Interoception: The Sixth Sense

Back in the 1860s, a Russian psychologist called Ivan Sechenov noted the existence of an “obscure muscular sense” at the border of consciousness. He was probably the first to suggest that bodily sensations might be significant, but no one paid much attention. It wasn’t until 1907 that Charles Scott Sherrington named this internal sense ‘interoception’, finally giving a name to our ability to sense bodily signals like heartbeat, breath, thirst, hunger and muscle tension.

Although we’ve known about interoception for over 100 years, research into this powerful ‘sixth sense’ has taken off in the last few decades. Why the sudden interest? It’s become increasingly apparent that interoception is fundamental to emotional regulation and can play a crucial role in our wellbeing.

Interoception feeds a vast amount of information to the brain: While most of that input will remain outside conscious awareness, it all significantly impacts our emotional state and thinking. We all differ in how intensely we experience emotions, and the research suggests that this might be due to individual differences in interoception. People with greater interoceptive awareness tend to feel emotions more intensely, are more empathic and are better at emotional regulation. Conversely, research links a lack of interoceptive awareness with emotional disorders. In summary, listening through your body can enhance your emotional life and mental health.

So how can you learn to listen to your body? I asked Jennifer Tantia, a Somatic Psychotherapist and Dance Movement therapist. Many years ago, Jennifer “went on a quest” to find the answer to a vital question: “How am I going to teach people how to get into their bodies?” Jennifer explains that the body is “a gateway between consciousness and unconsciousness”, and she talks us through ways we can learn the path through that gateway. The key is to “really pay attention, start listening through [your] body”. You need to let go and be open to listening and receiving information “outside of what you think you know”. Meditation, dance, and Focusing can all help develop your interoceptive awareness; perhaps unsurprisingly, these three are embodied pathways of connection.

Mindful breathing and body scan meditation are especially valuable to developing your interoceptive awareness, and mindful movement can also help. Jennifer talks about a form of dance movement therapy called Authentic Movement: “It’s like putting your brain in the back seat and putting your body in the driver’s seat, and you really are in a different state where your body is moving”.

My conversion with Jennifer goes deep, and we identify presence as an underlying theme. You have to be fully present to listen through your body. Jennifer notes that it underpins meditation, nature connection and psychedelic experience. As our conversation ends, Jennifer emphasizes the importance of practice.

“You can’t just do it once and get it. It’s a practice; it’s tolerating your own frustration, it’s letting yourself be surprised until everything is a surprise. And that’s presence, right, and it’s worth the effort to practice”.

Learning to listen through your body takes time – and you need to keep practising – but the reward is no less than becoming fully human.

Mindfulness in nature meets somatic therapy

What happens when we combine mindfulness in nature with somatic therapy? That’s the theme of my conversation with Rochelle Calvert for The Embodiment Podcast. It’s very timely too, as one of the topics we discuss is “living an ethical, embodied life” in a time of ecological crisis. Rochelle is passionate about her work and deeply committed to environmental healing. No wonder we got on!

I’ve often talked about why mindfulness works so well in a natural environment, and we explore that together. Rochelle then provides a very clear introduction to Peter Levine’s somatic experiencing and explains how she combines it with mindfulness in nature.

Rochelle recognises the powerful way that nature “calls us into presence”. By helping us to awaken to our senses, nature can enhance our embodied awareness. This allows us to access the wisdom of the body, awakening our inner sense of safety, well-being, and connection. Western approaches tend to exaggerate the importance of the thinking mind and forget the wisdom of the body, but it’s “the innate intuitive healing of this body” that brings healing from trauma.

Rochelle then shares her version of a classic somatic experiencing practice, pendulation: It’s one of her favourite practices and is both simple and very powerful. There are full details in her book, but you’ll get a good sense of it in the podcast.

Reciprocity is a word Rochelle uses a lot, and the question of how we can give back to nature is key for her. One of the most important topics we discuss is living an embodied ethical life. How can I be an ally to nature? How can we live in integrity with our planet? This is a recurring theme of this blog, and Rochelle’s work beautifully deepens the field of embodied ecology.