By Dr. Katie Hoemann, KU Leuven
An inside look at interoception: How does it matter for our emotions during stress?
“How do you feel right now?” Many of us might answer this question by focusing on what’s going on in our minds – our thoughts, expectations, or hopes. However, what’s going on in our bodies – including how well we attend to it and what we believe about it – has a larger effect on our current emotional experience than we might think.
Interoception – how the brain and mind perceive and interpret internal physiological changes – is a hot topic in affective science. Although it was first introduced in the early 20th Century, interest in interoception has sky-rocketed in the past couple of decades. For example, a search of Google Ngram Viewer over the past 100 years shows an almost 600% increase in the incidence of the term since 2010 alone:
Despite its popularity, interoception remains poorly understood as the field grapples with its related constructs and the best ways to measure them. Interoception is most popularly measured as objective accuracy in detecting internal physiological changes (i.e., interoceptive ability) or as self-characterized awareness of bodily sensations (i.e., interoceptive sensibility). Yet people can also hold interoceptive beliefs about bodily sensations’ value or harm, and these beliefs might help shape how interoceptive signals are attended to and used. A test of the relationships between interoceptive ability, sensibility, and beliefs, and the role they play in linking physiological changes to emotional experience, could shed new light on the connection between body and mind.
2021 Best Dissertation in Affective Science Award winner Dr. Jennifer MacCormack performed just such a test. She conducted a large, laboratory-based study of physiological reactivity, emotional experience, and these three aspects of interoception (ability, sensibility, beliefs) in the context of an acute stress induction, putting over 200 healthy young adults through the Trier Social Stress Test. Dr. MacCormack’s aim was to clarify: What matters more for predicting emotional intensity – individuals’ physiological reactivity; how accurately they can detect physiological changes; whether they think they are sensitive to their bodies; or what they believe about their bodily sensations?
In line with past work, Dr. MacCormack found that greater physiological reactivity was related to more intense negative, high arousal emotions during the stressor task. In contrast, greater interoceptive ability was related to less intense negative, high arousal emotions while interoceptive sensibility was unrelated. Perhaps counterintuitively, interoceptive beliefs were the most consistent and robust predictor of acute stress experiences. Individuals with more positive interoceptive beliefs had less intense negative, high arousal emotions and these beliefs moderated the relation between physiological reactivity and subjective stress.
Methodologically, Dr. MacCormack’s dissertation brings clarity to research on interoception. Most studies focus on only one measure of interoception at a time and do not control for potential confounds with physiological reactivity, while also relying on image or film clip emotion inductions. Simultaneously examining multiple interoceptive constructs and physiological reactivity together in the context of an acute stressor
Theoretically, Dr. MacCormack’s findings suggest that although physiological changes and the ability to detect them matter for acute stress experiences, a priori beliefs about those physiological changes may matter more. Because interoceptive beliefs are likely acquired throughout life, they can also likely be changed to promote adaptive (i.e., less stressed) experiences. Her work dovetails with other research suggesting that the beliefs we hold – be they about our emotions (Ford & Gross, 2019), stress (Crum et al., 2017), or physiological arousal (Jamieson et al., 2010) – impact our bodily and affective states, for good and ill. On the whole, this work opens new research questions about intersections between psychopathology, development, and health, and the role our bodies play in these psychological processes.
Crum, A. J., Akinola, M., Martin, A., & Fath, S. (2017). The role of stress mindset in shaping cognitive, emotional, and physiological responses to challenging and threatening stress. Anxiety, Stress, & Coping, 30, 379–395.
Ford, B. Q., & Gross, J. J. (2019). Why beliefs about emotion matter: An emotion-regulation perspective. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 28(1), 74-81.
Jamieson, J. P., Mendes, W. B., Blackstock, E., & Schmader, T. (2010). Turning the knots in your stomach into bows: Reappraising arousal improves performance on the GRE. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46, 208–212.
MacCormack, J. K. (2020). Minding the body: The role of interoception in linking physiology and emotion during acute stress. Dissertation, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
MacCormack, J. K., Bonar, A. S., & Lindquist, K. A. (under review). Interoceptive beliefs moderate the link between physiological reactivity and emotion during an acute stressor.