Interoception; Getting to Know Your Sixth Sense

December 2013

“The heart and intestine (whose surrounding cellular  structures mimic those of the brain) function as organs not only of circulation and digestion, respectively, but also of perception— hence the literalness of the expression ‘heartfelt feelings’ and ‘gut reactions’”  (Wallin, 2007).  Neurologists and psychologists dating back to the 1800’s  have argued that interoception is the neglected sixth  sense by which we construct our reality.  “This sixth sense would include balance and proprioception —  knowing your position in space— as well as the sense of hunger and thirst and internal signals from muscles…the feeling of your viscera, such as heart, lungs, and intestines—would also be included here and has been called ‘enteroception.’  Taken together, knowing the internal world can be called ‘interoception’” (Segal, 2003).

Awareness and attention of the body is an essential task of self-care and self-love.  A father whose child is sick may have to wait for the doctor’s office to open before he can do anything for his child.  Instinctually the first response is to recognize and acknowledge.  Applying this to the, at times very discrete, messages of our own body can be more challenging.

Unless our body is screaming at us, we often ignore the rate of our heart, our breath, movements of digestion, posture, shortened muscles, emotional sensations in our gut, etc.  It is quite amazing how long periods of time can pass, and I be completely disconnected from hunger or tightness in my shoulders.  The busier our schedule, the more on our plate, the greater the need to foster interoceptive awareness. “We gain access to the body’s wisdom through interoception, which literally means ‘perceiving within.’ Try pausing for a moment right now and just be aware of the beating of your heart and the in-and-out of your breath….You can pick up brainstem signals at any time by becoming aware of shifts in your breathing and heart rate—and also by paying attention to arousal itself” (Segal, 2010).

This sixth sense is a “potent resource” to strengthen capacity for affect and self-regulation (Wallin, 2007).  When we miss important messages from our body, we can end up on autopilot.  Whether or not we acknowledge our feelings, we act on them.  Therefore if we want to regulate our behavior we must first observe our emotion, which can only be effectively done by attending to the body.  “We feel our emotions in our bodies, and these feelings shape our reality.  Thus, our lived experience as well as our memories of experience  —emotional experience, in particular—  are fundamentally rooted in the body”

Interoception can also be a tool for coping with our emotional experiences and strengthening out connection to others.  Wallen explains how interoceptive attention can decrease distress by grounding one “in the present moment, potentially modulating the distress associated with the traumatic past and feared future” (Wallin, 2007).  Lastly, attending to our internal sensations builds up the insula of the cerebral cortex, facilitating access to our own emotions and our ability to empathize with others (Wallin, 2007).

Attending to the breath, or the whole body, are great tools which can be used in a therapeutic environment, or on your own, to facilitate personal growth, emotional healing and overall mindbody wellness.

Daniel J Siegel, M.D.  2010.  Mindsight; The New Science of Personal Transformation.

David J. Wallin, 2007. Attachment in Psychotherapy.