WELLthier Living and Aging
WELLthier Living and Aging
Interoception: Following Your Gut
Scientists are examining the benefits and drawbacks of interoception, the ability to feel what’s happening inside our bodies. Interoception differs from perception, as it deals with an inner sense having to do with our bodily processes. In other words, interoception is what we commonly call “following your gut.”
Cognitive neuroscientist, Sarah Garfinkel, finds that individuals can actually improve their interoceptive abilities. In her research she measured the heartbeats of people who’d been diagnosed with autism, and assessed how well they were at tracking their own heartbeats. Many participants who had declared themselves as being good at tracking their own beats often failed. However, as the tests continued, their accuracy improved. Interestingly, participants who had reported having anxiety felt less anxious after practicing their interoception via heartbeat tracking.
Garfinkel’s research highlights that some individuals are hyper responsive to their bodily signals, which may result in inaccurate signal interpretation. Developing better accuracy in interpreting bodily signals may yield psychological health benefits. For instance, individuals with depression and anxiety disorders have been shown to have hyperactive interoception. In these cases, patients are actually being trained to ignore bodily signals. Researchers are suggesting that interoceptive accuracy may enhance proper emotional regulation.
Importantly, interoception is shaped by personal experience, meaning that some people have stronger and more accurate interpretations of interoceptive signals than others. For instance, researchers at the Laureate Institute for Brain Research have demonstrated that individuals with eating disorders perform worse on interoception tests, showcasing interoceptive mistranslation. In other words, people with eating disorders may misread signals stemming from hunger and fullness. The researchers are currently training patients to listen more to their heartbeats to become better at interpreting signals that come from the gut.
Research on interoception is also being used to advance cancer prevention. In 2022, the National Institutes of Health called for research focusing on the brain’s metabolic interoception as a way to understand how cancerous tumors consume energy. Unlike other interoceptive research, this research examines unconscious interoception. These unconscious signals are much more complicated and even untrustworthy, highlighting how turning inward and listening to your body may not always yield clear answers and solutions.
Garfinkel, S., et al (2016). Discrepancies between dimensions of interoception in autism: Implications for emotion and anxiety. Biological Psychology. doi:10.1016/j.biopsycho.2015.12.003
Khalsa, S., et al. (2022). Gastrointestinal interoception in eating disorders: Charting a new path. Current Psychiatry Reports. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11920-022-01318-3
Khalsa, S., et al. (2017). Interoception and mental health: a roadmap. Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging.
Mulcahy, J., et al. (2019). Interoceptive awareness mitigates deficits in emotional prosody recognition in Autism. Biological Psychology. doi:10.1016/j.biopsycho.2019.05.011
Nord, C., Garfinkel, S. (2022). Interoceptive pathways to understand and treat mental health conditions. Trends in Cognitive Sciences. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tics.2022.03.004
Rfa-ca-22-055: Cancer prevention-interception targeted agent discovery program (Cap-it) centers (U54 clinical trial not allowed). (n.d.). https://grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/rfa-files/RFA-CA-22-055.html
Wapner, J. (2023). The paradox of listening to our bodies. The New Yorker. https://www.newyorker.com/science/elements/the-paradox-of-listening-to-our-bodies