When we talk about the senses, we usually think of the five dedicated to the perception of the outside world, i.e. sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch. Thanks to them, we perceive images, sounds, smells and pheromones, flavors, temperatures and physical contact.
However, we often don’t pay attention to an important detail. We can also perceive our interior. Headache, nausea, internal itching, heartbeat, or muscle pain is noticed. And this is attributable to another meaning: interoception. In this article, we will do a brief analysis of this concept.
What is interoception?
By interoception we mean the perception of the internal state of the organism, providing information on the functioning or dysfunction of the viscera and internal organs. It is a sense that helps us maintain homeostasis or bodily balance. Although often underestimated, interoception is something vital for survival: thanks to it, we can perceive that we are injured, that something is wrong with our body, that we need more. oxygen, that we need to drink water or eat, or that we are sexually aroused.
Although it is sometimes separated from interoception, the perception of pain or nociception it would also be included in the ability to detect changes in body balance.
And not only that: while interoception is generally considered to be a purely physiological thing, the truth is that it is largely related to the experience of emotions. For example, it is not easy to determine whether one feels disgusted if the emotion of dissatisfaction is not accompanied by gastric-like sensations. And it is important to be able to manage our emotions and our behavior on our own according to the situation in which we live and what it awakens in our body. It is also related to the perception of oneself as one’s own entity.
In order to be able to perceive the stimulation, there must be some type of element responsible for detecting it. In other words, there must be some kind of biological receptor.
Interoceptive receptors are found throughout the body, usually in all major organs and blood vessels. They are found in the endoderm. The interoceptive system does not use a single type of receptor, but collects information from mechanoreceptors (sensitive to strain), thermoceptors (which sense temperature), baroreceptors (sensitive to blood pressure) or nociceptors (which capture cell disruption). And send sensations of pain) and reports the state of the organ or organs in question (these receptors can be affected by different stimuli or situations depending on the specific organ we are talking about).
These are usually receptors that remain silent, unless some alteration occurs that activates them and causes them to respond by sending signals. For example, we usually don’t understand that our heart goes faster or slower unless we are nervous or accelerated, or that we lack water unless their lack causes them to generate sensations (which will cause the nervous system to trigger the perception of thirst to compensate.
Body systems in which this sensory function has been studied
The meaning of interoception extends to almost all of the organs and tissues of the body. However, the role of this sense has been explored more often in some specific bodily systems.
1. Cardiovascular system
The system that has received the most research attention. In this way, interoceptive information allows us to have cardiac-like sensations like heart rate or acceleration, or blood pressure levels. This is information that allows us to realize, for example, that we are having a heart attack, or that our pulse is quickening.
The perception of alterations in this system is based mainly on the action of the heart, sending information to somatosensory receptors in the chest. At the brain level, it is speculated that the right hemisphere may be more related to conscious processing of cardiac information, but research has not reflected the existence of conclusive data in this regard.
2. Respiratory system
Pulmonary interoception is another of the most studied, also linked to a large number of possible sensations perceived. Stretching and dilation, irritation and bulk, pressure and movement are some of the information captured. too much we can grasp the existence of obstructions.
3. Gastrointestinal system
Movement, distension, temperature or even chemoception are some of the sensations associated with interoception of the digestive tract. Although much of the information processed in this system is generally conscious, it has been observed that some small stimuli may not generate conscious perception.
Interoception is a feeling of great importance that allows us to adjust our behavior to what is happening inside our body. However, not everyone works well, which can cause them different problems.
These alterations can be by excess or by default: there can be a hypersensitivity which causes the activation of the interoceptive receptors with little stimulation or the non activation of the receptors, which would make it greatly difficult to adjust the behavioral response.
This is what happens to people with congenital insensitivity to pain with anhidrosis or CIPA, not being able to perceive the suffering caused by the stimulation and (usually) temperature. We can also see that interoception is impaired in various psychiatric conditions, such as some hallucinations of psychotic episodes or manic episodes. Finally, the consumption of certain drugs and / or intoxication by a toxic element can alter the interoceptive capacity of the organism.
- Quirós, P .; Grzib, G. and Conde, P. (2000). Neurophysiological basis of interoception. Journal of Psychology. Gral. I Applic., 53 (1): 109-129