Navigating Inner Worlds: How Good is Your Interoception?

Interoception is the root of our feelings and emotional reactions, urges and drives. In this insightful article, explore the links between mental health and interoceptive ability.
Chief Editor Insight Timer Blog
Chief Editor Insight Timer Blog

If you meditate, you probably already know the drill: you might sit calmly, breath-aware, encountering all the sensations coming at you from the channels of your five senses. Without judgment, you simply notice the distant barking dog, the squiggles of light behind you closed eyelids… You turn inward and notice your heartbeat thumping and immediately think, “I’m anxious.” But are you really? Research in the complex and growing field of interoception might suggest some unexpected answers.

What Is Interoception?

Your five senses alert you to the reality outside your body – exteroception – while interoception is the complete process of your brain perceiving, interpreting and analysing sensory data coming from inside your body, consciously or unconsciously. “Butterflies” in your stomach. A tightness of breath.  A feeling of pressure behind your eyes. These perceptions offer a real-time snapshot of a complex inner world, encompassing information from the respiratory, gastrointestinal and even immune systems.

Interoceptive signals are essentially the conversation between your brain and body, working to orchestrate your survival and ongoing homeostasis. When you need food, the inner sensation of hunger is part of your body’s attempt to coordinate eating, so you get the nutrition you need. It’s the fatigue that tells us to rest and the queasy feeling that tells us we’re in danger.

But interoception is not only an intimate part of our embodied experience, but the root of our feelings and emotional reactions, urges and drives. The links between mental health and interoceptive ability are now being explored, with researchers particularly interested in the ability to feel one’s own heartbeat.

Can you feel your own heartbeat, right now?

Whether you can accurately detect it at rest may say a lot about your mental health. You might think that a racing heart happens because you feel anxious or panicked. But philosopher William James noted as far back as 1892 that it may actually be the other way around: that you feel anxious because your heart is racing.

In other words, physiological states are the cause of emotional ones. First, the body responds to the environment and the heart beats more quickly; then comes the interpretation of what this sensation means. Depending on our cultural expectations, the context, our own past, and how we were raised, we might explain this bodily sensation as nervousness, excitement or anger. As the psychologist and author Lisa Feldman Barrett notes in her bestselling book, How Emotions are Made, our feelings can be thought of as the stories we tell ourselves to explain emergent bodily sensations.

Researchers now believe that people who claim a greater awareness at detecting their own heartbeats are more likely to experience heightened emotional intensity. The anterior insula is a brain region involved in the processing of both emotional and bodily signals, suggesting the crucial link between the two. People with high interoceptive ability show greater activity in this area when performing an interoceptive task when tested in a lab.

“Gut Instinct” And “The Heart Knows”

Our internal landscape is constantly changing. Our heartbeats are never truly regular, but move according to idiosyncratic “signatures” that accompany our experiential states, almost in the way our facial features shift and move to express our changing emotions. Modern science is only now carefully analyzing the links between mind and body. However ancient meditative traditions have understood that the human organism is a seamless whole, and inner perceptions can offer rich insights, if only we know how to look.

Our bodies can perceive hidden channels of information and signal “gut feelings” to us long before our conscious minds catch up. Research now offers support for the idea that intuition (our hearts, quite literally) can guide our decisions using information that the brain cannot fully process. In a fascinating 2016 paper, Garfinkel et al. showed that those high-frequency traders at the London Stock Exchange who put their success down to “gut” instincts were actually better at interoception than average, with enhanced performance to show for it. Their intuition was nothing mystical – simply the heightened capacity to perceive information from internal bodily signals.

Interoception And Mental Illness

And this is where things get interesting: Garfinkel and colleagues have also shown that when it comes to interoception, accuracy is not the same as awareness. They found that those who suffer from anxiety report a greater awareness of their inner worlds, and report feeling their heartbeat more than others. But the crucial word here is report – it turns out that anxious people are actually no better at accurately detecting their own heartbeats, they only believe they are. Similarly, there are those of us who are quite good at heartbeat detection, yet unaware of it. Again, we see that bodily sensation and the interpretation of bodily sensation are two different things.

So, what if you’re not able to detect your heartbeat or any other internal sensations? And what does it mean if your perception and the reality are not perfectly aligned?

It may be that dysfunction of this holistic sense is linked to a wide range of disorders like depression, PTSD, eating disorders and alexithymia (the inability to detect and identify emotions). Those who suffer from anxiety disorders may not actually be experiencing any unusual physiological states, only they may interpret these states quite differently from non-anxious people.

Autistic individuals have been shown to have impaired interoception, as do those suffering from feelings of bodily dissociation. A 2013 paper has shown that people with low interoceptive accuracy tend more to objectify themselves – their inability to feel embodied translates to looking at their bodies in terms of external attractiveness instead of internal sensations. This could have important consequences for the way we treat body dysmorphia and eating disorders.

It would seem that our lived experience, and by extension mental illness, is not in the perception, but the interpretation of the perception. Some studies suggest that it’s how well aligned and coordinated we are in our interoceptive abilities that best predicts our mental health.

The fact that some researchers have been able to “train” the ability to more accurately perceive one’s heartbeat raises some interesting questions: is interoception malleable, and can you learn to be better at it? Furthermore, will this improve mental health in the process?

There’s been some success in teaching people to notice their heartbeats without attaching anxiety to the experience, and becoming more aware of what is going on in their bodies. The goal is to observe bodily sensations without labelling, and without needing to jump in with a response. Flotation tanks can be a useful way of developing interoception, because they shut down the stimuli from exteroception and direct our focus inwards. But again, our interpretations can always be incorrect – which may explain why some people find flotation tanks anxiety-provoking.

Read more: Anger, anxiety, panic, sadness, isolation, addiction — all these habitual patterns can grow from undiscovered and therefore unresolved emotional triggers. Explore how to identify emotional triggers.

Meditation For Better Interoception

If you’re beginning to wonder whether meditators are better at accurate interoception compared to those who don’t meditate, you may be surprised to learn that they don’t perform any better. What is different, however, is the way meditators will talk about their inner perceptions. Here we see again that it’s not the sensation per se, but the story we tell ourselves about it – i.e. our emotions.

Meditation may thus not make you any more accurate at perceiving your inner states, but it can help you strengthen the interface between your bodily sensations and the creation of emotions to explain them. It gives you the ability to decide what a sensation means, if anything, and the option to consciously let any sensation simply pass. Meditation can enhance your wellbeing because it helps you harmonize your inner world with the outer one, your body with your mind, and your conscious with your unconscious.

In considering wellbeing, we quickly arrive at the truly mind-blowing limit of science – we can never really know what it’s like to be somebody else. Our subjective perceptions and the unique way we explain and interpret them are not available for others to see. We can only describe what we feel – and in doing so we’ve already made some assumptions, passing the sensation through the filter of our beliefs, fears, and expectations.

In meditation, we sometimes attempt to experience the world around us as it is, without judgment, without attachment, just as is. Is it possible to experience our inner worlds the same way?

This may be the key to more robust emotional health, and a comfort and familiarity with our own inner realms. Without making a verdict about what it means, can you notice the sensations in your stomach? The different feelings inside your shoulders, the ineffable sensation of having lungs, or of having your skin encounter the air? It can be a revelation: rather than emotions being a fundamental part of reality, we can see them as verbal and conceptual abstractions of more straightforward embodied experiences.

The way that we interpret both the inner and outer world is unique to us. It’s affected by our emotional style, how we’ve been taught to think about our bodies and emotions, the culture and historical period we live in, our past experiences, our hopes and fears. How we respond to neutral stimuli forms the texture and tone of what it’s like to be us – but we can set this aside, if we wish. We can change the stories we tell about our perceptions, or simply tell no story at all, and encounter our bodies just like that, as they are.

Use this collection of popular guided meditations to start exploring your inner world:

  1. Creating Space For Harmony Brian Hyman 6:27
  2. Tracking Sensation Practice Richard Ayling 13:24
  3. Mindfulness of Internal Body Sensations Kristy Arbon 5:52
  4. Body Scan Practice RSG Performance 9:43
  5. Creating Inner Harmony Sunny Roberts 11:29
  6. Feeling The Sensations Of The Body Michael Stone 23:02
  7. Breath & Body Awareness Laurie Keig-Morrell 14:11

In 2016, the Laureate Institute for Brain Research held an “Interoception Summit” for international experts to share knowledge on this growing field. But because interoception involves the entire body, it has so far proven challenging to unpick its role in bodily wellbeing and mental illness.

Research into this field is in its infancy, and scientists are far from reaching consensus about how to study interoception. The truth is, we still have plenty to learn about our subjective inner experiences. But perhaps this ignorance is the most fitting place to start: with a Zen beginner’s mind, letting go of labels and judgment, and merely noticing with calm, unattached awareness. 

Perhaps our meditation practice can see us encounter the thumping heart, but have our conscious mind just stay with it, letting the sensation simply be what it is.

Read more: You might also be interested in learning about most recent research in the field of mindfulness effects on physical health, self and interpersonal processes.

Meditation. Free.