Estimated reading time: 4 minutes, 54 seconds
So continuing on from what I’ve been writing about the The Extended Mind book by Annie Murphy Paul, the first chapter is about interoception, which, roughly speaking, is our awareness of sensations within our bodies, like our heartbreat and such, not the senses that we use to interact with the external world. We all have some level of awareness of this, right, from how our heart beats faster when we meet a certain person, to how we start getting hot when we’re angry or anxious, to how our stomach flutters when we’re nervous. But apparently, also, this interoception impacts our thinking, and a lot of what I guess I used to call intuitive thinking and decision making that comes from the sort of shortcircuiting that our bodies tell us before our conscious mind can rationalize things? I have not even finished the first chapter and I have a million connections to make with my teaching and my life.
First of all, there is an element here of what interoception is which reminds me a bit of Malcolm Gladwell refers to in “Blink”, about how experts make quick decisions that they cannot explain to others? Citing Damasio’s research, Paul writes, “The body not only grants us access to information that is more complex than what our conscious minds can accommodate. It also marshals this information at a pace that is far quicker than our conscious minds can handle” (p. 37 on the edition I have). Here are some applications I can think of for some of the stuff I’m reading:
Checking in out loud
I’ve been checking in with anyone I meet, especially online, but also in person. Starting most meetings, workshops, classes, even one-on-one with friends, with “how are you feeling?” and I’ve been doing this because I care, and because I don’t think we can move onto anything before we check first how folks feel. What I found really interesting in this book is the claim that “Attaching a label to our interoceptive sensations allows us to being to regulate them” and “giving a name to what we’re feeling has a profound effect on the nervous system, immediately dialing down the body’s stress response.” Even to the extent of having a “calming effect”. So I think I am realizing that asking people how they feel (though I’m not asking them necessarily to monitor their internal sensations like heartbeat (without putting your finger on your pulse, per se, I think), but to name how their body is feeling or how they’re feeling overall) is not necessarily just good because it shows I care or because I get to know how they’re feeling, but that the act of actually articulating it in and of itself is potentially calming. This makes me feel also what I feel when I do breathing exercises. Breath is, of course, automatic/reflex, but when we pay attention to it, and more, when we attempt to control and make it work in a more intentional way, taking deep breaths, holding them in, letting them out in particular ways, paying attention to where the breath comes in, stays, leaves… this sensation is incredibly calming. It can literally make my pain in other parts of my body go away, and it can calm me down when I’m angry or anxious. I assume it’s similar for other people, if you figure out the way to do it to help yourself. So perhasp what I’m taking from this is encouragement to continue checking in, to continue helping others articulate (in another part of the book, Paul talks about the importance of being prolific and also granular/specific about naming the feelings) and also not just the emotions but the physical inner sensations. I’m also going to work with my child on this as a way to deconstruct and address fears she has that she cannot articulate, but that sometimes paralyze her in her thinking in school (e.g. math exams) and sports activities (esp horseback riding, which is legitimately scary to be honest!)
On Bias and Interoceptive Learning – and game play in my class
So I teach about bias and othering, and we know a lot of bias is unconscious, and we tend to teach that becoming more aware/conscious of our biases is the way to go to overcome them. However, in this book, the claim is that we cannot simply reduce bias by self-monitoring – that doing so, we will “come up against human cognitive limits”. Instead, the suggestion here is to cultivate “interoceptive learning” and use something like an “interoceptive journal” where we keep track of how we feel as we make choices. In my class, students play games meant to promote empathy, and they create their own. I have always asked them to play some in class and play some at home, and reflect on how the games made them feel, what they learned, etc. The game are usually on the “choose-your-own-adventure” type of game, so students are constantly making a choice between 2 or more options to advance the game.
This time around, I may ask them to also keep an interoceptive journal, following a suggestion in this book, where students look at all the choices in front of them for each step of a game, and they reflect on how each step makes their body feel, and then when they make their choice, how their body feels after that.
I wonder if this might also be a helpful exercise to do when we’re reflecting on how we use social media and whether we’re addicted to it – what kind of feelings in our bodies do we get when we get a notification, etc.
Apparently, interoception can help improve resilience. I’m not really sure how, because I’m not there yet 🙂
So this is where I’m at now! What do you think?