Sensory Processing, Felt Sense, and Emotional Regulation
By: T. Franklin Murphy | March 5, 2022
Our brain constantly receives information flowing from many sources. Our senses scan environments, capture data, and create meaning, make predictions, and motivate appropriate action. Information flow isn’t just from the external environments. Inside our bodies organs are constantly at work. Receptors inside our organs, including our skin, send information to our brain. Our brain is constantly integrating diverse flows of information between outside and inside occurrences. This process is largely unconscious, at least to start.
Many new findings in mindfulness studies examine the impact of bringing these interoception processes to awareness. Mindfulness is focusing on internal sensations, limiting or ignoring outside distractions to experience feeling. The process to bring inner sensations into consciousness is referred to as interoceptive awareness.
Feeling Affects, Emotions and Organ Sensations
Emotions begin in the body. Our organs react, changing chemical production, producing feeling affects. Messages though out the body flow into brain regions where bodily changes are integrated with contextual information, and memories from past experiences. A volley of predictions form, trying to make sense of the data, and budget energy for an effective response. Lisa Feldman Barrett explains, “your brain weighs its predictions based on probabilities; they compete to explain what caused your sensations, and they determine what you perceive, how you act, and what you feel in this situation” (2017, p. 93).
Feeling affects, the building blocks of larger concepts of emotion, begin in the organs. Our bodies constantly provide troves of information about our surroundings, simply by the changes in the organs. Our ability to tap this information through effective interoceptive channels improves our reaction to stress, limiting prediction errors, and opening opportunities for healthy emotional regulation.
“Interoception helps you understand and feel what’s going on inside your body. For instance, you know if your heart is beating fast or if you need to breathe more deeply. You’re able to tell if you need to use the bathroom. You know if you’re hungry, full, hot, cold, thirsty, nauseated, itchy, or ticklish.”Amanda Morin | Understood
Felt Sense and Interoception
Philosopher Eugene Gendlin developed the concept of a felt sense, providing steps leading to interoceptive awareness. He calls refers to this practice as focusing, which establishes a conscious connection between the mind and body. People experiencing felt sense, according to the theory, feel more in tune with their body and bodily processes. The goal behind moving sensations from the unconscious realm of body function to conscious awareness is to create conceptualizations of feeling experience that adaptively correspond with conscious goals beyond short term reactive responses to discomforting sensations.
Interoception, Stress Response System, and Homeostatic Balance
Hans Selye pioneered stress research. His general adaptation theory on stress materialized from many fields of study, integrating great insights. Stress, Selye theorized, “occurs when the demands made on an organism…” (Maté, 2011, Kindle location 575). Basically, we encounter experiences in the world, our bodies react (organs respond). This process is termed stress. Stress, Selye postulated, is first felt in the alarm stage (fight, flight, or shutting down). The stress knocks the body out of its comfortable homeostatic balance. Our behavioral reactions to the stress are attempts to reign in the outlying feeling affects, regain homeostatic balance, and return to a more comfortable state. This is the stress response system in action.
Interoceptive awareness may assist in this process. Cindy Price and Carole Hooven wrote, “there is a complex relationship between interoception and stress.” They explain that, “being responsive to interoceptive information allows an individual to be aware of an emotion cue early, and therefore to process, interpret and strategize at the onset of stressful events” (2018). A staple of wellness is healthy integration of multiple processes. This includes inner and outer information. The theory is that we predict the impact of behavioral consequences on inner experience. Basically, we decide whether certain behaviors will maintain homeostatic balance (or bring us back into balance).
Based on these predictions, we act. Jose M. Araya explains, “the difference between sensory predictions and the incoming sensory signals is known as prediction error” (2019). Our brain, according to predictive processing theories, is intimately involved in the process of prediction and evaluating the success and failures of those predictions by comparing subsequent interoceptive information. As Araya puts it, “All that the brain does, in all its functions, is to minimize prediction error (2019).
Araya explains that the “mind is constantly trying to minimize the discrepancy between expectations and the info coming from sensory signals” (2019). Sometimes minimizing discrepancy is done through updating predictions based on new sensory information. Barrett teaches that these prediction errors are not problems. She explains, “they are a normal part of the operating instructions of you brain as it take in sensory input” (2017, p. 62).
Another way we may lessen the cognitive dissonance between predictions and sensory information is to filter information from either the external environment or interoception. We ignore conflicting feedback and stick with our original predictions.
Conditions Interfering with Interoception
Interoception is not a given. Biological and psychological processes may interfere, dulling communication between the body and brain. The ruptured connections may interfere with evaluating and updating faulty predictions. We may get stuck in ruts of unhealthy action that betray our worthy goals of self improvement. Alexithymia, the inability to recognize the subtleties and textures of emotions, is one of these impediments. Psychological trauma may also interfere. Body signals may overwhelm and defensive mechanisms intervene, curbing the arousal from interoceptive messages.
How to Improve Interoception
The good news is we can improve interoception awareness. Many therapies have foundations of building these skills.
Araya, J., & , (2019). Emotion and the predictive mind: Emotions as (almost) drives. Revista de Filosofia Aurora,
Barrett, Lisa Feldman (2017). How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain. Mariner Books; Illustrated edition
Maté, Gabor (2011). When the Body Says No: Understanding the Stress-Disease Connection. Wiley; 1st edition
Morin, Amanda (2019) Interoception and sensory processing issues: What you need to know. Understood. Published 8-5-2019. Accessed 3-5-2022.
Price, C. J., & Hooven, C. (2018). Interoceptive Awareness Skills for Emotion Regulation: Theory and Approach of Mindful Awareness in Body-Oriented Therapy (MABT). Frontiers in psychology, 9, 798. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00798