The Other Senses: Interoception

Senses are the pathways through which the brain processes information from the surrounding environment, a process commonly referred to as “perceiving.” It’s important to know that each sense is a system of sensory cells that corresponds to a particular region of the brain where signals are received and then interpreted. In humans, there is much sensory apparatus beyond the five senses. Today, we are focusing on Interoception, which is the sense of internal processes occurring in the body, such as hunger, thirst, fullness, nausea, heart rate, breathing, body temperature, arousal, and the need to use the bathroom.

Interoception is also connected to awareness of our own emotions because our bodies react physiologically to various emotions. Certain emotions make our heart rate increase (fear, excitement, sexual arousal), our stomach flutter (nervousness or anxiety), our muscles tighten (anger, stress, the need to mobilize) or relax (comfort, calm, relief). When we lack the capacity to interpret sensory feedback, we become confused about which physical sensation or emotion we are experiencing.

How does interoception work?

All throughout our bodies, in our organs, muscles, skin, bones, and elsewhere, there are small receptors that gather information to report information about the inside of our body to our brains. When our interoception is working properly, our brain helps organizes this information so that we can react appropriately to what we are feeling physically or emotionally.

How does interoception affect your child’s behavior?

Interoception is such a basic sense that it is most often taken for granted, but for children with Interoceptive Discrimination Disorder, a form of sensory processing disorder (SPD), it is very difficult to distinguish internal feelings from external ones. These children may believe that something originating in their own bodies is caused by something in the environment. This can result in difficulties in self-regulation and in inappropriate behavior. If your child doesn’t know that she’s hungry, for example, she may simply feel irritable or frustrated. For obvious reasons, children with interoceptive difficulties often have difficulty getting toilet-trained.

Interoception Has a Major Influence on Self-Regulation

Our interoceptive system lets us know when our internal balance is off so that we can restore its balance by, for example, drinking when we’re thirsty, or putting on a sweater when we’re cold. When our internal signals get crossed, we don’t know which actions to take to make ourselves more comfortable so we may keep eating when we’re actually full, or refuse to sleep when we’re actually tired. For those with interoceptive disorders, not only is self-awareness negatively affected, but the ability to understand the feelings and behavior of others may be disrupted.

Types of Interoceptive Disorders

To make the situation even more challenging, different individuals may respond to mixed interoceptive signals in several ways:

Defensiveness
Some children are hypersensitive to interoceptive input and may do whatever they can to subdue these sensations. They may, for example, avoid strenuous exercise because they experience the resulting increased heart rate as painful or frightening.

Under-responsiveness

Conversely, some children are under-responsive to interoception and therefore neglect to eat when they are hungry or go to the bathroom when they feel the urge to urinate or defecate. They may also be unable to sense the urgency of the present need.
Seeking Interoceptive Input

Sometimes children seek an abnormal level of interoceptive input. They may enjoy the feeling of a racing heart brought on by bursts of activity or enjoy the sensation of hunger or of needing to eliminate. This can lead to inappropriate responses to natural sensations and may be irritating and disturbing to their parents.

Ways to Address Interoceptive Disorders

The first thing to do if you suspect your child is dealing with an interoceptive disorder is to consult with a professional psychologist/behavioral therapist. A group of activities known as “a sensory diet” can be very helpful. If integrated in your child’s play on a daily basis, these activities can assist with your child’s attention, arousal and adaptive responses.