The Power of Interoception

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Interoception is the foundation of experiential anatomy as a healing modality. We need to feel what we want to heal. Traditionally, interoception referred to visceral sensations like hunger, fatigue, or the urge to pee. In this conscious sense, interoception is how our bodies talk to us. Through interoception we can map emotions in our body, like feeling love in our heart or butterflies in our stomach. Interoceptive signals in fascia, muscles and joints help us register qualities and effects of movement and of any emotional responses evoked. For example, interoceptive awareness gives me a sense that I have an arm, and that when I visualize my arm connected to my spine, my movement is stronger and more integrated, and I feel more powerful. Or I may generate feelings of groundedness by doing a foot practice, and gain confidence in standing up for myself.

More recently, after a surge of research in the last decade, the definition of interoception has been expanded to refer to how awareness of body sensations and states can build a subjective sense of self, help us to self-regulate both physically and emotionally, and confer meaning to experience. THIS IS BIG! It means that interoceptive awareness gives us a sense of self, that we exist (this is me) and can make choices. Descartes had it all wrong! We know we exist not because we THINK, but because we SENSE and FEEL. And this awareness can motivate us to self-regulate.

Most interoception is unconscious. The nervous system registers sensory information primarily from organs to regulate our physiological processes and maintain homeostasis. This is visceroception, the conscious and unconscious signals from inner organs. We are not normally aware of our kidneys balancing electrolytes, or the release of digestive enzymes. The interoceptive process also involves data received from other sensory sources: exteroception (the traditional five senses), proprioception (awareness of body position and movement arising from receptors in the fascia, muscles, and joints), and vestibular awareness (sense of body velocity and head position in gravity). This sensory data is received, organized, and integrated in brain structures related to emotion, memory, motivation, and cognition. The result is a feeling, knowing self that is motivated to take self-regulatory action.

Over the last decade researchers have discovered associations between interoception and numerous medical and psychological conditions. Interoceptive processing has been identified as a key factor in health and well-being. Decreased interoceptive abilities have been related to conditions including sickness behaviour, fatigue, anxiety, and depression, eating disorders, PTSD, addiction, and autism. Research has also shown that when research participants develop interoceptive awareness, their conditions improve. We have to feel what we want to heal.

Experiential anatomy practices give us a direct experience of having a body with differentiated anatomical structures, and provide personal meaning to that experience so we are motivated to make healing choices. We become curious about the quality of our breath, energy level, and how movement feels. We realize that our thoughts and emotions can be experienced as physical sensations guiding us toward appropriate action. As we attune to sensations on every level, we can use that vast array of information to change not only our movement, but our experience. As we unite our thinking mind and feeling body, we know who we are and what we need.

An excerpt from Leila’s new book Experiential Anatomy, Therapeutic Applications of Embodied Movement and Awareness, Handspring publishing 2024.

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