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Sensory Tools: Interoception

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Sensory Tools: Interoception

By Shane Sauer

So far in this blog series, we’ve been discussing all of the ways your brain receives information.  We started with vision, moved onto the inner ear and most recently discussed proprioception.  For this final blog on sensory inputs, we’re going to dive even deeper into the body.

Interoceptive signals help your body regulate its natural functions—like breathing, digestion, blood pressure, and heart rate. Many of the same sensory mechanisms (like chemical and pressure receptors) are used in both proprioception and interoception. So, let’s distinguish them this way:

  • Proprioception – Internal signals that help your brain understand and control voluntary movement
  • Interoception – Internal signals used to control basic, automatic life functions

Interoception is almost completely subconscious. None of us has to THINK about keeping our heart going . Most interoceptive signals come from your organs or viscera, without you even realizing it.

Since all of this happens  without you needing to think about it, why should you care? If you remember, your brain’s first and most important job is survival. Until your brain thinks you’re safe, it’s won’t let you do cool, fun things like run fast, jump high or (in extreme cases) get out of bed.

Basic life functions are most important for your survival, so suppling your brain with some clear signals from your viscera is worth it. Here are a few things that better interoception can help:

  1. Chronic back and neck pain – Up to 80% of chronic aches and pains are now thought to be viscerally derived.  In other words, when your organs don’t communicate well with the brain directly, their signals of distress get interpreted as other pains.
     
  2. Gut dysfunction – This is something that can have many causes. But, interoception is in charge of keeping your gut functioning properly, so it plays a role in any gut issue.
     
  3. Disconnection from your body – Many people don’t feel “right” in their own skin. Your “connectedness” to your body and your purpose lives in your insular cortex, the first place interoceptive signals go. If those signals are poor or weak, you might “lose” your connection to yourself.
     
  4. Generalized Anxiety – When your interoceptive system, which is how your brain monitors survival functions, is somehow off, it makes sense that you might be chronically stressed or anxious.

Your body’s vagus nerve, or “wandering nerve” is enormous and innervates almost everything—from your brain stem to your colon.  (It’s getting a lot of attention these days for its role in with reducing inflammation, headaches and immune disorders.) But before you go out and buy a vagus nerve stimulator, give this a shot:

Belly Breathe! 

Yes, the yogis are on to something. Breathing is essential to life.  You can go weeks without food, days without water, but only minutes without breathing. Given how crucial breathing is, it’s surprising that your brain lets you control it consciously. But since it does, let’s use it to help boost your interoception. Belly breathing means that your diaphragm descends and presses down on your organs as you inhale.  This movement sends tons of interoceptive signals up the vagus nerve.  Give it a try!!

I could write a number of blogs (and probably will) on the other ways this simple breathing exercise can benefit your brain function and health. But for today realize that stimulating your vagus nerve is completely under your own control and helping yourself with some serious issues might only be a breath away.

Check out this video that exapnds on and takes a deeper look at the information presented in this blog.
You can find also find other videos from MATRIX Personalized Fitness on YouTube.