Awareness of interoception

Recently, I have been fascinated by the wonderful and mysterious part of being human – our interoceptive system. It’s this thing that we all have, but to which I didn’t pay any special attention. The interoceptive system is how we experience what happens inside of our body.

If we sit very quietly and try to draw our attention inside, we can start noticing that we can perceive all kinds of things going within us. If we believe Antonio Damasio, the complete set of these experiences — or what we call feelings – plays a critical role in how we experience the world outside, how we show up, and indeed who we are. Even though it takes skill for us to consciously notice our feelings as distinct experiences in various parts of our body, our mind is well-familiar with these signals, constantly and seamlessly relying on them. Things that prick our fingers feel bad, as well as things that are too hot or too cold.

What I found particularly insightful is that our memories contain these experiences as well. Remembering an event when something bad happened actually feels bad – the interoceptive track of our memories replays how we felt during that moment. This leads to a bunch of weird effects.

For example, we can be afraid of feeling fear. Let’s chew on that one together. Suppose I walked under a tree… face-first into a spider web. Yuck. I am not a fan of spiders, so my interoceptive system would immediately inform me that this is a scary experience. Next time I go near that tree, something odd will happen. I will have this inkling that maybe I don’t want to go under that tree. What’s going on? Turns out, upon seeing the tree, my memory of the encounter with the spider will helpfully pop up, and replay the dose of fear I experienced. I will probably explain it as “intuition” or “good judgment” to walk around the tree, but more honestly, I will be reacting to the experience of an interoceptive memory. I will be afraid of feeling that experience again. 

Even more bizarrely, the whole thing is path-dependent: the new memory of choosing to walk around the tree will include the interoceptive experience of newly-experienced fear of feeling that first fear, and so on. This stuff can get rather gnarly and turn unproductive really fast. Maybe I shouldn’t walk under any trees at all. Or staircases. Or covered porches. Spiders could be anywhere.

Of the many moments I am not proud of, there was that one time when I needed to give a colleague of mine some really uncomfortable feedback. We were sitting right across from each other, and I just needed to lean over and say: “hey, can we talk?” And I couldn’t. I just sat there, looking at my colleague’s back, paralyzed. I was overcome by the spiral of fear of feeling fear of feeling fear, folding over and over onto itself.

Another weird effect is a similar kind of vicious cycle of our minds collaborating with our body to rationalize negative feelings. If you ever woke up from a bad dream you couldn’t even remember and then had trouble going back to sleep, this will be familiar to you. The thing is, our minds are exceptionally good at association. Whenever our interoceptive system informs us that something of negative valence (that is, something that feels bad) is happening, the mind eagerly jumps into the fray, helpfully finding all the similar interoceptive experiences from our past. In doing so, those experiences are replayed, exacerbating our interoceptive state, which feeds back into our minds looking up more and more terrible entries in the great database of “crappy stuff that happened to us.”

If this resonates with you and you’re curious about how to put an end to this drama, I have both good news and bad news. I’ll start with the bad news. This stuff happens to us pretty much all the time and will continue to happen, no matter how rationally we aspire to behave. Feelings are us. The somewhat good news is that we can learn to be more aware of our interoceptive system and apply that awareness to reduce the intensity of the vicious cycles. I can’t stop my interoceptive system from blaring klaxons, but I can learn to react to them more productively. The whole awareness thing takes effort and practice, but seems to work – at least, in my experience.

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