Making sense of our external and internal environments through movement and mindfulness.
The role of proprioception and interoception within the senses
The existence of the most basic five senses of the human body will not be news to your ears (excuse the pun), but in this article, I’d like to touch upon (whoops there I go again!) two extra senses that can help us to build a better mind-body connection. Proprioception and interoception, combined with our vestibular sense, are often overlooked components of the way our body and mind communicate with the autonomic nervous system. Together they help us to navigate our bodies through life without constantly feeling as though we could fall off the end of the world. Together with all five other senses of the sense organs, these more elusive senses work to regulate and balance our movements and internal systems.
The five human senses that stem from the sense organs are:
- Taste gustatory system (sense of taste)
- Smell auditory system (sense of hearing)
- Hearing olfactory system (sense of smell)
- Touch somatosensory system (sense of touch)
- Sight visual system (sense of vision).
But the three less talked about Senses of the human body are:
- Proprioception – The sense of our body in the space around us
- Interoception – The sense of our internal organs and feeling our emotions.
- Vestibular – The sense of balance and spatial awareness when combining movement with balance.
Let’s look at the first two of these human senses in more detail now.
What is proprioception?
Proprioception, also known as kinesthesia, is how we sense our body in the space around us. It’s our bodies ability to feel where our limbs are positioned in movement and action and to manoeuvre them accordingly.
The body perceives where it’s located in space and how to move through it, via signals from sensory receptors found in the muscles, joints, tendons and skin. This ability to respond to sense stimuli arising in the body regarding position, motion and balance, is what allows us to pick up objects, salsa dance and to hit a tennis ball. It’s thanks to proprioception that we can still feel where our outstretched arm is with our eyes closed, or put one foot in front of the other in a dark room.
Keeping your body guessing in movement practices is a great way to flex your proprioceptive muscles. By challenging your body to move in non-familiar movement patterns and non-linear planes you will strengthen your body’s ability to react to sudden changes in its surrounding environment. Taking out the sense organ of sight to a familiar movement practice, such as a sun salutation, can help you to feel into the position and tension of your joints on a deeper level.
What is Interoception?
If proprioception works with helping us to move with grace through the external world, interoception is the key to harmonising our journey through our inner landscape. It’s in interoception that we peel back the layers of the onion to tap into something far deeper than that which sits on the skin.
Interoceptors are internal sensors that provide us with a notion of what our internal organs are feeling. This sense, sometimes called the hidden sense, gives us feedback as to what is happening in our internal systems such as the cardiovascular system, respiratory system, immune system, gastrointestinal and endocrine system (our hormonal system) via nerve endings found in the respiratory and digestive tract, lymph and blood vessels and various tissues and organs of the body. These sensory signals are then passed on to the brain via pathways such as the Vagus nerve, where the brain will signal back to the body to regulate activity like the heartbeat, breath and elimination.
When you’re thirsty, cold or hungry this is you responding to your internal signals via interoception. However, on a more profound level interoception allows us to listen to our emotions as they manifest in our physicality and respond to their signals accordingly. Common brain-body dysfunctions that come with a lowered sense of interoception include; anxiety, eating disorders, depression and autism spectrum disorders.
Mindfulness practices are known to strengthen our interoceptive awareness as they activate the insula, the interoceptive centre in the brain. It’s through practices such as meditation that we step out of the thinking body and into the feeling body, where we quite literally sense things on a visceral level. By tuning into our heartbeat and breath, we can ground into our energetic body and give space to the emotions that we’re storing in our physicality to reveal themselves.
Movement and Mindfulness practices to strengthen our proprioception and interoception
How to build proprioception in the body
- From a standing position, begin to move your arm around in various planes in front of you. Follow your arm with your periphery vision. Let the arm snake around freely exploring different ranges of motion from within the shoulder socket. If you like you can also bring free movement into your other joints such as your hips and knees, exploring organically your body’s ability to move in the space around it.
- Now repeat the exercise with your eyes closed, noticing to what extend you can still perceive the location of your limbs and joints in motion.
- Next take a weighted prop, such as a heavy book, in your outstretched palm and begin to move again in an exploratory fashion. Notice how your perception of your arm moving through space is heightened with the addition of the prop, as it offers you extra biofeedback as you move.
- Finally, try closing your eyes once again whilst floating the prop around all vectors of your body. You can even try lifting one foot off the ground from time to time to develop your vestibular sense.
How to build interoception in the body
- From a comfortable seated position, close down your eyes and begin to get a sense of your body in the space around it. Imagine tracing the contour of your body with your mind, relaxing any areas of physical tension that you might find along the way.
- Now dive a little bit deeper into your body. Notice the breath as it travels from your nose, down your throat into your lungs, and the expansion of your belly as the diaphragm drops. Contrast what happens when you release the breath. Observe the beat of your heart weaving through your breaths. See if you can sense your pulse all the way down into the palms of your hands. Feel your breath as if it were reaching from the top of your head to your toes.
- Notice any underlying sensations such as hunger, thirst, the need to go to the toilet, rumbles in your stomach, the pattern and ease of your breath, the rate your heart is beating at.
- Listen to the sensory signals from your body and see if you can discover any underlying emotions that are accompanying them, such as anxiety, boredom, contentment, worry, security or stress.