Ok Interoception: The Science Of Knowing Yourself

Can technology help us be more in-tune with our bodies?

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Can technology help us be more in-tune with our bodies?


Ok Interoception: The Science Of Knowing Yourself

Can technology help us be more in-tune with our bodies?

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How well do you know your own body? I’m not talking about how tall you are or the size of your feet; rather, I want you to think about how well you “understand” the signals your body is sending you.

For instance, you may think you are good at perceiving hunger or thirst. You feel hungry, you eat. Simple. However, the reality is that as humans we are generally pretty poor at this, particularly when under stress.

Though forgetting the occasional lunch is quite minor in the grand scheme of things, this lack of perception when it comes to recognising other internal signals can often lead to more serious issues.

In 2004, I suffered a heart attack when walking through Brussels airport - out of the blue -  and in the ambulance on the way to the hospital, I flatlined. Luckily, I was resuscitated.

As I was recovering, I was desperate to understand what had caused it. The hospital ran multiple tests, but they couldn’t find any evidence of an underlying physical issue. So what had brought it on? Simply put; a combination of stress, exhaustion and burnout.

But how was I supposed to know that? Was I really that out of touch with what my body was telling me? Could I have been more alert to what it was trying to tell me?

These are the questions that underlie what we do at BioBeats. In fact, I’ve collaborated with researchers from King’s College London and Oxford University to test a new questionnaire called the “Interoceptive Accuracy Scale” or IAS for short, which looks to improve the way that we understand these signals.

And as the name of the questionnaire suggests, interoception is at the very centre of it.

Interoception, interaction and information

Interoception is the sense of the state of your own body at any given moment. It’s those sensations that were mentioned at the top of the piece. Hunger, thirst but also cardiac and respiratory activity. It also tells us when we have an itch that needs scratching as well as pain.

These are then processed and used to inform the way we feel, behave, act and interact with other people. It’s also pretty useful when you run into danger, such as a bear in the woods let’s say (as you do).

What happens: you start shaking, your heart rate accelerates, and your muscles are pumped with blood to allow you to run away.

All these sensations are combined and translated into emotional states (e.g. “I am afraid of this bear”) which in turn influence the way you think (e.g. “Maybe I shouldn’t stand in front of it, looking like a potential dinner?”) and act (e.g. running away). 

This then leads us on to how we interact with others. Interoception allows us to put ourselves in other people's shoes. Going back to the bear attack, we may be running away and bump into a fellow intrepid explorer.

Thanks to interoception (and a multitude of other social cognition processes), you know to tell them that there is danger ahead and suggest they maybe take another route.

So how can people be more aware of the signals their body is sending them?

Measuring interoception is a twofold process. The first is the individual's belief in their own ability (eg. “I think I’m pretty good at detecting my heartbeat”), and the other is the actual interoceptive skill, or accuracy. Most people have confidence in their own ability, a confidence which is often misplaced.

Both the belief about one’s own interoceptive abilities as well as the recorded accuracy whilst performing an interoceptive task contribute to an individuals’ interoception. Take the example of thinking that you must be losing weight.

Clothes are fitting differently, that glance in the mirror that tells you something is slightly different. You feel a change in your body but you don’t actually have any quantitative proof that you have lost weight, such as the figure on a set of scales.

In these situations, there is a tendency to underestimate this change. When it comes to weighing yourself, you may be surprised. A change that seemed barely perceptible to us, is now quantified in the fact that figure is a lot more or less than you thought.

So if we believe to be good or bad interoceptors, we may have a distorted view of our actual accuracy and will rely on these incorrect assumptions. Therefore it is important, if they are to improve their interoceptive skills, that individuals know where they currently stand.

This is where tools such as the IAS questionnaire, and new biofeedback tasks that could train interoception come into their own. The IAS is a self-reported measure investigating how accurate individuals actually are at perceiving interoceptive signals.

In the future, we hope to use these self-reported measures alongside interoceptive data and training exercises delivered and collected through  mobile apps. These app-based tools would be a game-changer, making measuring and training interoception easily accessible to the wider population.

Talking tech

Due to the power of interoception, there is clearly a real need to develop new techniques for reading our body signals. We need to be able to recognise what those changes in our bodies are, and what they mean.

Better interoception could also help us understand the bodily changes we experience when under stress, learning to recognise the kind of stressors that affect us and how, allowing us to optimise our reaction and become more resilient.

Technology can help people be more in tune with what their body is telling them, providing data and insight never before available to us.

Illuminating these internal body signals can help people take interventions in their own lives, slowing down before they reach the cliff edge; warning signs will be spotted sooner and our wellbeing will improve.

From a moment that instead of taking my life, changed my life, I started building algorithms that could have helped me predict that sort of event in the future.

I wanted to create something that could have helped me lead a better life in order to avoid it, and now I want to help others spot the warning signs.

Get to know your body and mind better in order to understand yourself better, and you will start to live better.

Dr David Plans is CEO and co-founder of BioBeats.

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Ok Interoception: The Science Of Knowing Yourself

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