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What is Interoception? Understanding the Neuroscience Behind Self-Awareness

The human mind is comprised of complex interactions between cognitive skills, thoughts, emotions, and perceptions. Among the many fascinating aspects of our consciousness, there is a function called “interoception.” Interoception is a critical component of our self-awareness. It refers to our ability to perceive and understand the internal sensations of our body, allowing us to maintain balance, recognize and regulate emotions, understand signals from our bodies, and more. In this article, we delve into the intriguing concept of interoception and explore its ties to neuroscience.

Understanding interoception

Interoception is the process by which our brain interprets signals from various internal bodily systems, such as the cardiovascular, respiratory, and digestive systems. These signals provide essential information about our physiological state, including heart rate, breathing, temperature, and hunger. Unlike our senses of sight, hearing, taste, touch, and smell, which focus on external stimuli, interoception is about turning our attention inward.

 

Interoception provides us with information about purely physical needs, such as hunger, but it also relates to emotions. If you’ve experienced a “gut feeling” then that was interoception! A sensation of “butterflies in your stomach” may inform you of a feeling such as excitement or nervousness. These physical sensations related to emotions provide highly valuable information and can influence our decision-making.

The neuroscience behind self-awareness

The neural mechanisms underlying interoception and self-awareness are intricate. The brain regions involved in these processes include:

 

Insular Cortex: This region is crucial for processing interoceptive signals. It receives and integrates information from the body, allowing us to perceive bodily sensations and emotions.

 

Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC): The ACC is associated with monitoring and regulating emotions. It plays a key role in self-awareness, conflict resolution, and decision-making processes.


Prefrontal Cortex: The prefrontal cortex is responsible for high-level cognitive functions, including introspection, self-reflection, and self-referential processing.

How self-awareness may become impaired

Interoception and one’s sense of self-awareness could become impaired from various conditions. Psychiatric conditions such as depression or schizophrenia can contribute to difficulty recognizing bodily signals. This can cause emotions to feel confusing or difficult to interpret, and contribute to impaired mood regulation.

 

Impaired interoception surrounding signals of hunger and fullness can also be a symptom of eating disorders.

 

The promising news is that interoception is an intriguing emerging topic in the neuroscience world. Recent interest in the topic could lead to improved psychological treatments for conditions such as mood disorders and eating disorders.

Conclusion

Interoception is a fundamental aspect of our consciousness, facilitating self-awareness. The relationships between the brain regions involved in processing internal signals support our understanding of self and others.

 

Understanding these processes may lead to new therapeutic approaches for conditions such as anxiety, depression, and body image disorders. Embracing our interoceptive abilities can help us live with more self-knowledge and even empathy, fostering a strong connection with ourselves and the world around us.

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