We have a “sixth sense” which is the key to our well-being, but only if we listen to it
Most people are familiar with the five senses (touch, sight, hearing, smell, and taste), but not everyone knows that we have an additional sense called interoception.
It is the sense of the internal state of our body. It helps us feel and interpret internal signals that regulate our body’s vital functions, such as hunger, thirst, body temperature and heart rate.
Although we don’t pay much attention to it, it is an extremely important sense because it ensures that every system in the body is functioning optimally.
It does this by alerting us when our bodies may be out of balance, such as giving us a drink when we’re thirsty or telling us to take off our sweater when we’re too hot.
Interoception is also important for our mental health. Indeed, it contributes to many psychological processes, including decision-making, social ability, and emotional well-being.
Disturbed interoception is even reported in many mental health conditions, including depression, anxiety, and eating disorders. It may also explain why many mental health conditions share similar symptoms, such as trouble sleeping or fatigue.
Despite the importance of interoception to all aspects of our health, little is known about the difference between men and women in the accuracy with which they perceive their body’s internal signals.
So far, studies that have investigated whether cisgender men and women (a person whose gender identity matches their biological sex) perceive and interpret interoceptive signals from their heart, lungs, and brain differently. their stomach gave mixed results. Knowing if there are differences is important because it can improve our understanding of differences in mental and physical health.
To get a clearer picture, we combined data from 93 studies looking at interoception in men and women. We focused on studies that looked at how people perceive heart, lung and gastric signals in a range of different tasks.
For example, some studies asked participants to count their heartbeats, while others asked participants to determine whether a flashing light occurred when their stomach contracted, or tested whether they could detect a difference in their breathing while breathable in a device that makes it harder to do it normally.
Our analysis revealed that interoception actually differs between men and women. Women were significantly less accurate in heart-focused tasks (and to some extent, lung-focused tasks) than men. These differences do not appear to be explained by other factors, such as the effort exerted by the participants during the task, or physiological differences, such as body weight or blood pressure.
Although we found significant differences between the heartbeat tasks, the results for the other tasks were less clear. This could be because only a small proportion of studies have looked at the perception of the lungs and stomach. It may be too soon to tell if men and women differ in their perception of these signals.
Our results may be important in helping us understand why many common mental health problems (such as anxiety and depression) are more common in women than in men starting at puberty.
Several theories have been proposed to explain this – such as genetics, hormones, personality, and exposure to childhood stress or adversity.
But since we know that interoception is important for well-being, it’s possible that differences in interoception partly explain why more women suffer from anxiety and depression than men.
Indeed, interoception difficulties can affect many areas, including emotional, social, and cognitive functions, all of which are known risk factors for many mental health problems.
Knowing the differences in how men and women perceive interoceptive cues may also be important for the treatment of mental illness.
While new studies suggest that improving interoception improves mental health, studies also suggest that men may use interoceptive cues – for example from their hearts – more than women when processing their emotions.
Other differences have also been reported, with studies suggesting that women pay more attention to interoceptive cues than men.
This could mean that treatments that target or seek to improve interoception may work better for some people, or that different techniques may work better for others. This is something that future research will need to investigate.
But while we know these differences exist, we still don’t know what causes them. Researchers have a few theories, including distinct physiological and hormonal changes that most men and women experience. It may also be caused by differences in how many men and women learn to think about their emotions or interoceptive cues, such as pain.
Better understanding all of the factors that affect interoceptive ability may be important for one day developing better treatments for many mental health conditions.
Jennifer Murphy, Lecturer in Psychology, Royal Holloway University of London and Freya Prentice, PhD student at the Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health, UCL.
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.