% of fibres in the vagus nerve ascend from organs including the heart and stomach to the brain, while only 20% descend in the opposite direction. In the words of neuroscientist and author Lisa Feldman Barrett:
“Your body is part of your mind, not in some gauzy mystical way, but in a very real biological way. This means there is a piece of your body in every concept that you make, even in states that we think of as cold cognition.”
But why is interoception important for good mental health? Why is it such a core aspect of mindfulness practice, wherein we are encouraged to pay particular attention to our body sensations, not just when meditating but also as we go about our daily life?
One key reason is that this capacity gives us vital information about our emotions, which are formed from a combination of sensations in the body and thoughts, judgements and interpretations. An ability to tune in with body sensations can be a powerful aid to helpfully regulate our emotions, especially the challenging ones.
Recently I felt hurt and angry following a critical comment from a friend. Bringing to mind that moment in the conversation, I sensed my stomach tightening, a heaviness in my chest and a tensing of my jaw. Following rapidly from those immediate reactions came a succession of thoughts: "that's really unfair...she's making out that I am stupid...she's putting me down..." ...and so on! I could feel how these thoughts fed into further tension in my body. These mental stories popped up repeatedly for several days, fuelling my sense of having been wronged.
I decided to take a look at these unpleasant feelings of resentment and, shifting attention away from my thoughts about the comment, explored the physical sensations. As I gently investigated the tightness in my chest, the tension seemed to intensify, becoming a kind of 'pushing' sensation. I followed my breath for a minute or two, laying a hand on my chest and sensing the comforting warmth. Suddenly I noticed that I was smiling! I felt a little foolish for having taken the remark quite so personally.
The effectiveness of attending to body sensations rather than the normal route of dwelling on mental interpretations, which often increases negative reactions, is one reason why mindfulness can be so effective in calming negative emotions. Rather than fixating on what feels difficult (or attempting to avoid and push the experience from our mind), we can learn to 'approach' it with curiosity and kindness. This can enable a natural letting go, like that moment when I laughed at my affronted self. Letting go in the body is often easier than letting go of views and interpretations, with the added benefit that the unhelpful thoughts also get released in the process.
Sometimes this process requires a period of time. However, a change of perspective can occur in just a few minutes, hence the rationale of short practices such as the Three-Stage Breathing Space, formerly known as the Three-Minute Breathing Space. Three minutes can often be enough of a ‘gap’ to allow such a shift. If you'd like to try out this short practice, click here and scroll down to find several audio guided versions.
Paying attention to sensations in the body can also, simply, take us out of our head and give respite, even momentarily, from the relentless mental chatter, worries and judgements that so often occupy our minds. Most of us were educated to value the thinking, problem-solving mind much more than awareness of body sensations, which we tend to regard as relatively unimportant. Yet this simple capacity that all of us already have - and can consciously cultivate further - opens a doorway to better emotional regulation and improved mental health. Let's hear it for interoception!