The sixth sensory frontier


Express News Service

You may be up to speed with all the five senses— touch, smell, sight, hearing, and taste. But how well can you make sense of the sixth sense —that inner state that manages body temperature, hunger, thirst, the cardiovascular system, lungs, gut, bladder and kidneys? It’s called interoception and most people are oblivious to it. “This ‘hidden’ sense processes signals from the brain to the viscera,” says Delhi-based psychologist Kunal Rastogi, who specialises in the treatment of audio-visual deficits. Interoception is crucial for promoting a sense of happiness, security and health.

To see whether or not you are in touch with it, undertake a simple experiment. Sit comfortably in a place where there is no noise. Close your eyes and become aware of your breath. Do you feel your heart beating? Can you count the number of pulsations? If you find it hard to notice this, you need to wake up. Now.

The mental goal-keeper
Most of our psychological operations are dependent on the body’s regulatory signals from the brain. Interoception facilitates this. It influences decision-making, emotional wellbeing, reflexes, urges adaptive responses, and social conduct. “Disruption leads to anxiety disorders, fluctuations in mood, erratic eating, addictions, incoherent thinking and unpredictable behaviour,” says Rastogi.

Research on interoception has picked pace in the last decade. Neuroscientists seem keen on understanding its function better. “One of the primary reasons for the interest in it is that interoception benefits therapists and patients alike. It’s a strong therapeutic tool that allows you to experience your psychological state fully, thus preempting a breakdown. All you need to do is tune in,” explains Rastogi.  
Much of interoception is a subconscious process so don’t blame yourself for not noticing the signals. The good thing is that it can be built whenever you decide to. It’s an automatic feedback system that mostly runs on autopilot. But consciously recognising sensations such as muscle tension, teeth clenching, a growling stomach, shallow or heavy breathing, and more can prevent several medical conditions in the long-run.

Controller of the physical body

Interoception’s main physiological function is homeostasis, a process responsible for maintaining internal living systems. It enables important biological functions such as hunger, feeling of satiety, feeling cold or hot, stressed or distressed. “If your body is undergoing pain, interoception will prompt you to take action immediately,” says Rastogi.

Managing oneself
One of the critical roles of interoception is self-regulation. It helps people adapt, adjust, prepare and progress in their day-to-day lives. Not being able to do so is the first sign of this sixth sense 
being off-focus. Goa-based Davis Alex had an impaired interoception. Having suffered a traumatic childhood, he now lives with Post-traumatic Stress Disorder and abandonment fears.

“He lost his power to emote three years back. His prefrontal cortex—the area of the brain responsible for processing feelings—got damaged overtime because of the stress he was living under. Alex hardly emotes. He has lost his power to self-regulate,” says Mumbai-based psychiatrist Mridula Kapila. In Alex’s case, the damage was caused by an event from his past but there are instances where people have reduced or impaired interoceptive sensations without any kind of trauma. “This can turn into a serious problem because if you are out of touch with this crucial process, you won’t be able to articulate your feelings and hence, make choices to change your situation.

Get on top of the game
Mindfulness can improve interoceptive awareness. “Watch your thoughts and comprehend the root cause of emotions,” suggests Kapila. “Identify the signals your body sends by silencing your mouth and mind. Locate the feeling inside your body. It just requires practice. Certain breathing techniques can help identify these emotions. Once you are aware of these sensations, take action,” shares Kapila. The easiest way is to move and release the tension. Stretch, meditate or take a walk to change your state of mind. Regular workouts are known to strengthen these signals. The more you do it, the better you will get at staying connected to your inner physician.

How interception helps

✥ It helps us become aware of the physical sensations in our body such as discomfort, displeasure, restlessness, anger, hunger, thirst, decision-making etc
✥ This stimuli prompts us to take quick action and break patters
✥ Several mental and physical conditions can thus be avoided by simply staying in touch with ourselves

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