The science of everyday interoception

Introspection Diagram

Along with the familiar senses of sight, hearing, smell, touch, and taste, which bring you information about the world around you, there’s another sense that you may not realize you have. It keeps you informed about your own inner world, and you use it every single day.

This sense is known as interoception. It’s our brain’s ability to process stimuli transmitted by nerves all throughout the body, which send signals about everything from hunger and thirst to our heart rate and stomach activity. Interoception is even involved in our emotional regulation. We’re only consciously aware of some of these signals. But they all allow our body to regulate itself, making constant adjustments that keep us healthy. And scientists are finding out that our sense of interoception impacts our lives in ways that we’re only beginning to understand. For example:

Man sleeping in comfy bedInteroception affects our sleep

Some interoceptive signals tend to make us sleepy; for example, when our GI tract is active (think post-Thanksgiving dinner), or if we’re warmed up before bedtime (the warm bath effect). Other sensations, like chronic pain or uncomfortable temperatures, make sleep more difficult. Likewise, sleep affects interoception. We’re less sensitive to interoceptive signals when asleep, while sleep deprivation makes us more sensitive, perhaps contributing to that general unwell feeling we get from lack of sleep. 11

Interoception helps manage stress

People who are better at interoception seem more resilient to stress. Interoception is a component of stress relief techniques like mindfulness meditation, which involve focusing attention on one’s breathing and scanning one’s body for muscular tension. It’s possible that stress and trauma interfere with interoceptive signals, sometimes making us less sensitive to stress, other times making us oversensitive. Therapies that improve interoceptive awareness might help bring an out-of-control or compromised stress response back to healthy functioning. 9

Interoception gives us “gut feelings”

Imaging studies have shown that interoceptive signals coming from the digestive track and other organs reach parts of the brain involved in thinking, emotion, and mood. 1 Other research has found that people’s decisions are affected by interoception. 2

 

Happy woman looking in mirror 

Interoception influences our body image

Though the connection isn’t completely understood, researchers have found evidence that interception is reduced in people who have anorexia, an eating disorder that’s accompanied by a distorted body image. Research has also found that people with better scores on tests for interoception tend to be more satisfied with their appearance. 3

Couple smiling and embracing


Interoception boosts social connectedness.

As social creatures, humans are primed to respond to a certain kind of touch, called affective touch, which boosts mood and helps us feel connected. It’s the slow, stroking kind touch that we instinctively use to comfort someone or express affection. A specific type of nerve cell in our skin detects affective touch; those signals are processed in part of the brain called the insular cortex, and are important for enhancing interoception. 5

Interoception is related to altruism

People who have more sensitivity to interoceptive signals have been found to be more likely to behave altruistically, at least during a lab experiment that involved giving money to a stranger. It could be that heightened awareness of the body’s inner signals makes it easier to sense distress in other people. 6 Other research shows that when we see someone in an emotional state, our brains mimic that state, driven by neurons in the insular cortex sometimes called “mirror neurons” because they seem to simulate the other person’s emotions. 10