What is Interoception?

Important Interoception Questions Answered by Kelly Mahler, MS, OTR/L

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?

Are your muscles tense or loose?

How does your stomach feel?

We are able to notice all of these sensations with the help of our little-known, but very important, eighth sensory system, Interoception.

How does the interoceptive system work?

There are little receptors located throughout the inside or our body, in our organs and muscles and 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 allows us to feel our emotions.

How is interoception connected to our emotions?

Typically, each emotion feels differently in the body. For example, before speaking in public, the heart may race, the muscles may feel tense and shaky, the breathing may become shallow, and the stomach may feel fluttery. These sensations let us know that we are feeling a bit nervous. Without clearly feeling these sensations, it is difficult to identify emotions with clarity.

How does interoception influence self-regulation?

When the interoceptive system is properly working, the sensations alert us that our internal balance is off and motivates us to take action, to do something that will restore the balance and help us feel more comfortable. For example, if we feel an itch – we scratch it; if we feel full – we stop eating; if we feel anxious – we seek comfort; if we feel frustrated—we seek help. Interoception underlies our urge for action. If we feel that our internal balance is off, we are motivated to act, to seek immediate relief from the discomfort caused by the imbalance.

Is interoception important to any other areas?

In addition to self-regulation, interoception is clearly linked to many other important skill areas including self-awareness, problem-solving, intuition, flexibility of thought, social awareness and perspective taking. The research showing just how important interoception is to many aspects of life is unequivocal. The book Interoception: The Eighth Sensory System Practical Solutions for Improving Self-Regulation, Self-Awareness and Social Understanding of Individuals With Autism Spectrum and Related Disorders delivers an overview of this research and describes the clear link between Interoception and these important skill areas.

What do we know about Interoception and Autism?

As with other sensory systems, the interoceptive system can be impacted in individuals with autism. Interoception is a hot topic in other fields, however, up until this point, little has been discussed about interoception in the field of autism. Interoception: The Eighth Sensory System Practical Solutions for Improving Self-Regulation, Self-Awareness and Social Understanding of Individuals With Autism Spectrum and Related Disorders provides a detailed connection between interoception and common experiences of individuals with autism.

What else does the book offer?

Interoception: The Eighth Sensory System Practical Solutions for Improving Self-Regulation, Self-Awareness and Social Understanding of Individuals With Autism Spectrum and Related Disorders includes a chapter on assessment and outlines three new assessment tools for use when evaluating the interoceptive experience of individuals with autism. Additionally, this book concludes with an entire chapter dedicated to providing practical strategies for improving interoception.  

Could interoception be a missing link in the field of autism? The evidence suggests so. Interoception: The Eighth Sensory System Practical Solutions for Improving Self-Regulation, Self-Awareness and Social Understanding of Individuals With Autism Spectrum and Related Disorders provides a thorough opener to this important conversation.