The human brain is capable of detecting and processing many different types of stimuli. These include pain, temperature, touch, taste, vision and sound. However, the most common type of sensory input humans receive are emotions such as fear or happiness. Humans are able to perceive these emotions through their senses (e.g., sight, hearing).
It is believed that the brain processes emotions in two ways:
1) Sensory Processing – The brain receives and interprets incoming sensory signals from various parts of the body.
For example, when someone sees a face they feel happy or scared depending on how happy or scared they are. This type of emotion processing occurs without conscious thought.
2) Emotional Processing – The brain then uses the received sensory data to generate an internal state called an emotional response.
An emotion is a mental representation of your current emotional state based on the external world. For example, if someone looks at you with fear, your mind will create a mental image of being afraid. Your body may react to this by producing physical symptoms such as sweating or shivering. This occurs independent of the environment or situation.
Research indicates both emotional and sensory systems are regulated by an area of the brain called the anterior insula. The anterior insula is located deep inside the cerebral cortex and plays a key role in integrating signals from different senses as well as sending out instructions to other parts of the brain to initiate a response to incoming information. Research has shown that people with damage to this region have great difficulty feeling a wide range of emotions.
Mindfulness is the practice of focusing one’s awareness on the present moment. Many psychologists and psychiatrists have begun to use mindfulness in their treatment of various disorders such as anxiety and depression. It has been found to be an effective way to reduce stress, mental clutter, and overthinking.
One common way to practice is through breathing (interoceptive) awareness. This involves becoming aware of sensations felt in the body during breathing. During this practice, your body is your anchor to the present moment. The idea is to stay focused on bodily sensations rather than letting your mind wander. Common distractions include sounds, physical sensations other than breathing, and thoughts.
When you notice you are distracted, simply bring your focus back to your breath. It’s also important to be non-judgmentally of whatever arises in the present moment. Simply observe without getting caught up in the content of the thought or distracter.
Research by J. Adams and B. Weber (2012) found that interoceptive awareness can be increased through eight weeks of training. They had participants practice interoception for 10 minutes a day, 3 times per week. After the 8-week period they found increased awareness of bodily sensations, lower self-reported anxiety, and improved ability to concentrate.
The researchers note that this is an easy, cost-effective, and highly-accessible exercise.
So the next time you have a few minutes to spare, try this exercise:
Find a quiet place where you can sit down and won’t be disturbed. Get into a comfortable position such as sitting in a chair or lying down. Keep your eyes open and refrain from interrupting your concentration to blink. Begin to notice your natural breathing. Notice the area of the body that’s expanding and contracting – usually your chest.
As you breathe in, mentally say “in” and feel your breath come into your body. As you breathe out, mentally say “out” and feel your breath leave your body. Don’t try to control your breathing or do anything special with it. Simply pay attention to this natural cycle. When you become distracted by a random thought, notice what it is, then gently return your attention back to your breathing.
Sources & references used in this article:
How attention to interoception can inform dance/movement therapy by FS Hindi – American Journal of Dance Therapy, 2012 – Springer
Body awareness, emotional clarity, and authentic behavior: The moderating role of mindfulness by N Tsur, N Berkovitz, K Ginzburg – Journal of Happiness Studies, 2016 – Springer
Art reception as an interoceptive embodied predictive experience by RT Azevedo, M Tsakiris – Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 2017 – kar.kent.ac.uk
What touch can communicate: Commentary on “Mentalizing homeostasis: the social origins of interoceptive inference” by Fotopoulou and Tsakiris by P Fonagy, C Campbell – Neuropsychoanalysis, 2017 – Taylor & Francis
Perceived Helpfulness and Unfolding Processen in Body-Oriented Therapy Practice by C Price, K Krycka, T Breitenbucher, N Brown – Indo-Pacific Journal of …, 2011 – ajol.info
Thinking through the body: The conceptualization of yoga as therapy for individuals with eating disorders by L Douglass – Eating Disorders, 2010 – Taylor & Francis
Body Sense: The Science and Practice of Embodied Self-Awareness (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology) by A Fogel – 2013 – books.google.com
The body in the brain revisited by G Berlucchi, SM Aglioti – Experimental brain research, 2010 – Springer
Phenomenology and Human Sciences Research Today by K Galvin – Indo-Pacific Journal of Phenomenology, 2011 – ajol.info