The 8th Sense
By Shea Daniels, LPCC-S
“Wait, isn’t that a movie? Except it’s the 6th sense, and it’s about ghosts?”
Well, yes, sort of, but also no. While we teach children there are 5 senses, really there are 8 senses. Five are what we call external senses: hearing, seeing, smelling, touching, and tasting. The three lesser known senses are what we call internal senses: vestibular, proprioceptive, and last but definitely not least, the star of today’s show, the 8th sense (drum roll, please!).... Interoception.
Interoception means how we understand our internal bodily sensations. Like, when your stomach hurts, are you nervous or sick? If you’re warm, do you have a fever or are you angry? How do you tell the difference? Interoception includes being able to accurately know if we are hungry or full, understanding what our heartbeat might be telling us, understanding the physical sensations related to emotions, and more.
Interoception can be tricky.
Think about it this way: there’s like 21 pink crayons in the big Crayola crayon box. They’re all crayons, and they’re all pink, but some of those pinks scream pop art (looking at you Razzle Dazzle Rose) while others are better for coloring kitten paws or bunny ears in coloring books.
A sensation as simple as your stomach feeling funny, feeling your heartbeat, or noticing your skin has goosebumps, can also have many potential causes. For some people identifying the underlying likely cause feels simple. Their sense of interoception goes off without a hitch, and it may even be nuanced enough they would be able to tell you that they’re a tiny bit hungry, or very nervous, or have the stomach flu, because they’d be attuning to the differences in those sensations.
For other people…especially neurodivergent folk like folk with Autism or ADHD, sensory processing often works a bit differently. We often talk about sensory processing difficulties with the 5 senses we teach second graders to rattle off, but sometimes as a collective society we forget those other, equally important, senses.
Sensory processing differences related to interoception can be impactful to our mental health, including by contributing to alexithymia, or the difficulty neurodiverse people may experience in being able to identify and describe their emotional state. Some people may even find small internal sensations feel magnified and therefore troubling, or even that large internal sensations don’t show up on their internal Brain Radar (this is a Shea-ism, not a Legit Scientific Term) leading them to be less aware of when they’re too hot or cold or hungry or etc.
Brains are tricky.
Brain Radars are tricky. Emotional Regulation doesn’t have to be. If you’re struggling to understand your internal bodily sensations, your own emotions, or how to self-regulate, talking with a mental health professional can be a good first step.