Over the last fifteen years I have seen clients with a wide range of conditions — stroke, carpal tunnel, cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, sciatica, plantar fasciitis, low back pain, and so much more. I am usually the last desperate choice people make to: avoid surgery, get relief from chronic pain, try so they don’t have to give up a beloved activity. After seeing me these clients invariably kick themselves for not coming much sooner because, at the very least, their symptoms and pain are drastically reduced, but more often the pain or condition is fully resolved. Clients have dramatically improved the quality of their lives, even when living with degenerative diseases such as MS or Parkinson’s.
These clients improve because their dysfunction is approached from the perspective of increasing awareness interoceptively, responding appropriately, and understanding how the body evolved to function optimally.
What is the Interoceptive System
Interoception is the eighth sensory system and is defined as feeling and becoming aware of your inner body sensations. Sit back and close your eyes. What do you feel inside your body?
- Is your heart beating fast or slow?
- Are you breathing deeply or shallowly?
- Do you have to go to the bathroom?
- Do you feel any tense muscles?
- How does your stomach feel?
These are all Interoceptive sensations.
How Long Has Interoception Been Around
Interoception was originally introduced to the scientific community by the Nobel Laureate Sir Charles S. Sherrington in 1906. Sherrington referred to interoception as a way to describe receptors in the body based on their location and function. He divided the internal milieu of the body by its somatic and autonomic functions.
No research took place for many years after a book by John Newport Langley was published stating that only brain-to-body signaling was the source of all functionality. This adhered to philosopher Rene Descartes belief that the mind controls the machine body.
The late 1950s and 1960s saw a brief blooming of interest in interoception, with studies that included heartbeat perception: heartbeat counting, heartbeat tapping, and heartbeat detection.
The last few years of the twenty-first century has seen an exponential increase in publications on the topic of interoception, and a recognition of the multifaceted nature of it.
How does the Interoceptive System work?
There are little receptors located throughout the inside of our body, in our organs, muscles, skin, bones and so forth. These receptors gather information from the inside of our body and send it to the brain. The brain helps to make sense of these messages and enables us to feel things such as hunger, fullness, itch, pain, body temperature, nausea, need for the bathroom, tickle, physical exertion and sexual arousal. Additionally, interoception is the source of our emotions.
Why does Interoception Matter
Once science observed that all information actually enters the brain from the senses, interoception took on a whole new level of importance to brain function. The brain-to-body signaling that had been part of the accepted lexicon has now been debunked.
So far, the practical applications of interoception are about identifying, feeling, and controlling emotions in the autism spectrum and in mental health. The part of interoception, I would argue, that needs to gain traction is in the realm of how to regain compromised functionality. Interoception is critical to how all animals with a skeleton, brain, and nervous system learn to function.
When we are born we naturally learn to function interoceptively, without conscious oversight. Once functionality is compromised no animal knows how to regain it. As the brain transitions to cognitive function it disconnects from the non-conscious ability to learn. We don’t naturally know how to regain or relearn compromised functionality because we initially learned non-consciously. Can we get around the disconnect?
Our brain does inform us when we are in dysfunction by what we interoceptively feel. We can feel stiff, sore, painful, fatigued, and discomfort in our muscles. This is the brains way of telling us we are misusing them and we should change how we function. If muscles are functioning appropriately you should feel nothing because, after all, why would your brain inform you about muscles that are working in harmony? Once you can feel what muscles are being misused you are better able to respond and change how you function to be more optimal.
Interoception and the Modern Medical System
Currently, interoception is not part of the modern medical system. Not a single medical profession is trained to work with and treat neurological and neuromuscular dysfunction using the interoceptive system. The medical system is struggling under the weight of statistics that show only 10% of people with a stroke recover full functionality, low back pain is practically an epidemic, and surgeries to replace hips, knees, and shoulders are growing exponentially. The medical system needs to transform how it treats dysfunction to catch up with the science.
There are a growing number of professionals beginning to recognize and include the interoceptive system in their therapies. However, the approaches are often fragmented so people don’t get the dramatic benefit that is possible when one works holistically.
Interoception and Transforming Society
We live in a world today feeling disconnected from ourselves, one another, and the natural world. Learning to reconnect with our interoceptive system through learning to function better results in feeling every action and behavior. As you refine and improve functionality your interoceptive sensitivity becomes more refined so that you feel the consequences of your actions and behavior on others. As you resolve dysfunction and pain your brain is freed up to feel that which is outside of yourself.
Every person is born with a moral compass based on compassion and empathy. We lose track of our moral compass as we become desensitized by dysfunction. By regaining functionality you regain interoceptive sensitivity and naturally modify your moral compass to be based on empathy and compassion. How can you treat another badly if you feel their pain?
Interoception can be extrapolated out to overflow into exteroception, that which you feel outside of yourself. How can you cause harm to that which is outside of yourself when you feel the consequences of its destruction?
In light of our headlong dive toward existential self-annihilation, integrating interoception into every facet of society is of immense import.