Interoception: This ‘sixth sense’ could be key to better mental health

How our brains interpret signals from within the body has a surprisingly big influence on the mind, an insight that is leading to new ways to tackle conditions like depression, anxiety and eating disorders

Health 2 February 2022

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Brett Ryder

LYING in the dark, my senses are straining for inputs and finding none. I am floating in warm, salty water that is so close to my body temperature, I can’t tell where my body ends and the water begins. After a while, my senses go quiet and my focus turns inwards. Now, all I am aware of is my breathing and the surprisingly loud beating of my heart.

I am inside a pod-like floatation tank to try to boost my powers of interoception. According to a growing body of research, interoceptive sensations – those that originate from within the body, from its tissues, organs and chemicals circulating in the bloodstream – hold the key not only to better mental well-being, but to revolutionary new treatments for common, yet hard-to-treat conditions like depression, anxiety and eating disorders. With several now in clinical trials, it is a change of direction that could see the focus on the brain alone in mental health become a thing of the past, offering hope of progress for millions.

In recent years, it has become clear that to really understand mental health, you need to factor in just how much the brain cares about what is going on below the neck. For any animal, survival depends on how well it can detect physical changes that may signal a threat and to take appropriate action to get things back on track. Interoception is a bit like our sixth sense – the ability to detect these bodily changes, from heartbeat to changing concentrations of certain hormones in the blood, as well as the psychological expression of these as feelings and emotions. …

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