Interoception: 5 things we learnt from cognitive neuroscientist Dr Jane Aspell

Dr Jane Aspell is a cognitive neuroscientist whose ground-breaking research is helping us understand more about how we sense changes from inside our body, such as our heartbeat, feelings of hunger or breathing. This inner sense is often referred to as interoception. We recently caught up with Dr Aspell for a chat about her research and the insights it can provide us. Here are five things we learnt.

1. Greater interoceptive awareness is linked to better body image

Worrying about body image is a common issue that affects many people. It refers to the thoughts and beliefs we have about ourselves, particularly in relation to how others view us. However, interoception research shows us that (as much as it sounds like a cliché) it’s what’s inside that really counts. Studies have shown that better interoceptive awareness is linked to more positive body image. 1

We don’t fully know why yet, but the theory is that a lack of interoceptive awareness might result in a weak sense of self, so we end up paying more attention to our outer appearance. Another potential explanation is that a better sense of what’s going on inside us allows us to appreciate more the function of our bodies, their health and how they work, rather than just how they look.

2. Emotions help keep us alive

Emotions, like fear and happiness, help keep us alive. These inner body sensations help us place value on things we perceive as being good or bad for us. For instance, if we like how healthy food makes us feel, giving us energy and filling us up, we’ll associate a positive emotion with it. We’ll be more likely to gravitate towards it in the future, improving our health in the long run.

On the other hand, emotions also help us avoid things that might do us harm. If we experience fear when we see a poisonous snake or other threat, our heartrate will increase. By moving more oxygen and fuel around the body, fear is helping us prepare to escape from danger.

Find out more about intercoeption in our full interview with Dr Aspell below

3. Misreading internal sensations and emotions can be detrimental to our health

Sometimes we might misread changes inside our body, and this can lead us to confuse emotions, such as excitement and fear. We may also experience fear of everyday things we can’t run away from, such as bills, exams or even our own internal sensations. Over time, this can result in unhelpful phobias and we may experience long-term stress and anxiety, which can be detrimental to our health. But…

4. We can train ourselves to become better at understanding our emotions

Research has found that people who are more aware of their inner body sensations are better at understanding their emotions.2 It’s also been discovered that we can train ourselves to become better at understanding our emotions by improving our interoception.3 We can do this through simple exercises, such as a body scan.

5. Interoception not only benefits us, it can benefit others

Dr Aspell carried out a study into generosity and interoception. The study uncovered a very strong correlation between higher inner body awareness and greater levels of generosity.4 We’re all aware of the benefits interoception can offer us, but it’s fascinating to find out that being more in tune with your inner body sensations can be beneficial to others too.

Find out more

For more fascinating interviews with experts on interoception and inner body awareness, head over to our Inner Sense YouTube channel. And if you’d like more insights and tips on how to live improve your overall wellbeing, please sign up to the Restoring Balance newsletter.

Sources and references

  1. For a collection of these – see Jane’s Lab
  2. Chen, W. G., Schloesser, D., Arensdorf, A. M., Simmons, J. M., Cui, C., Valentino, R., ... & Langevin, H. M. (2021). The emerging science of interoception: sensing, integrating, interpreting, and regulating signals within the self. Trends in neurosciences, 44(1), 3-16.
  3. Bornemann, B., & Singer, T. (2017). Taking time to feel our body: Steady increases in heartbeat perception accuracy and decreases in alexithymia over 9 months of contemplative mental training. Psychophysiology, 54(3), 469-482.
  4. [1] Piech, R.M., Strelchuk, D., Knights, J., Hjälmheden, J.V., Olofsson, J.K. & Aspell, J.E., 2017. People with higher interoceptive sensitivity are more altruistic, but improving interoception does not increase altruism. Scientific Reports, 7:15652.