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, creates a link between the mind and the 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, our powers of interoception 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