Written by Michael Mantz, M.D.
Most of us are familiar with the 5 basic senses: sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. As a group they are known as our exteroceptive senses – they take in information from our external environment to help create our experience of the external world.
Our 6th sense, interoception (intero = internal and ception = receiving), takes in information from our internal environment (body signals and internal feeling states) to help create the experience of our body.
In my last article, I discussed a 3-element model that deconstructs our emotions and provides a map to help you better understand them and how to work with them in a constructive way In my last article,. The 3rd element in this model – body sensations – form the heart of our emotions.
Recent neuroscience provides powerful evidence that becoming more adept at sensing your body sensations (interoception) improves your ability to make complex decisions, creatively problem-solve, empathize, and socialize. (I will discuss the scientific studies about this in an upcoming article.)
In this article we will break the ice into the interesting inner world of interoception and provide basic interoceptive practices to help you get started in developing this powerful 6th sense.
Our 6th sense usually presents itself as diffuse signals with ill-defined boundaries. When you have indigestion you can feel unpleasant sensations in your abdomen but you will have difficulty knowing exactly where you feel your discomfort. This vagueness quality makes it difficult for many of us to learn how to describe what we feel when we sense our bodies.
In order to make it easier for you to translate your 6th sense, here is a partial list of descriptors to start building your interoceptive vocabulary:
The feedback signal that you get from your body when you’re trying to do something that you cannot do is frustration and irritation. Use any frustration or irritation you may experience as an alarm clock to check-in with your body and let go of any attempts to fish for your body sensations and try to feel them more.
Note: Recent experiments have demonstrated that one of the most significant factors contributing to anxiety is the lack of ability to disengage one’s attention from unhelpful scary thoughts about the future and bringing it towards experiencing the present moment directly.
Here are some beginning exercises to help you build your 6th sense and to learn to harness one of the most powerful capacities to make sense of and act wisely on your emotions and what is going on in your life.