Meditation has hit the mainstream. The meditation and wellness app Headspace, with annual revenue exceeding $50 million and an estimated valuation of $250 million, has been downloaded more than 11 million times and has more than 400,000 paying subscribers.
There has been an explosion of interest in the mind and the ancient practice of integrating with it, meditation. It seems likely that this trend is only going to continue. Today’s access to information is unprecedented. The time US users are spending in mobile apps is continuing to grow: According to new data released by analytics firm Flurry, we’re up to 5 hours per day on our mobile devices.
With this trend, the ability to monitor and guide health and lifestyle through readily available technology will continue to evolve the public’s awareness of the fact that how we think, move, eat, and interact with our environment directly influences our quality of life.
We predict that the next two years will bring a new awareness in the public consciousness. An enhanced appreciation of mind, body, feeling, and emotion—namely interoception and a broader realisation that our space-age wi-fi existence must be balanced by hard wiring to mother nature herself.
In the first instalment of this two-part article series we shall look at the neurology of interoception and how simple interoceptive meditative practice impacts health on a deep level.
Part 1: Interoception
Information is absolute: it has always and will always exist. Knowledge however, is acquired from the uncovering of information; Understanding, which leads to the application of knowledge, takes time.
With regards to being human, our knowledge base is vast. Biophysics, neuroscience, life science, earth science, and consciousness research provide incredible detail on how the brain, mind, body and planet work, and importantly raise many new questions. Where biology is concerned, the continual convergence of knowledge is required to really provide an understanding of our place and potential influence in the universe.
The influence of mind over body has been known for thousands of years. The Dhyana is one of the earliest written records of meditation, which originates from the Hindu traditions of Vedantism dating to 1500 BCE (1). Generation after generation in the Eastern traditions have utilised contemplative practice as part of religious tradition and the path to enlightenment.
In the West we have been slower on the uptake. Meditation has been reserved for those who follow Yoga practices or specifically sought out Transcendental Meditation or similar approaches. But this is changing. The last few years have seen entrepreneurs, high performers in many fields, corporations, and even schools begin to incorporate mindful meditation into daily routines.
Hitting the gym
While health has always been in the public conscious, modern times have been heavily focused on exercise. People understand and accept that an active lifestyle is healthy. In the UK, 1 in every 7 people is a member of a gym. (2) That’s 9.7 million people who have taken steps towards improving their health. The market is booming, and with a mere 23,000 personal trainers in the UK (3), 9,000 in Australia (4), and 500,000 personal trainers (5) and 300,000 alternative health care practitioners in the US (6), demand outweighs supply.
Whether you’re a personal trainer, acupuncturist, or yoga instructor, with the consumer in control then professional reputation and knowledge of your product is everything. As the public becomes more aware of other factors influencing health in the modern age, the health and fitness/wellness professional must stay ahead of the curve and be able to provide more complete, holistic guidance than just effective exercise programming or specialised treatments alone.
Let’s look at intermittent fasting as an example. While fasting has been a part of religious practices for centuries, intermittent fasting took around a decade to move from those in the know to the average health enthusiast. It still has a long way to go until it is considered common knowledge.
The health and wellness professionals who were educated on the practice of fasting and had personal experience with it were able to offer advice that is ahead of the curve. These professionals have higher value to their clientele and can position themselves as trendsetters in the industry, ahead of those who do not constantly pursue an evolving understanding of the brain and body.
As complimentary health care providers, we are perfectly positioned in people’s lives to practice and disseminate information and strategies that create a preventative health care model.
We think that a greater understanding of the mind, the positive influence of nature, and the deleterious impact of non-native electromagnetic fields should form a major part of that guidance. In an industry that is expanding exponentially every year, we have an opportunity to evolve professionally by practicing a more complete model of health, which could ultimately save the health service millions of pounds over the coming years.
As well, empowering people through knowledge and guidance is an extremely effective way to improve quality of life in our clients and the general public.
Interoception and the other senses
Body senses are of huge importance to survival.
The five special senses transduce various frequencies from our environment such as photons from light and acoustic waves in the air, to allow us to navigate our world.
- Exteroceptive senses are those which occur at the body surface, such as touch and pressure, again connecting the brain with the exterior.
- Proprioceptive sense detects changes that occur in muscles, tendons, ligaments, and joint tissues, providing information on the position of the body in space and the relationship between joint position point A and joint position point B.
- Interoceptive sense however relates to the internal sense of the body, the physiological state of the tissues themselves.
Interoceptive nerve endings are small diameter C-fibres. Embedded within the largest organ in the body, the skin, C-fibres are key to autonomic nervous system functions such as thermoregulation, water and electrolyte balance, and Vitamin D production.
In fact, C-fibres in the skin, muscle tissue, the viscera, and all other tissues of the body (including bone) provide continuous sensory autonomic information required for homeostatic control of the body. Interoceptive sense gives rise to a whole host of experiences, such as warmth, coolness, muscular activity, hunger, sexual arousal, the feeling of experiencing a moment of recognition (insight), and even the sensation of enjoying music, to name but a few.
Although we are all capable of expressing the basic condition of our bodies through feelings, the level of interoceptive awareness varies greatly from person to person and is related to performance. For example, those with greater perception of heartbeat are better at identifying their own emotions, have better subjective sense of time, respond more quickly to intuitive choices, and show better cognitive performance in decision-making based on subtle environmental cues and tasks of divided attention. (7)
The influence of interoception goes deeper than just improving attention and subjective judgement of time. The visceral feelings of the body underlie instinct, emotions, and the very fabric of the conscious self.
Essentially, we ‘feel’ our biology.
The AMN Level 1 and 2 education considers the exteroceptive and proprioceptive systems, while level 3 and onwards considers the interoceptive system.
It’s all about me: How your brain produces ‘Self’
To the brain, the external body is represented as an object. When we see our reflection, we perceive our form in relation to other people and objects around us. This body image arises from the integration of multiple sensory and motor body maps imprinted upon the outer strips of the cortex (8), which are informed by the special senses, exteroceptive, and proprioceptive systems.
image: Cortical homunculi – the inverted sensory body map in Parietal cortex area; SI
Sensory information from the external world is not the only influence on body image. How we move forms a sense of its own and further integrates into how we perceive our external bodies. Let’s consider the influence of the internal, autonomic body.
At the scale of the physical tissues, the musculoskeletal system surrounds the visceral system. The internal is encapsulated by the external. Hierarchically speaking, organs such as the heart, lungs or liver are of far more importance than the musculature. This is also true within the brain. The areas of the brain receiving the ‘Affective – Interoceptive’ information from the internal parts of the body lie deep within the brain and brainstem. The interoceptive system recruits the exteroceptive system to carry out its needs and allow it to interact with the outside world.
This internal sense, Interoception, provides the baseline of ‘the feeling of a self’. Our external, object awareness relies upon it. We simply cannot perceive something external to us without the qualities associated with the sense of feeling in the first place. (9)
We cannot perceive Exteroceptive sense, without a baseline, Interoceptive self.
Through the practice of meditation, we aim to quiet the chatter of the mind. In so doing, we can achieve altered brain states which are associated with deep or higher states of consciousness. We can also direct meditation towards the internal milieu of the body.
Interoceptive meditation: Heartbeat perception
A commonly practiced and simple method of interoceptive meditation is to practice heartbeat perception. To do this, sit comfortably in a quiet place. Close your eyes and simply focus on trying to ‘feel’ your own heart beating in your chest. The heart sits slightly left of centre in your chest. The continuous ‘lub-dub’ rhythm of the heartbeat can be perceived fairly quickly if you place your attention towards the task.
image: Position of the heart in the chest cavity
This form of directed, quiet attention is a very useful meditative practice. As the goal is to perceive a rhythmic physiological noise and sensation, it can be viewed as easier than trying to quiet the mind alone.
At first, you must make sure you are still while you try this. If, for example you were to give this a go whilst on a train, the motion and noise of the train vibrating through the body would fire so many exteroceptive sensors that it would be extremely difficult to tune in to the interoceptive awareness of your heart.
How long is this going to take?
There’s no rules to be followed here. If you’re completely new to meditation, feel free to set a timer to between 5 and 10 minutes so you have a definitive start and finish time, which can help with maintaining attention. It can also be useful to utilise imagery. As you focus your attention on your heart, imagine the area filling with a brilliant white light, and imagine that light pulsing in time with the heartbeat. This can help you to perceive the motion and sense of the heartbeat as you practice.
Looking for more?
If you find heartbeat perception easy, try placing your focus at the wrists to perceive your radial pulse. Remember, the goal is not to touch the wrist with your fingertips but to ‘feel’ the sensation of the pulse, interoceptively. This approach can also be practiced at any of the sites, at which the pulse can be palpated: Dorsalis Pedis, Posterior tibial, Popliteal, Femoral, Ulnar, Radial, Brachial and Carotid pulses.
image: Palpable pulses throughout the body
Us Westerners love a bit of research
However, there currently exists only a small body of research on Interoceptive Meditation. We hope that as meditation in general receives more research attention, interoceptive meditation will also.
One study showed that non-experienced meditators found it only marginally more difficult to perceive their heartbeat than experienced meditators, thus concluding that the practice of interoception doesn’t make you much better at ‘interocepting’. (10)
While this may seem a little counterintuitive, there is a logical explanation. The interoceptive system is not an organ of perception; it is the organ which provides the sense of what it is to feel. Visceral sensations, gut feelings, instincts, the weight of an emotional response, pleasure, pain and so on are derived from interoception. We all feel these things every day, even if we don’t pay close attention to them.
Regularly tuning in to your own heartbeat, pulses, respiration, or other internal physiological movements may not make you much better at perceiving them. But interoceptive meditation and interoceptive awareness do allow us to produce more balanced emotional responses, thus improving our decision-making due to better cognitive processing and reduced knee-jerk reaction (11,12). These practices may also improve or restore our sense of presence and agency within the world (13), which is the subjective awareness of being in control of our own actions.
The pathways and brain areas associated with the interoceptive system are those which govern Homeostasis. Homeostasis is the amalgamation of interactive and hierarchically organised physiological systems, the goal of which is energy efficiency and the promotion of survival of the individual and that of the species.
My two cents
Some neuroscience research suggests that our brains not only generate our body image but also our every feeling and state based on the amalgamation of the special, exteroceptive, proprioceptive, and interoceptive senses (14). Included in this process is the learning and prediction actions of the brain, the budgeting of resources (energy) which arises from this and other available information (e.g. social information, and unconscious information such as electromagnetic fields) which the brain conducts to produce the self.
As an example, your emotional responses towards another person at a given moment in time have everything to do with the integration of your own sensory-autonomic nervous system, and very little to do with the person standing in front of you.
If we are able to better understand ourselves (information – knowledge – understanding) then we may see that our emotions and responses can only be generated by us. It would appear that the more in touch we are with our own bodies, both inside and out, the more our internal perception of ourselves improves, and therefore we also improve the person we project to the world around us.
Written by David Fleming, Director of Education, AMN Academy
- A clinical guide to the treatment of human stress response by George S. Everly, Jeffrey M. Lating 2002 ISBN 0-306-46620-1 page 199
- Werner et al., 2009; Dunn et al., 2010, 2012; Meissner and Wittmann, 2011
- http://www.fil.ion.ucl.ac.uk/~karl/The%20Conscious%20Id.pdf Solms
- http://www.fil.ion.ucl.ac.uk/~karl/The%20Conscious%20Id.pdf Solms
- https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2637372/ SAHIB S. KHALSA, DAVID RUDRAUF, ANTONIO R. DAMASIO, RICHARD J. DAVIDSON, ANTOINE LUTZ, and DANIEL TRANEL. Interoceptive awareness in experienced meditators
- Interoception drives increased rational decision-making in meditators playing the ultimatum game. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/m/pubmed/21559066/?i=33&from=interoceptive%20meditation
- Heartbeat evoked potentials mirror altered body perception in depressed patients.
- Interoception, contemplative practice, and health.