UNDER THE SKIN
Interoception, exteroception and proprioception are three aspects of sense perception that lie along a continuum of attention.
Exteroception is the awareness of external stimuli—sights, sounds, smells, tastes and tangible objects. (This externally-directed focus is where we allocate most of our attention.) Proprioception is the awareness of where our body is in space. And interoception is the awareness of what is going on inside our bodies. It can refer both to the perception of physical sensations, such as pain, temperature, sexual arousal and muscle tightness, and to the sensations that accompany emotions, like fear, jealousy, excitement and surprise.
These sensations give us information about how to act. Dry lips indicate that we need to drink more water, a full bladder signals that we should get to a bathroom sharpish and feelings of desire embolden us to chat up that pretty girl or guy at the bar.
Interoception, therefore, connects the mind and body.
HOW WE LOSE IT
1. The power of habit
“The chains of habit are generally too small to be felt until they are too strong to be broken.” Samuel Johnson
By the time we reach adulthood, interoceptive powers have lost some of their acuity. Much of what we do day-to-day has become habitual and unconscious as this allows us to live useful and productive lives. We eat because it’s lunchtime and not because we feel dizzy and close to passing out. We put on warm clothes in the winter without needing to walk outside naked every morning and do a quick temperature check. We don’t wait until we can’t physically keep our eyes open before we start getting ready for bed. This ain’t our first rodeo.
Unfortunately, the cost of all this efficiency and automaticity is that our lives become smaller. We repeat the same behaviours day after day, closing off the possibility of serendipitous and unpredictable events and leaving ourselves vulnerable to bad habits and addictions.
2. Avoidance of pain
“Do not hide unwanted things in the fog.” Jordan Peterson
Experiencing physical pain—most commonly in the, lower back, neck, shoulders or as recurring headaches—is something that we have learned to accept. We take painkillers when the pain gets really bad and otherwise find ways to numb the discomfort. We have busy lives to live, people depend on us and treatment can be time-consuming and expensive.
Unfortunately, when it comes to physical pain, burying our head in the sand is rarely the smartest play. Pain is a message from our body that damage has either already occurred or is likely to soon, and urgent attention may be required. Serious issues arise when we find a way to block out the signals and continue to repeat patterns that are exacerbating our injury. We continue cycling to work every day despite the searing pains that shoot down the back of one leg, or run at the weekends even though it predictably triggers pain in our left knee or push ourselves to the max at CrossFit before our shoulder injury has fully healed.
It’s not hard to understand why we try to tune out painful physical sensations but it’s often not an effective long-term solution. When we soldier on through injuries, we can end up enduring lasting damage and if we ignore the symptoms of illness, we might end up delaying treatment until it’s too late.
3. Comfortably numb
“Mr. Duffy lived a short distance from his body.” James Joyce
Another reason that we let our interoceptive skills atrophy is because some feelings are just too painful to bear. We anaesthetise ourselves from unpleasant emotions with alcohol, caffeine and other soothing but addictive substances. We distract ourselves with busy-ness, retail therapy and workaholism. We build walls to protect ourselves from repeating painful experiences like heartbreak, abandonment and failure. And these strategies work. For a while. Unfortunately, however, in the long-term, they’re no more useful than a Band-Aid on a broken collarbone. The only way to heal really painful emotions is to face them head on. Lean into them. Drag those monsters out from under the bed where you can see them. You’ll find that they’re far less scary in the clear light of day.
When we choose to ignore or suppress painful emotions, our bodies learn quick. They become quiet. Distress signals become harder to detect and our ability to listen in is diminished. We become detached, disconnected and disembodied. We start to live too much in our heads, taunted by our relentless inner critic. We lose access to aspects of our personality that might open us up to emotional distress, like vulnerability, authenticity and an adventurous spirit. We lose the ability to regulate our emotions—to cheer ourselves up, resist impulsive behaviours or catch ourselves before flying into a rage. We are less and less able to adapt with grace to an ever-changing environment and without the ability to perceive or process these difficult emotions, we live with chronically elevated stress levels and our relationships suffer.
4. Distinguishing signal from noise
“Here, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!” Alice In Wonderland
There are also environmental factors at play in our increasing difficulty to hear the still, small voices within. We live in a fast, noisy world, saturated with constant and unrelenting stimulation. Music blasts in shops, TVs stream content in airport lounges, our media is set to infinite scroll and there’s a whole industry devoted to designing foods that we find it impossible to stop eating. We are encouraged to live loud, stand out and make an impact. Stillness is interpreted as laziness, staying quiet as a lack of conviction, a desire for solitude as a flaw in our personality.
This onslaught on our senses makes it almost impossible to find the time or space we need to tune in. The external stimuli are just too powerful and unfortunately, the agendas of the instigators rarely align with our own. The result is that we’re almost always distracted. Distracted from the present. Distracted from our bodies. And confused about how we truly feel inside without all this commotion. We crave time in nature. And more and more of us are finding solace in meditation, fasting and other spiritual practices that allow us the opportunity to slow down, tune in and listen up.
5. The biohacking revolution
“Try to arrange things so that you can have a reasonable bit of quiet every day.” Evelyn Underhill
Out of convenience and an over-abundance of information, we have learned to outsource aspects of our lives that previously required finely-tuned interoception. We outsource our diet to New York Times bestselling authors, learning to distrust our own fullness and hunger cures. We outsource our exercise to one-size-fits-all fitness programs that establish muscular imbalances that lead to pain and dysfunction. We outsource our media consumption to algorithms optimised to harvest our data for profit. We outsource disease management to inaccurate DNA tests and our sense of direction to our smartphones. Over time, we become the passive recipients of life rather than its active creators.
There are endless tracking devices available that can tell you what’s going on in your body—your steps, heart rate, REM cycles and breathing patterns—but there is so much more information that you can glean from raw physical sensations when you have done the work to re-sensitise. And your intuition, unlike your smart phone or your fitness tracker, is never going to run out of batteries or need a stronger wifi signal.
In part two, we’ll look at what we have to gain if we commit to tuning back in.