Interoception – Your own secret superpower

We marvel at Spiderman’s spider-sense, his signature superpower that helps him detect threats around him. But what if you have a similar power that can help you know when you’re making wise or poor decisions. A sixth sense that tells you when you should take action or when you should avoid it?

You do. It is called interoception. But it is a sense that many of us have stopped listening to. With awareness and practice, you can rediscover it and use it to make better life decisions. Here’s how.

What is interoception?

Interoception is the recognition and processing of inner bodily sensations. There are obvious examples – knowing when you’re hungry or when you’re tired, detecting a quickening of your heartbeat or your breathing. But interoception is also responsible for that gut feeling you get when thinking about whether to go on a second date, whether to accept a new job, which seat to choose as you enter a meeting room.

With our other senses, some of us are born with more awareness. The same is true of interoception. Some of us can do it easily. For example, around 60% people can count their own heartbeats just by listening internally. But others find it much harder.

Some of this ability may be inherited, but we also know that a lack of attention to our inner state early in life might shrink this superpower. If you were told “not to cry” when you were upset, you learn to ignore the internal signs that you’re sad. If your dad never said he was proud of you, maybe you don’t learn how to savour the sense of achievement you get when something goes well. If cuddles were rare, you lose familiarity with wanting to reach out to others for comfort.

We need our spider-sense

Some ailments impair our ability to listen to what our body is telling us. Mental and physical conditions such as chronic pain, addictive behaviour, anxiety, depression and other mood disorders, PTSD, OCD, somatic disorder and neurodegenerative diseases, reduce our interoception skills.

Being more conscious of what we are experiencing inside our bodies allows us to make conscious choices about how we manage discomfort rather than acting impulsively. It also allows us to recognise when we feel more nourished, emotionally and spiritually, and find ways to bolster this.

When we become conscious of bodily signs of discomfort and distress, it makes it easier to have conversations about our experiences. It also helps us find new ways of dealing with situations so put our bodies under less stress.

Hone it

Careful attention to how tiny movements affect our internal sensations help us strengthen awareness of what we’re feeling.

You can increase your interoceptive ability by practicing observing what your body feels. It’s one of the reasons practices such as somatic yoga and tai chi have grown in popularity. As a psychologist I often use a technique called sensorimotor psychotherapy to help clients. This focuses on how the body senses feelings and emotions, bypassing the logical brain which always tries to rationalise feelings instead of ‘feeling’ them.

Peter Parker famously noticed when there was a threat in the environment around him. You too can train yourself to notice the atmosphere when you walk into work, recognise when your partner is having a bad day or your child is about to misbehave. You can do this by simply spending more time noticing what’s going on inside you. Likewise, try noticing the physical sensations you have when you see a loved one, listen to a favourite song, or just look outside your window.

As with wine tasting, the more you savour the experience, the more you will be able to detect change. And once you can, life will become richer, personal relationships better and, who knows – perhaps your enhanced performance at work will develop that exciting new career path you have been seeking.

Making use of that superpower within you provides a new route towards success, whether your goal is better self-awareness, better relationships or greater peace of mind. Listening to your heart – physically and metaphorically, is a great place to start.

This blogpost first appeared in The Active Magazine.

Dr Naomi Murphy

Dr Naomi Murphy

Consultant Forensic & Clinical Psychologist, Owner

Naomi is one of the UK’s most respected forensic clinical psychologists. Recently appointed Honorary Professor of Psychology at Nottingham Trent University, she qualified as a clinical psychologist in 1997 and as a consultant clinical psychologist in 2003.