Interoception is the sensory system that detects regulation signals within our own bodies, whether it’s our heartbeat beating in our chests, the blood pulsing in our temple, or our stomach churning with hunger. As functional as these senses may seem in a purely physiological sense, more research is showing that they play a deep role in how people understand and relate to one another.
It’s all to do with a thing called “theory of mind,” the understanding that all humans are separate mental beings with their independent but relatable desires, thoughts, emotions, opinions, etc. The better we grasp this idea, they more we can empathize with and understand others.
The study, published in the journal Cortex, shows the link between feeling your own heartbeat (our interoception) and being able to read the emotional mental state of another person.
Punit Shah, the study's lead author, explained how this might play out. “An example of this could be if your colleague ‘Michael’ is aggressive towards ‘Sandra’... your body processes this by increasing your heart rate, perhaps making you feel awkward and anxious, enabling you to understand that Sandra is embarrassed," he said in a statement. "If you do not feel your heart rate increase, it may reduce your ability to understand that situation and respond appropriately.”
Shah pointed out that this appears straightforward, yet there is currently almost no scientific evidence linking internal sensations and what he calls "mind reading".
"Our study shows the psychological processes involved in mind reading, while also highlighting that internal sensations may be linked to a range of psychological abilities and difficulties," he said.
In the study, participants were shown video clips of various social interactions played out by different characters and asked a series of questions about the different people’s emotions, along with some control questions. Beforehand, they asked participants to count their heartbeats without taking their pulse in order to measure how well they perceived their internal bodily sensations.
The results showed that the people with a sharper ability to read others’ emotions were also the ones better at perceiving their heartbeat.
Difficulties with interoception are often associated with people with autism, and those who have problems managing social situations or perceiving emotions. Now that scientists understand the link between interoception and empathy, they believe it could help people address these issues, as Shah thinks it could be possible to train people to improve their heartbeat perception.
"An improved ability to interpret the internal states of oneself and of others could result in more accurate mind reading, and more generally improve someone’s social interactions and overall quality of life,” he concluded.