Most of us spend the majority of our lives lost in thought. Even when we become aware of our surroundings it is principally of the sights and sounds surrounding us. It is usually only when something is very wrong that we become aware of our bodies, what is called interoceptive awareness. We are generally unaware of the signals from our bodies such as the breath, movements in the GI tract, heart beats accompanied with surges in blood pressure, the sensations from our muscles and joints, even the sensations from our skin. Adding to the lack of awareness of our bodies we are also unaware of our implicit beliefs and attitudes about our bodies and the emotions that accompany these attitudes.
To exemplify this, just for a moment start paying attention to the sensations coming from the contact of your clothing with your skin. You were in all probability totally unaware of these sensations until your attention was directed toward them. Now notice the feelings from your facial muscles. Are they tense, relaxed, or something in-between. You probably were not aware of their state yet they can be good indicators of stress and your emotional state.
This can be a real problem as interoceptive awareness is extremely important for our awareness of our emotional state which is in turn needed to regulate and respond appropriately to the emotions. Being aware of the state of our bodies is also important for maintaining health, both for recognizing our physical state and also for making appropriate decisions about health related behaviors. Interoceptive awareness is even fundamental to our sense of self and world view.
Obviously it is important that we find ways to improve our poor body awareness. Most contemplative practices focus attention on our internal state and thus should improve our body awareness. But, in fact there is little empirical evidence on the issue. In today’s Research News article “Differential changes in self-reported aspects of interoceptive awareness through 3 months of contemplative training”
Bornemann and colleagues examine the effect of a 3-month training employing focused meditation and body scan meditation on interoceptive awareness. They found significant increases in five of the eight scales of interoceptive awareness compared to a control group.
It was found that meditation and body scan practice improved the regulatory aspects of interoceptive awareness. These include Self-Regulation which is the ability to control distress by paying attention to sensations from the body, Attention Regulation which is the ability to focus in a sustained way on the sensations from the body, and Body Listening which is the ability to gain insight into the physical and emotional state by listening to the signals from the body. These are important skills involved in being able to not only be aware of body sensations but to use these sensations to better understand and control their internal state and physical wellbeing.
Contemplative practice also improved Emotional Awareness, which is the ability to be aware of and understand the connection between body sensations and emotions, and Body Trusting, which is experiencing one’s own body as a safe place. These are also important abilities as they allow us to trust in the usefulness of the information from the body to better understand and control our emotions.
It is interesting that the contemplative practice did not increase Noticing of body sensations such as heart beat and breathing. Rather it appears to markedly improve our ability to use the information from our bodies to understand and regulate our emotional or motivational state. This is very important to our wellbeing both mental and physical. It puts us better in control by providing the signals we need to be better able to regulate our state.
These improvements in interoceptive awareness could also explain to some extent how mindfulness practices produce their well-documented significant improvements in physical and psychological health and wellbeing. It simply makes us better able to respond to and control our bodies and our emotions.
So engage in contemplative practice and learn how to feel your feelings and benefit your body’s signals.
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies