A beginner’s guide to interoception, the sixth sense you never knew you had
Down a long and echoing corridor, inside a bland meeting room, I am having colourful wires attached to my body.
A computer screen in front of me asks me to press the space bar every time I feel my heart beat inside my chest.
The pads sticking to my chest and lower back feed my heart’s true rhythms to another computer, monitored by two neuroscience students.
Every so often, my computer pauses to ask me how accurate I think my own estimates are.
I close my eyes and attempt to tunnel my concentration inside my body.
The trouble is, I cannot feel a thing. I may as well be one of the living dead.
My results, when they arrive, are predictably dismal.
“Effectively, in every period in which you had 10 heartbeats, you thought you’d had four,” says Manos Tsakiris, Professor of Psychology at Royal Holloway, University of London, where he runs the rather sci-fi sounding “Lab of Action and Body”.
This is bad news. Because in both scientific and self-help circles, the idea of listening to your heart and, in fact, your body as a whole, is known as having “a moment”.
Move over mindfulness, make way for... “Body-full-ness?” I ask Tsakiris. “‘Mind the body’ is better, I think,” he suggests to me.
Tsakiris is one of the key players in the serious scientific exploration of this growing field. His book, The Interoceptive Mind, came out in October 2018.
Never heard of interoception? You’re not alone. I ask Tsakiris to try and break it down for the absolute beginners out there – like me.
When we think of our senses, he explains, we imagine sight, sound, taste, touch and smell.
Actually, these are just our exteroceptive senses, the ones that tell us about the outside world.
Each of us also has interoception, the perception of sensations inside the body, like the pounding of your heart or the growling of your stomach.
At a basic level, our awareness of these signals helps us understand when we’re hungry, cold, tired or bursting for the loo.
They can also give us clues to our emotional state: a pounding heart can signal rising anger or excitement.
“All the evidence suggests people who have better interoceptive awareness have better emotional awareness and fewer body image concerns,” says Tsakiris.
Yet, as my heart rate results show, many of us are a little inept at tuning into our bodies’ signals
For example, says Tsakiris: “It’s quite common for people to confuse feelings of hunger with those of anger.”
The idea that when I think I am in emotional turmoil, I might in fact just need a sandwich appeals.
How many of my crises could I eat or nap my way out of? I decide to spend the week listening to my body instead of my neurotic mind.
First, however, I am going to have to “train my interoceptive awareness”. Get better at listening to my body’s signals, in other words.
But how do I do that? “Simply take time to attend more to how things make your body feel,” Tsakiris suggests.
I have scheduled a call with Lisa Feldman Barrett, a neuroscientist and psychologist whose Ted talk “You aren’t at the mercy of your emotions – your brain creates them” has been viewed online more than four million times.
In it she describes a feeling I am familiar with.
“You wake up, and as you’re emerging into consciousness, you feel this horrible dread, this real wretchedness,” she says.
“Immediately your mind starts to race… Oh my God. What is wrong with my life?”
In fact, she explains, what is really going on is this: “Your brain is searching to find an explanation for those sensations in your body that you experience as wretchedness so that you know what to do with them.”
But those sensations might have a purely physical cause. Maybe you didn’t sleep enough. Maybe you’re hungry. Maybe you’re dehydrated.”
I get Feldman Barrett on the phone. I’m feeling anxious, I tell her. I’m not sure why. Should I have a little nap?
“Well, I can’t talk specifically about your life,” she counsels.
“But I would always start by asking myself whether my feelings of despair and misery are actually due to running a deficit in my body budget.”
The body budget is a metaphor she developed in her book How Emotions are Made, published in 2017 to critical acclaim.
“Brains did not evolve to think and to feel,” Barrett tells me, “they evolved to be able to regulate the systems of the body in a way that would be metabolically efficient.
“Your brain is basically running a budget for your body. It’s budgeting resources like glucose and water and salt and oxygen.”
The point is to spend in a judicious way and get a return on your investment.”
The idea that our minds and bodies, thoughts and feelings are wholly separate from one another is, she points out, an unhelpful Western misconception.
While we shouldn’t mistake correlation with causation, depression is far more prevalent in Western cultures.
“The first advice I’d give people is get enough sleep,” she says, also advocating exercise, healthy eating and hugs.
“We’re a social species… The best thing for a human nervous system is another human.”
I try, truly I do.
I plan to leave my desk, make a nutritious lunch and pay into my body budget.
Then I get another e-mail, and another. At some point, I swallow coffee and toast, chased down with Doritos.
By the time my children return from school, I fear I am in serious deficit, so I implement an early bedtime and we all pile into bed together.
I still can’t sense my heartbeat, but the warm hugs suffusing my body suggests it has slowed to a happier rate.
David Plans is CEO of BioBeats, a digital company that has developed an app and well-being programme.
Unlike the approximately 1,000 others in the field, however, theirs is tailored to individual bodily signals like heart rate, sleep and activity levels.
I am here, at The Floatworks in London, at 7.30am, about to step into a “float pod”.
We are, Plans suggests, living through an era in which we are uniquely distanced from these signals. “In its original form, mindfulness does involve a focus on the body,” he tells me.
Repackaged by the wellness industry, however, it’s often reduced to an impossible equation: “Live like a monk, while living in the real world. We need to get more stuck into our emotions, understand where they come from, not become more distanced from them.
“In the past, we’d survive by huddling in the dark and hoping nothing would eat us,” he says. “We have to relearn what that felt like: to hear your heart beat in a cave in the dark.”
Plans suggests I give the sensory deprivation tank a go to hone my interoceptive awareness.
Alone, floating in skin-temperature salt water, I am struck by the sounds my stomach is making. It is not only rumbling, but gurgling and squeaking in an alarming fashion. And my breathing! I sound like Darth Vader.
Then, finally, there it is. My heartbeat. Loud and clear.
The hour ends and I emerge from my pod. I feel a bit like Bambi: fresh, new and a little wobbly on my feet. I resist reaching for my phone and try to tune into my heart rate instead. I’m still bad at it, but the exercise is strangely relaxing.
A friend recommends I try the new audiobook Take Control of Your Life, by US motivational speaker Mel Robbins.
Published by Audible in February 2019, it is structured around a series of recorded life coaching sessions.
The blurb promises that doing so will give me “vital takeaways” and help me “tackle the single biggest obstacle you face: fear”.
I listen sceptically. In chapter two, Robbins talks to a tearful young woman called Heather.
The high expectations she absorbed from her parents as a child are holding her back from pursuing her professional goals.
“Your body has a memory and stores traumatic events,” Robbins tells her.
Her advice involves identifying physical symptoms that precede a crisis of confidence.
Then, interrupt them before they escalate into negative thoughts.
Feeling your throat going dry or your stomach churning?
Shuffle around in your chair or wiggle your toes to anchor yourself before you are carried away on the rising tide of panic.
This is timely. I take a deep breath and open my online banking app.
Immediately I feel my palms prickle. I shuffle in my seat, as instructed, and find, to my utmost surprise, that it does forestall the panic.
Feeling buoyed, I run through the techniques I’ve learnt so far this week: eat, nap, put a jumper on, give a hug, take your pulse, wiggle your toes. All free, all pleasingly practical.
To celebrate, I get into bed with a sandwich and a hot cup of tea, thus covering most of my bases.
My minor successes this week have made me cocky.
I know this because, despite never having played poker before, I have not only organised a game for this evening but have become convinced I am on the brink of making a lot of money.
I blame Sarah Garfinkel. Garfinkel is a neuroscientist based at the University of Sussex and a leading expert on interoception.
“In one of my studies, I tested traders at the London Stock Exchange who say they have intuitive instincts about which trades are good and which are bad,” she tells me.
“I was able to show there was a correlation between their profit and loss statements and their interoceptive accuracy.”
My ears prick up. The best traders in her study had enhanced interoceptive accuracy.
In other words, I think to myself, honing my ability to read my body’s signals could not only improve my emotional well-being but, in theory, improve my bank balance too.
She points to another study from 2010, which suggested that, during a card game, body signatures like heart rate and skin conductance can signal which are the winning cards even if the player is unaware.
Which is how I end up gathering a group of friends round the table and begin trying, desperately, to tune into my body.
How did it go? Let’s just say I may have lost a little money, but I’m budgeting that against gaining a lot of respect for my body’s signals. – © Telegraph Media Group Limited 2019