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.
This is the sense of the internal state of our body. It helps us sense and interpret the internal signals that regulate vital functions in our bodies, such as hunger, thirst, body temperature, and heart rate.
Although we do not pay much attention to it, it is an extremely important sense, as it ensures that all systems of the body function optimally. To do this, it alerts us when our body may be out of balance, for example by making us take a drink when we are thirsty or telling us to take off our sweaters when we feel too hot.
Interoception is also important for our mental health. This is because it contributes to many psychological processes, including decision-making, social ability, and emotional well-being.
This sense is exclusively internal, it is the perception of the state of the internal organs of the body, which we experience in the form of sensations.
Disrupted interoception is 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 sleep disturbances or fatigue.
Still, as important as it is to all aspects of our health, little is known about whether men and women differ in how accurately they perceive their body’s internal signals.
Interoception Difference Between Men And Women
Now, to get a clearer picture, a scientific team has combined data from 93 studies that looked at interoception in men and women.
“We focused on studies that looked at how people perceive signals from the heart, lungs, and stomach in a range of different tasks,” explained Freya Prentice, a Ph.D. candidate at UCL’s Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health.
For example, some studies had participants count their heartbeats, while others asked them to determine whether a flashing light occurred when their stomach contracted or tested whether they could detect a difference in their breathing while breathing into a device. which makes it more difficult. do it normally.
“Our analysis found that interoception does, in fact, differ between men and women. Women were significantly less accurate on heart-focused tasks (and to some extent on lung-focused tasks) compared to men. These differences do not appear to be explained by other factors, such as the participants’ exertion during the task or physiological differences, such as body weight or blood pressure,” said co-author Jennifer Murphy Professor of Psychology at Royal Holloway University in London.
“Although we found significant differences between the heartbeat tasks, the results for 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 early to say whether men and women differ in their perception of these cues,” he added.
Interoception And Mental health
These findings may be important in helping us understand why many common mental health conditions (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 is possible that the differences detected explain in part why more women suffer from anxiety and depression than men. This is because difficulties with this “sixth sense” can affect many areas, including emotional, social, and cognitive function, which are known risk factors for many mental health conditions.
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 signals—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 the different physiological and hormonal changes that most men and women experience. It may also be due to differences in the number of men and women who are taught to think about their emotions or interoceptive cues, such as pain.
“Better understanding of all the factors that affect interoceptive ability may be important to one day developing better treatments for many mental health conditions,” the British researchers conclude.
The study has been published in the January issue of Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews.