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Day 25 – Touch #3 Interoception

A recent Guardian article that gives a good modern take on interoception. You'll recognise Damasio's origin of emotion explanation below as the same model that we and the old-school yogis/monks use. Fancy that! 😊

Interoception may be less well known than the “outward facing” senses such as sight, hearing, taste, touch and smell, but it has enormous consequences for your wellbeing. Scientists have shown that our sensitivity to interoceptive signals can determine our capacity to regulate our emotions, and our subsequent susceptibility to mental health problems such as anxiety and depression.

It is now one of the fastest moving areas in neuroscience and psychology, with academic conferences devoted to the subject and a wealth of new papers emerging every month.

First, some definitions. Interoception includes all the signals from your internal organs, including your cardiovascular system, your lungs, your gut, your bladder and your kidneys. “There’s a constant communication dialogue between the brain and the viscera,” says Tsakiris.

Much of the processing of these signals takes place below conscious awareness: you won’t be aware of the automatic feedback between brain and body that helps to keep your blood pressure level, for instance, or the signals that help to stabilise your blood sugar levels. But many of these sensations – such as tension in your muscles, the clenching of your stomach, or the beating of your heart – should be available to the conscious mind, at least some of the time. And the ways you read and interpret those feelings will have important consequences for your wellbeing.

The origin of emotion

This idea stems from the pioneering work of Prof Antonio Damasio at the University of Southern California in the 1990s. He proposed that emotional events begin with non-conscious changes in bodily states, called “somatic markers”: when you see an angry dog, for instance, and your muscles tense or your heart begins to race. This physiological reaction occurs before you are even aware of the emotion, and it is only when the brain detects the alteration to the body’s internal state, through interoception, that we actually experience the feeling and allow it to shape our behaviour.

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