The Art & Science of Interoception
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The Art & Science of Interoception

What if I told you that you could turn up the dial of your everyday experience? With sufficient practice, you could enhance your capacity to sense and track your internal state, as if you were upgrading from a 1960s television to experiencing the movie of your life at an IMAX in 4K.

This is the power of interoception—yet most people have never heard of it.

A personal or health crisis often facilitates radical shifts in perspective, and my own journey was no exception.

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Five years ago, I was living with my fiancé in the English coastal town of Brighton, where she worked as a doctor. She had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder before we met, yet for the most part, she was bursting at the seams with life, with a mischievous grin and luminous presence.

One morning, while I was traveling, she suffered from an anxiety attack at work. In the intensity of that moment and without friends or family present to intervene, she rode home and overdosed on her own medication — taking her own life.

As I embarked on the long process of dealing with the pain of this loss, I began to explore parts of myself—the repressed emotions and authentic expressions—that had lain beneath my conscious awareness. I was afraid that if I didn’t learn how to metabolize my grief, it would lead me to become bitter and perhaps unable to love fully again.

One of my more profound realizations—and gifts of grief—was that I had unknowingly spent the vast majority of my life living in my head and emotionally numb from the neck down.

Growing up in the British education system, Somatic Literacy 101—aka learning how to listen to your internal physical and biological feedback—was, unsurprisingly, not part of the core curriculum. So over the past five years, I dedicated myself to exploring the psychological and emotional terrain of my inner landscape. This path has included hundreds of breathwork journeys, guided psychedelic experiences, a vision quest, and 10 days of meditating inside a dark room. The most unexpectedly potent experience was learning how to freedive down to 120 feet underwater with a single breath. To equalize — aka relieve the pressure that builds in the inner ear and sinuses as a result of increasing one’s depth below the surface—requires a refined, subtle awareness of physical tension, which I came to understand as a form of high-stakes interoception training.

I now feel like an entirely different person. I notice myself making more intuitive decisions, with less emotional reactivity and a sense of greater aliveness in my day-to-day experience.

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We have more than just five senses

As Michael Ashcroft pointed out, the idea that we humans have five senses — sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste—is a belief that dates back 2,000 years to Aristotle.1

Back then, it was a decent guess, but neuroscience has advanced significantly since the days of ancient Greece. It turns out that we have at least four additional senses—and the most underrated and practical of them is known as interoception.

The word has two parts: “intero–” refers to “internal” and “–ception to “awareness.” In essence, it means awareness of our internal state, which includes learned associations, memories, emotions, and all the data running through the interconnected pipelines of the 100 billion neurons in your body.2

Intero-ception can be contrasted with “extero-ception,” which involves receiving data through the external senses. Most of us tend to prioritize external sense data—like endlessly refreshing a newsfeed after dinner when internally, our body is sending signals to recover and begin winding down.

In the center of the brain lies a remarkably sophisticated piece of biological machinery called the insula. This spongy core is the headquarters for cortical representation, which refers to how your brain processes all the information about your internal state.

Imagine that this area of your brain is like one of those gorgeous 16th-century maps that had “here be dragons” scribbled over the yet-to-be-explored areas. In much the same way, you might think of these cortical maps in our brainstems as having smudges all over them that can only be restored and brought into higher definition through interoceptive exploration.

3 reasons to flex your interoceptive muscles

Make more informed decisions

By learning to cultivate internal receptivity, we can listen to the treasure trove of data coming from the activation shifts of neurotransmitters—like adenosine cueing a need for sleep, a change in our breathing mechanics signaling a shift in our arousal response, or just being aware of how rested we feel upon waking and making choices about our day accordingly.

Avoid the burnout dump truck

In the past decade, there has been a hockey stick-shaped increase in research interest in interoception within the scientific community. In my own research on emotional resilience, in which my co-author and I surveyed over 250 leaders worldwide — we observed how a lack of interoceptive capacity tends to be associated with prolonged maladaptive stress responses—research-speak for the highway to burnout.

Prolonged periods of high-stress cause allostatic overload, or accumulated wear and tear on the body, leading to increased fragility in the nervous system. In addition, the stress hormone cortisol numbs us and reduces our ability to interocept, which creates a vicious cycle of diminishing receptivity to our body’s messages.

We call this the “feather, brick, dump truck” phenomenon.4 Often, these high achievers would push through initial fatigue or poor sleep (feather) and again through a minor health crisis (brick) until it took the giant dump truck of complete burnout to convince them to begin listening to their body.

Multiple studies also tie interoceptive abilities with the ability to feel and coregulate with the emotions of others—in other words, the capacity for empathy.

Enhanced emotional regulation

As Dan Shipper has been sharing on Twitter, productivity boils down to emotional regulation, and intentional emotional regulation requires the ability to sense, track, and feel the sensations that get interpreted into emotions—the capacity to interoception

When there is a lack of interoception, we’re unable to fully feel the sensations associated with emotions. Unfortunately, this means they remain beneath our conscious awareness and instead are projected onto others — or we find ourselves emotionally overreacting in ways that are rarely conducive to our long-term goals.

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How to improve your interoception

Imagine that you’re learning how to cook. The process would require you to cultivate sensitivity in your palette that senses six basic tastes — sweet, sour, salty, bitter, savory, and umami. Along these lines, our interoceptive palette includes:

  • Mental (racing thoughts or foggy vs. calm and alert)
  • Awareness (expanded and receptive vs. narrow and protective)
  • Posture (open and relaxed vs. tense and collapsed)
  • Breath (deep, slow, and soft vs. shallow and rapid)
  • Emotion (gratitude, joy, sadness, etc.)

Just as with a chef composing a five-course tasting menu, there is an infinite number of flavor permutations within these categories.

As with training your flavor palette, interoception is a skill that can be cultivated through curiosity and intentional experimentation.

There are four experiments that I’ve used to build my own interoceptive capacity.

Interoceptive self-assessment

As with learning any new skill, it’s helpful to start by creating an objective benchmark against which to measure progress.

The most widely used and cited measure of interoceptive capacity is the Multidimensional Assessment of Interoceptive Awareness (MAIA), a self-report consisting of 37 questions used in studies by neuroscientists and psychologists.6 It’ll give you an idea of how to assess your interoceptive levels objectively—and which areas might need more attention.7 The reader rates statements like “I can stay calm and not worry when I have feelings of discomfort or pain” or “I distract myself from sensations of discomfort” from 1-5 on a scale from “never” to “always.” If you have 10 minutes to print this out and go through it for yourself, you’ll get a good sense of your interoceptive capacity.

Five-minute A.P.E. check-in

A.P.E. is an acronym that I myself coined that stands for “awareness, posture, and emotion”—the three critical components of your interoceptive capacity, all of which can be enhanced through training. By paying attention to these three aspects, you'll bring awareness to the state of your nervous system and, therefore, any subtle filters through which you’ll experience your day. Students going through my training have reported noticeable changes from doing this for just five minutes a day for 30 days. Increased receptivity occurs through neuroplastic shifts that serve to permanently heighten your internal self-awareness. Here’s an example practice:

How is your awareness (A) right now? If you’ve been reading this piece, you might have forgotten about the space above or behind you. Ask yourself if you feel distracted and eager to jump to other tabs or if your awareness is settled. Do you feel sleepy or alert? Focused or frantic?

Turn your attention to P for posture. If you’re reading this on an iPhone, you might be hunched over with a rounded spine. Briefly scan your upper body to see if there are any points of tension. Don’t try to change anything for now—just notice. How does your head feel resting on your neck? How do your jaw, face, and eyes feel? Perhaps there’s some sensation behind the eyes. Can you feel your breath and notice its shape, and its rise and fall? Can you even feel your heartbeat?

Finally, there is E for emotion. Imagine that you’re a scientist objectively reporting on internal sensations or a weatherman giving an update on the weather systems of your own body. Do you feel any noticeable emotions? Recent neuroscience tells us that emotions are just sensations plus context. What might be the emotional tone at this moment? Joy? Curiosity? Sadness? Frustration? Gratitude? Grief? It’s okay if you don’t connect to anything right now; this is only about listening intently to what is already present.

25-minute NSDR

NSDR—or “non-sleep-deep-rest”—is a term coined by Stanford professor Andrew Huberman that uses a technique of guided body scanning to induce a state of waking sleep.

There are many benefits to this practice, but one that is lesser known is its potential to increase interoceptive sensitivity.8 It involves a thorough scan of the inner landscape, bringing awareness to specific points around the body, and has been shown to activate slower brain waves. NSDR has also been shown to flush cortisol and norepinephrine—aka adrenaline—from the system so that your body is naturally primed to be more receptive to the training.9

If Google CEO Sundar Pichai finds time to practice NSDR, as he mentioned in a recent Wall Street Journal interview, then you probably don’t have a good excuse not to try. To experience a guided NSDR for yourself, I’ve recorded this 15-minute guided interoceptive NSDR practice.

Be a scientist of your own experience

Now it’s over to you. How will you take these ideas and apply them to your life? The most effective way to learn is by tuning in to the subtleties of your internal experience during the vicissitudes of daily life. This is especially true when you feel reactive, frustrated, or triggered by something or someone, as these are usually the moments when there is the most to sense, track, and feel.

Learning these practices has radically shifted my life as well as the lives of those I’ve worked with.10

The real magic of interoception is that you can practice it at any moment—whether you’re going for a run, sitting on a train, or walking through a park. As with physical training, you can train your ability to bring your attention inwards and explore.

If you’re interested in training your interoceptive capacity as well as learning evidence-backed protocols to shift your state and cultivate greater calm, the upcoming cohort of my course, Nervous System Mastery, is open for applications until midnight Oct.29. Read on for more details about the curriculum and application.

Jonny Miller hosts the Curious Humans podcast and Nervous System Mastery, a cohort-based training in evidence-based protocols for cultivating calm and resilience.

Gratitude to Kate Lee, Dan Shipper, Paul Millerd, Michael Ashcroft, Caryn Tan, Jonathan Carson, Alex Olshonsky, Pim Ruhe, and Sam Sager for providing feedback on drafts of this essay.

References

1  ‘What’s Really Impacting Your Decision Making’ by Michael Ashcroft (link)

2  'On the Origin of Interoception' by Ceunen et al., 2016,  (link)

3  ‘Interoceptive Awareness Skills for Emotion Regulation: Theory and Approach of Mindful Awareness in Body-Oriented Therapy (MABT)’ by Price & Hooven, 2018, (link)

4  Emotional Resilience in Leadership Report’ by Miller & Chipchase, 2020, (link)

 ‘Interoception and Social Connection’ by Arnold et al., Nov 2019, (link)

6 ‘Multidimensional Assessment of Interoceptive Awareness (MAIA)’ Version 2, 2018, (link)

7  ‘The Multidimensional Assessment of Interoceptive Awareness (MAIA),’ Price et al., Nov 2012, (link)

8 ‘Toolkit for Sleep’ Huberman, Sept 2021, (link)

9 ‘Increased dopamine tone during meditation-induced change of consciousness’ by Kyaer et al. 2002, (link)

10 ‘Reconnecting to the Body’ by movement specialist Sam Sager, 2022 (link)