The Inner Landscape of the Body

Interoceptive Awareness

 “Close your eyes and shift your attention inward and notice the experience you’re having right now in the body. Feel the body as a field of sensations and observe which sensations are most vivid. Now see if you can feel even more deeply into that sensation as if sensing it from the inside out.” 

When guiding meditation I find myself reaching for language to help my clients access a deeper experience of what's referred to as "the internal landscape of the body". These instructions might seem puzzling to the mind when they’re first heard but after a few months of practice, they begin pointing toward something quite tangible. This ability to feel the "inner landscape" is known to scientists as Interoceptive Awareness (AI), which literally means “perceiving within”. Butterflies in the stomach, being choked up with sadness or getting flushing with embarrassment are all common examples of this type of awareness.

Right now as I pause to feel into my own body, the increased heart rate, elevated body temperature, clamminess of my hands and slight sense of pleasant agitation are all signals that let me know that this will definitely be the last cup of coffee for the morning. Thank you interoceptive awareness!

Interoceptive Awareness is caused by nerves that travel from our internal organs to the insula cortex of our brain, where a dynamic representation of our inner physiology is created. Interoception is distinguishable from other forms of awareness such as exteroception and proprioception. While interoception helps us to perceive subtle internal body signals such as tickle, hunger, thirst, itch and heart rate, exteroception is the perception of the external environment, which helps us take social cues from others and recognize familiar places and things. Proprioception in contrast is what orients the body in space and is the reason we can walk around without bumping into people and knocking things over.

When most people think of "paying attention", they automatically think of focusing on something outside of themselves such as people, places, projects or anything shiny and interesting that crosses their path. But it turns out that it is not the external but the internal world that often determines whether we are having a good day or not. Have you ever felt miserable despite looking out at beautiful scenery? Or have you felt surprisingly content despite being surrounded by cars jammed on the freeway? Happiness is just one of the reasons cultivating the interoceptive pathway of attention may hold the key to greater well-being and optimal performance.

Out of Your Head & Into Your Body

Professor and Mindfulness Teacher, Zindel Segal did an interesting study in collaboration with Adam Anderson at the University of Toronto.  The study used fMRI to compare the brains of participants who were instructed to either focus on the sensation of their breath (interoceptive attention) or to focus their attention on words on a screen (exteroceptive attention).  Contrary to the conventional assumption made by neuroscience that all attention relies upon the frontal lobe of the neocortex, the researchers found that this was true of only the exteroceptive attention. Interoception relies on brain regions that link the cortex to the limbic system, an evolutionarily older brain system that we share in common with many other animals. These limbic connections may support more direct access to emotions and physical sensations while the neocortex is more responsible for a conceptual sense of self.  By recruiting “limbic-bridge” areas like the insula and posterior cingulate, a person using interoceptive attention may bypass the pre-frontal neocortex, directly tapping into bodily awareness that is free from judgment or conceptual self-evaluation.

How does this translate into greater happiness? Well, what does your mind do during stressful events? My coaching clients often say things like "I feel stuck inside my head" and “I just can’t seem to shut my mind off”. And it’s true, they are and they can’t. Trying to talk yourself out of thinking, or using thoughts to control thoughts is a fruitless effort. We knew far before the research validated it, that ruminating and mind wandering makes us less happy and even depressed. 

You’ve likely heard this challenge before: sit still for the next 5 minutes and don’t think of a PINK ELEPHANT! The reason you can’t do this is called “ironic process theory”. According to this theory, if I want to control or repress a thought of a pink elephant, first I would distract myself by intentionally thinking about something else. Then the irony, my mind starts an unconscious monitoring process to check if I’m still thinking about the thing I’m not supposed to be thinking about. “Have I thought of a PINK ELEPHANT yet?” “Doe!... Yep.” This is the science behind the phrase “what you resist persists”.

So you can’t control your mind with your mind (or our pre-frontal cortex with the pre-frontal cortex), but with interoceptive awareness, you may be able to shift away from your racing thoughts.  In the mPEAK course we have people ask themselves the question, “Where are my feet?” or we have them take three breaths whenever they’ve been overcome by racing thoughts. Pausing and feeling the feet from the inside out or focusing on the internal sensations of breathing directly taps into our ability to use our interoceptive awareness, shifting us from "thinking mode" to "sensing mode". Give it a try next time you're sitting on a beach in Hawaii worrying about the kids. 

Interceptive Awareness & Sports Performance

Research on the impact of the mPEAK course on the US Olympic BMX team suggest that after mindfulness training, these top athletes "were better able to appropriately anticipate challenges and to remain focused and aware of their performance in the midst of the split-second stressors that arise in a BMX race that can be intense and often lasts for fewer than two minutes with multiple competitors vying for a place at the finish line." 

Reporting in a recent issue of Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience researchers show that the mPEAK course altered the cyclists’ brain activity patterns in two performance-relevant ways:

  1. As measured by fMRI activity in the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and insula were enhanced during the anticipatory and recovery phases of a stress-provoking exercise. The ACC and insula are believed to play a strong role in interoception, the ability to sense bodily sensations such a heart rate and integrate them with external stimulation and emotional overlay. “Prior to the test, their brains were ramping up for activity,” said first author and mPEAK Director Lori Haase. “We interpret this as meaning the athletes are anticipating the stress and getting ready for it.”
  2. The second measurable change was an apparent reduction in the level of connectivity between posterior cingulate cortex (PCC) and both the right medial frontal cortex and ACC, during the stress-evoking test, in which athletes were asked to breathe through a narrow straw that restricted air flow. The PCC is implicated in self-awareness and self-referential thoughts. A reduction in connectivity to this brain area is consistent with the idea that mindfulness training heightens a person’s awareness of bodily sensations, with less of their "Performance Story" being added to what is being experienced physically.  

In my experience, greater Interoceptive Awareness can also help athletes outside the actual sporting event itself. Being more discerning of subtle body signals can help athletes make the decision on when to train light or hard and when to rest. It can help them know the difference between regular soreness from a workout and the first signs of potential injury. Feeling into the energy of the body can inform the athlete that they need better sleep or even more or less of certain foods that may work best for their bodies before training.

I “Feel” Fat

It seems that being more “embodied” is not only good for our mind, bodies and sports performance but it also may help with weight loss and body image disorders. Several researchers have reported links between Interoceptive Awareness and our sense of "self", and with the ability to recognize and process emotions. There is also evidence that it is linked to body mass index, with poorer Introceptive Awareness scores predicting a higher body mass index (BMI). This may suggest that good introceptive awareness is what allows mindful or "intuitive" eaters – those who eat in response to physical stomach hunger rather than emotional or environmental cues– to keep their weight down. However, it's been pointed out that because the dieter must also still act on the body’s signals, Interoception alone may not cause weight loss, but this awareness is an important part of a process.

Growing research also suggests that poor interoception predicts disordered eating and is linked with body dissatisfaction and body image issues. It is thought that women with low Introceptive Awareness show a greater tendency to "self-objectify" or to regard their bodies as "objects", valuing appearance over feeling and function. Because they lack an internal sense of self and feel disconnected with their own bodies, they can perceive their bodies as being large even though they may be average or slender.

Initial research suggested that this self-objectification suppresses Interoceptive Awareness, but more recent research by Professor Manos Tsakiris at Royal Holloway, University of London suggest the opposite. He believes that low Introceptive Awareness is actually the cause of self-objectification, not the result. Although more research is needed on the topic, the old wisdom to “listen to your body” seems to hold true.

The Body Scan Meditation

Interoceptive awareness is a capacity that can be cultivated through practices such as Yoga, Tai Chi, breathing and meditations that bring attention to the relationship between thoughts, emotions and deep body sensations. While some forms of movement can cultivate proprioception and kinesthetic ability, only mindful movement seems to improve interoception. A study by Jocelyn Sze at the University of California Berkeley showed that "meditators have greater interoceptive awareness than dancers who, though they also have trained awareness of their bodies' movements, are perhaps less in tune with their emotional states."

The body scan is a specific practice I use with private coaching clients as well as with participants of MBSR and mPEAK classes. The body scan is typically done lying down and trains the mind to move from a narrow, detailed, laser beam of attention on a specific body part, like the toes of the left foot to a wider and more spacious, flood light of attention through the entire body as a whole.

“If you think of your body as a musical instrument, the body scan is a way of tuning it. If you think of it as a universe, the body scan is a way to come to know it. If you think of your body as a house, the body scan is a way to throw open all the windows and doors and let the fresh air of awareness sweep it clean.” –Jon Kabat-Zinn

This practice is a guided tour of the body, pausing in silence to hold attention on each body part in turn. Participants explore the physical sensations of skin against clothing, muscle, bones, tendons, organs and blood pulsing in veins.  They are encouraged to keep looking even deeper toward sensations that might normally go under the radar, such as moisture, dryness, temperature, itching, and body processes like digestion and elimination. Some but not all respond to the cue, “feel the body from the inside out” by making contact with even more subtle sensations of prickling, tingling, vibrating, buzzing, or humming of “life force energy”. In the body scan practice; all sensations are welcome visitors and objects to be held with kindness and curiosity.

Of course in the beginning nobody makes it very far along their journey from head to toe without running into some resistance or distraction along the way.  A benign sensation of the thigh making contact with the ground could spontaneously trigger a stream of judgments about the body part- wishing it were smaller, stronger or more shapely. Participants report thoughts that spiral unconsciously into planning a new workout routine, ridding the pantry of junk food and planning a trip to Bali next year to show off the future new thighs. By the time awareness catches up with the wandering thoughts and moves back to the body, the guidance of the body scan might have already moved all the way up to the shoulders! With practice, participants are able to start making the distinction between thoughts and emotions about their body and the actual direct experience of body sensations.

Another common challenge people face in the body scan is with falling asleep. Imagine lying on the floor after a long day for an extended period, while being guided by a soothing voice. It’s a perfect recipe for a nap! Participants who regularly snooze through half their body often report feeling like some sort of failure. “I just can’t do the body scan.” They’re comforted to know that I too fell asleep at some point during just about every body scan for a full year. And you know what they say about those people who fall asleep during meditation, right? …They must be tired.  One way to work with this is to simply accept that the sleepiness is here right now and to celebrate the moments we can be present to the body. Another option is to open the eyes during the body scan or choose a posture that invites more wakefulness such as sitting with an erect spine.

But one thing is for sure, you won't cultivate Interoceptive Awareness by reading about it! So are you ready to give it a try yourself? If you don't have the time now, download the free guided meditation and schedule some time to practice it later today.