Interoception: Know Yourself Inside and Out
By Liam Bowler
Be still for a moment. I mean really still.
Without looking down, do you know the position of your right foot relative to the floor? How about your shoulders relative to your back?
Now, can you feel your heart beating? Where is there heat in your body? Coolness? Other sensation? Where? Do you feel hunger?
What sensations are present that you don’t quite have a name for, and yet have a feeling and location?
Don’t just skim these questions—take a moment to ask and another to listen for the answer.
That’s interoception, the ability to feel your body from the inside out.
As we might imagine, both these ways of knowing yourself, location and sensation, are important to the human organism and indicators of a healthy system.
Conversely, and this is important, we tend to lack both quality proprioception and interoception in our most stuck, and sometimes most painful, places.
There’s new research coming out about interoception in particular, and what’s being called the enteric nervous system (ENS), or the “brain” in our guts. (If you’ve read books like The Second Brain or The Body Has a Mind of Its Own, you’re well familiar with this.)
This ENS shares only about 9000 neurons, which is nothing in the currency of nerve tissue, with the central nervous system (CNS, the familiar brain and spinal cord nervous system). As in, it’s kind of its own deal down there, and one that we’re really just starting to learn about in scientific terms.
The ENS is one of our earliest developments, both in terms of evolution and human embryology—more than our frontal cortexes, our muscles or tendons or toenails. It is quite literally our deepest self, home of the “gut sense.”
It’s also being considered as the home, or at least part of the home, for interoception, for the ability to feel the body from the inside out. As in, it’s not the thought about your body or the location of your body (home base in the somatosensory cortex of the brain), but the process of your body feeling itself (we can speculate and some are studying, the oldest consciousness, that knows these feelings as part of a me.)
The other home of interception is actually surrounding nearly every structure inside of you—including muscles, organs, and nerves—in free nerve endings that terminate in the fascia, the connective tissue that surrounds and invests into every structure, from muscles to cell nuclei.
Just as we’re able to have a proprioceptive sense of any body part (ideally), we’re also able to hone into the interoceptive sense of any body “part” (put in quotes because here especially this internal sensation is so clearly part of the self-referencing whole of you).
Does our ability to feel inside out also follow the use-it-or-lose-it rule of biomechanics? It sure seems so.
One bit of research is saying disturbed interoceptive abilities have been linked to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), depression and anxiety. They’ve actually found these folks tend to have higher levels of interoceptive information coming in, but it’s more awash in a kind of white noise. More information, less of a clear signal (we could say the same for chronic, systemic pain: the kind of dull ache with less and less of a clear location).
Here’s where it gets really interesting. This interoceptive information arrives and is processed in the insular cortex of the brain—this is the area of the brain that’s about emotion, and not at all about motor movement or location, where proprioceptive information would come in.
Again, and this bears repeating, these somatic sensations are being processed in the area of the brain that has been shown to deal with emotion.
Now we’re really off the five senses, “muskuloskeletal” track, aren’t we? Research is showing our bodies are deep oceans, much more interrelated than a mere summation of machine parts.
Can we increase our interoceptive skills, both in terms of quantity of information and, perhaps most importantly, the quality and accuracy of information (i.e. being able to truly feel what’s going on inside, in a very literal if not empirical sense?)
Let’s try this again, it will take about two minutes.
Feel for your lower back again. Feel for its position relative to your butt, and relative to your ribs and thoracic (middle) spine. You don’t need to do anything with that information, or make any changes, though you’re welcome to if it feels better to sit or stand a different way.
If that was a kind of outside-in experience, start to pay attention to what, if anything, you feel inside your lower back area.
You’re not searching for anything fancy, just your internal experience of that area. Feel for variances in temperature, and for sensations like tingling, a dull ache or anything like that.
You can even feel in metaphors like color, it doesn’t need to make rational sense. Is there any emotion in the tissues you’re feeling? Dread? Doubt? Giddiness? A deep hum of peace? Apathy?
Of utmost importance is you’re not trying to manufacture any feeling or state. You’re feeling for what’s actually there as it seems most obvious to you right now.
Again, actually do this. Invite youself to stop reading these words for 30 seconds and feel.
When you’re back—
Did you notice anything change? Try to remember when you first started reading this post a few minutes ago: does your sense of position now feel better, worse or the same? Does the amount of information coming to you in your lower back, or anywhere else, feel less, more or the same?
With a little practice and a little mindfulness, especially coupled with good movement practices and bodywork, this could be one of the simplest changes you make, and potentially one of the more profound.
A few examples for weaving interoception further into your life—
After exercise or play or dance, take a moment to feel the warmth inside, the buzz of endorphins, the pleasure. Again, it’s not a thought—”I’m glad I went for a run!”—it’s the very literal feeling inside your body
If you have any chronic pains that come and go, see if you can stop what you’re doing and tune in to that interoceptive sense of that area in the moments you feel it start to turn on—the earlier the better. Spend a few minutes paying attention to this, along with whatever really grabs your attention elsewhere in the body. Again, and I’ll be a broken record here, you’re paying attention to the internal sense of the area, not to the thoughts about the area (i.e. you’re feeling the warmth, or deep ache, or whatever, and doing you’re best not to hang out in the thoughts: “Geez, here this is again, I hate this”)
In the morning, after waking and sitting up but before your day, take a few moments every day to feel the sensation in your body, paying special attention to what feels good. All interoception has a homeostatic quality to it, that is it’s always moving us towards equilibrium. Rest in this knowledge that you do, actually and literally, know what’s best for you at some level
Take a few moments every day to feel into any unpleasant sensations in your body, whether intense heat or a dull ache or the gnawing buzz of anxiety, with the knowledge that this act of feeling is good medicine for the condition.
A moment before you eat, feel into your guts, throat, hands, whatever’s involved in the act of eating. If there’s a sense of gratitude there, nourish that by noticing it with your undivided attention.
To your body awake, inside and out.
*For more on interoception, see the excellent article by Robert Schleip and Heiki Jäger that is largely the entire bibliography for this article (along with an hour-long Skype lecture with Schleip himself) titled “Interoception: A new correlate for intricate connections between fascial receptors, emotion and self recognition”