Proprioception, Interoception, and Mentalising

Patrice Duquette and Vivien Ainley wrote in Frontiers in Psychology of 26.9.19:

“…Focused attention to bodily sensations/reactions, in the safety of the therapeutic relationship, provides a route to “mentalizing interoception,” by means of the bodily cues that may be the only conscious element of deeply hidden priors and thus the clearest way to access them. This can: update patients’ characteristic, dysfunctional responses to emotion and feelings; increase emotional insight; decrease cognitive distortions; and engender a more acute awareness of the present moment. These important ideas are outlined below from the perspective of psychodynamic psychotherapeutic practice, in order to discuss how relevant information from neuroscientific theory and current research can best be applied in clinical treatment…

It seems that people spend most of their time with the delusion that they have an accurate representation of the world. Actually, evidence suggests that we are all rather poor at letting our sensory experience update our beliefs, and that we are susceptible to prior beliefs and social constraints that greatly limit our ability to deal with evidence rationally. For most of us, this may be manifest…. as vulnerability to biases as we try to model the world” (Fletcher and Frith, 2009, p. 52)…

…While the term “mentalizing” is commonly used to denote inferring or understanding the mental states of others it also refers crucially to mental states of the self (e.g., Fonagy and Target, 2006). We use the term “mentalizing” here with the ultimate goal that the patient will have an “intentional mental state” (Fonagy and Target, 2006; Allen et al., 2008; Bateman and Fonagy, 2012)…”

Kristine Kaoverii Weber wrote at on 11.7.19:

“…Proprioception is often called “The sixth sense” – the 5 others being seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and touching. This “sixth sense” helps us to know where we are and what to do with our bodies at any given time.

Here’s an important thing to understand about proprioception – it’s fast!

Fast-firing myelinated (myelin is the fatting sheath around nerves that makes them conduct signals very quickly) mechanoreceptors send messages to your brain (which means they are afferent nerves). Your brain quickly sends messages back to your body in order to adjust your position and keep you upright regardless of what you are doing.

Let’s say you’re riding on a bumpy bus and, although it may be uncomfortable, you still manage to stay upright – without a lot of conscious effort. For that you can thank your proprioceptors. In fact, if you are just sitting here reading this and you’re not falling off your chair, you can thank your proprioceptors…

One of the main reasons proprioception is important (beyond sports skills) is because it keeps you safe. You can walk down the street, stay on a bicycle, balance in tree pose, and mostly avoid the emergency room because of this system.

Yoga helps to optimize proprioception because you get to practice all sorts of different ways to stay upright, balanced and safe in lots of different positions. Fast or slow, whatever kind of yoga you do, proprioception benefits.

But there’s also a “seventh sense” – interoception.

Whereas proprioception is about where your body is in space, interoception is about how your body feels. Do I feel hungry, have to pee, feel hot? When you are tuned in, you make appropriate (and often unconscious) behavioral decisions in order to return to homeostasis – i.e. you eat lunch, go to the bathroom, and turn on the A/C.

It’s slow!

Much of interoception is governed by low-threshold mechanoreceptors that are unmyelinated. The messages are slower and require more time to process.

Most interoception happens below the level of consciousness in order to bring homeostasis to the whole system. However, practicing cultivating interoceptive awareness brings interoception up into the cortex and this may have numerous health benefits.

A primary benefit is that good interoception helps to dissipate unconscious muscular tension in your body – holding patterns you may not even know that you have! When you start to unravel these patterns, you diminish the effects of stress on your system. And that’s always a good thing. In fact, some researchers have suggested that poor interoception lies at the heart of many chronic diseases…

Unfortunately, we are often taught in our culture to ignore internal messages from our body – even in sports! (Just do it! No pain, No gain!) This attitude may benefit proprioception, but it does not benefit interoception.

Perhaps an even more important benefit of developing interoceptive skills is that good Interoceptive awareness creates a stronger sense of identity – the interoceptors interface with a brain region – the insula – which plays an important role in our sense of self. As you improve interoception, you improve your sense of self…Slow mindful movement is an excellent way to develop this system.

We have a lot of focus on sports and movement in western culture, so we have many opportunities to develop proprioception. But we have very few places in our culture to develop interoception…”

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