“Finer and finer performance is possible only if the sensitivity, that is, the ability to feel the difference is improved.”
― Moshe Feldenkrais
|Lincoln Stoller, PhD, 2019. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International license (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)
The Mechanical View
Interoception refers to a perception of what’s interior. It’s a simple word that’s recently seen an explosion of usage stimulated by in vivo techniques enabling us to see what’s going on inside living systems. The term itself is evolving and has already split into alternative definitions that reflect people’s preconceptions of what they’re looking at or looking for.
Reductionists are looking for the smallest units of things: the unit of memory, feeling, or emotion; where these fundamental units are and how they work. Mechanists are exploring the connection between what we sense and how we act. At a higher level, others are looking to understand what feelings and perceptions are, and whether these are real, and if they’re related. This is how I’m coming at it: pragmatically and without preconceptions.
The general feeling among reductionists is that physiology generates events in the brain. These build into forces that eventually come to awareness. There’s a seemingly endless amount published on the results of searching through the haystack of images, structures, and signals looking for some connection between cause and effect. The one idea that comes to me repeatedly is that these approaches lack insight. This stuff feels empty. I think this will always be the case when what you’re looking at is lifeless, as are the tools you’re using to look at them.
The Vital View
Explorations that begin with the seed of what you’re looking for are disparaged as unscientific. This is the fundamental reason that reductionist science, which is essentially all of current science, segregates itself from explorations of essence. All explorations that make contact with actual feeling begin with some element of it. None reduce to the inanimate. Here are some examples.
Eastern Medicine, including Traditional Chinese Medicine, acupuncture, and Ayurveda, all include fundamental life force, chi, yin/yang, or whatever. Spiritual healing, whether western or indigenous, depends on a link to an animated or power or direction. These cosmologies don’t work to explain this any more than physics explains the fundamental constants. The focus is on how these forces develop.
Applied kinesiology, or AP, is muscle testing. It involves asking verbal questions to a patient and expecting their musculature to answer. AP posits a connection between vital forces and mechanical actions and exists in the zone between the spiritual and the mechanical. AP asserts that you can ask questions to the numinosum, the “wholly other,” or the self, and get answers from the body.
Applied kinesiology gets to the heart of the vital view, and this view is full of uncertainty. I’ve seen it used by practitioners I trust to help direct them, and I’ve seen it used by charlatans I don’t for the purpose of benefiting themselves. The inability of a measure to discern the competent from the incompetent excludes vitalist approaches from scientific exploration.
Applied kinesiology is a psychosomatic technique with an interesting mechanical component. Other mind-matter approaches go much further. Rudolf Steiner’s biodynamics took permaculture into the mystical, while Wilhelm Reich took psychology into the realms of the crazy. Yet both broke ground from which new ideas are still emerging, nearly one hundred years later. People follow pioneers as far as is safe and bring back what they can.
I would similarly like to do the same in hypnosis. Aside from simple manipulations, no one really knows what hypnosis is. Of the many substantiated effects of hypnosis, one is the greatly enhanced ability of people to recover from surgery. In addition to decreasing pain and doubling the rate of post-operative healing, there are reports of significantly reduced blood loss through the clients’ apparent ability to control bleeding while under anesthesia.
The existence of what has been called “the hidden observer” is well established during hypnosis. This observer is an aspect of awareness present even when the conscious self has been disabled. This hidden observer is verbally self-aware self during deep hypnotic states and is only accessible during hypnosis, a which time the conscious mind is disabled. That is when under deep hypnosis a person can speak for their hidden observer, and this “person” is not the same as their conscious self because it sees, hears, feels, and remembers things of which the conscious self is unaware.
The Emerging View
In 2016, psychologists Norman Farb and Wolf Mehling wrote:
Interoception, the representation of the body’s internal state, is a growing target of scientific research, buoyed by a growing respect for contemplative traditions relating interoceptive awareness to the cultivation of well-being. An emerging interoception literature cuts across studies of neurophysiology, somatic anthropology, contemplative practice, and mind-body medicine.
Key questions include: How is body awareness cultivated? What role does interoception play for emotion and cognition across the lifespan as well as in different psycho-pathologies? What are the neurophysiological effects of interoceptive training in Yoga, mindfulness meditation, Tai Chi, and other embodied contemplative practices? What categories from other traditions might be useful in this investigation? How might the cultivation of interoceptive awareness improve resilience in chronic health conditions?
Such questions have historically been ill-addressed by Western science, which is still influenced by a 400-year Cartesian tradition that treats cognition as something fundamentally distinct from sense-perception.¹
(1) Farb, N, Mehling, W. (2016). Editorial: Interoception, Contemplative Practice, and Health. Frontiers in Psychology, 7.)
The reductive neural, electrical, and mechanical approaches are scientific but they are not insightful. Their taxonomy of perception establishes correlations with no understanding of what perception is or what’s perceived. They are like botany before genetics where everything was about categorizing, without the slightest idea of what might lay behind it.
Granted, the hypothesis of “vital force” also doesn’t say much about what underlies it, but it suggests a dynamic approach. It suggests perception exists for the purpose of achieving a balance or growth. Assigning sensations to brain centers will no more explain perception than assigning emotions to brain centers explains what’s felt.
One of the more pernicious and unreported drawbacks of the scientific approach is that it does not question itself. It does not question the authority of its practitioners, and it does not question their preconceptions. That is, after all, the goal of science: to discover answers, but the deepest inspiration comes from toppling old answers and building new questions.
You’ll find scarce few scientists who are willing to plow under their own gardens. Your average nonscientist has a healthier skepticism about what they believe—I exclude believers of religion because, like scientists, they are also intransigent. This lies at the root of scientific arrogance, which I presume we have all encountered. It feeds into the celebration of authority and a disdain for the creative.
The Pragmatic View
We should not pay so much attention to the brain. It’s an intermediate organ that stands between perception and apperception. Most of the brain’s function is to disable as there is far too much going on for us to handle. All this brain imaging B.S. is tantamount to a study of the gears of a clock in the search to understand time. We should improve our perception by perceiving more and more subtlety. Let’s see what arises in the higher plane of consciousness. Event potentials, ion concentrations, or enlarged grey matter tell us nothing about consciousness.
To turn around the metaphor we’ve all come to accept from The Wizard of Oz. We should, truly, “pay no attention to the little man behind the curtain.” He’s the one who makes things happen but, as that fable told us, he knows nothing. Consciousness, which is what we’re after, still lies beyond our reach, embodied in our perception of the Great Oz. Consciousness exists beyond the smoke and mirrors, not the mechanism that produces them.
You can learn to walk barefoot across burning embers without getting blisters. You can learn to push a sharpened knitting needle through your forearm and suffer neither pain or bleeding. The reason you don’t learn to do these things is because they hold risk and serve no purpose, but you could learn them.
There are things you can learn that are of less risk and greater benefit, but they may take you far outside the zone of normal thought and perception. The reason you don’t go there, don’t learn those skills, and don’t gain those benefits are discussed in Malcolm Gladwell’s new book Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know.
Gladwell argues trust has evolved as the basis of collaboration. Trust lies on top of perception, and in its support we adhere to consensus notions of communication and behavior. Rooted in this is the distrust of novelty, and the dis-attraction to nonconformity. We have so internalized this that to engage the different is, for many of us, a distraction.
The Historical View
Being sensitive involves overlooking convention. Introspection is a questioning and creative act. And when I say questioning, I don’t mean thoughtful. Most people are thoughtful—their heads are full of thoughts—but not questioning. Questioning involves being self-critical, and prevailing against outside criticism. If you are injured by criticism, you will not succeed in being creative.
Intellect has a bad rap, it’s poorly understood, and poorly employed. As children we experienced adults using logic, knowledge, and language as a weapon. If you want an easy lesson in hypnotherapy, listen to yourself and other adults talking to children.
When it comes to children, most adults are intellectual bullies not intellectual adepts. It is our experiences from childhood that make us wince when someone starts “explaining” things to us as our parents and teachers have taught us what “condescending” means. Once a child—or you—learns that sensitivity and self-expression bring pain, they—or you—will shut down. Becoming sensitive again is to become expressive, and requires reconsidering some old patterns of avoidance.
Our aversion to intellectualism also has cultural roots, as beautifully explained in Richard Hofstadter’s 1963 book Anti-intellectualism in American Life. Intellectuals have historically been linked to the ruling class, and the early US colonials were escaping the ruling class. This led to the odd combination of a need for invention and a rejection of expertise. This took root in the independence of Baptist churches, and the regionalism of the cultures in Western states that are manifest in Idaho, Wyoming, Texas, and others. And we see this still today, in the appeal of individualism and novelty associated with the West Coast, compared to the tradition and institutionalism of the East Coast.
Novelty triggers our innate sense of risk aversion. We celebrate creativity only after its benefits have been demonstrated. As authors Scott Barry Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire write in Wired to Create, Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind:
Why are paradigm-shifting ideas throughout history consistently, and predictably, ridiculed and rejected? It’s because, as a culture and as individuals, we’re deeply biased against creativity…
Unconventional ideas that break from tradition or challenge our existing ways of thinking, which nearly any important creative achievements do, often push us out of our psychological comfort zone. As a general rule, we don’t like things that challenge our habitual ways of thinking, which makes creative work a dangerous endeavor.
Our aversion to novelty is amplified in school. The primary purpose of compulsory schooling is not training but conformity, as this sort of schooling offers no opportunity for creativity: you cannot create within a context; creativity happens outside a context.
This lies at the root of the diagnosis of ADD/ADHD, as I explored in my 2014 article ADHD as Emergent Institutional Exploitation in The Journal of Mind and Behavior. It’s not that most students labeled ADD/ADHD can’t pay attention, it’s that they won’t! They are dying canaries in a poisoned atmosphere.
Cars are a good barometer of the social nature of identity and individuality. As I drove my son to school one morning, I considered what a nineteenth century person would think of cars today. Shapes have changed but society’s adherence to conformity hasn’t. To me, today’s cars all look the same. They all have the same not-really-aerodynamic aerodynamic look, and they’re still priced according to their sex or authority appeal. Cars epitomize how what society considers futuristic and creative isn’t really.
A Body of Work
I will write a book called Interoception that will encourage readers to explore new perceptions within their bodies. The insight for this comes from what we know can be accomplished using focused attention through hypnosis, and from the expanded awareness as derives from control of our mental frequencies.
I have developed a sensitive stomach, and this seems to derive from my stomach’s reluctance secrete juices and mix its contents. I have found I can communicate with, exercise, visualize, and imagine myself doing these things, and then they happen.
We all have had the experience on the toilet waiting to move our bowels. We succeed when our colon executes peristalsis and our anal sphincters relax. I have found that when I imagine, sense, and encourage these things happening beyond the limits of my direct perception, they start to happen. I rarely squeeze and never strain and I’m always able to move my bowels. Of course, I am in collaboration with my body and my requests are appropriate. This, too, is based on perception.
The HeartMath Institute, https://www.heartmath.org/, has patents on how to facilitate your heart’s optimal function. This occurs when your heart and breath rhythms are properly coordinated. I’s achieved by amplifying these signals to a level you are conscious of, and letting your natural inclinations take control. With these heightened perceptions, most people’s bodies naturally move into greater coherence, and they do so fairly quickly. Those with the most trouble are people with cardio-pulmonary disease and dysfunction. The HeartMath Institute provides data supporting the health benefits of improved heart-lung synchrony.
Interactive Metronome, at https://www.interactivemetronome.com/, is another biofeedback approach that amplifies perception. Through the use of electronic timing devices you can learn to improve your visual, muscular, and cognitive timing, and by that means your coordination and perception. Everything in your body works through a process of coordination, and this coordination rests on timing and sensitivity.
Each system, be they muscles or organs, must be ready and responsive, and each system must maintain its own internal clock rhythm as this is how synchrony is maintained. The simplest task is to clap or tap with accurate timing. Beyond that, the precise timing of any movement can be measured in microseconds, well beyond what has been sufficient for and familiar in your everyday responses. You can learn to improve your timing.
How do you learn to hit a fastball? How do you even see a fastball? Speed isn’t everything. Precision, synchrony, and poly-rhythmic complexity go well beyond the speed of one’s reflex into the realm of expanded awareness. It takes practice, but to succeed you must develop enhanced perception. How do you learn to perceive what you cannot perceive? You imagine it!
I previously recorded a guided visualization to improve your perception of your liver. I’ve now recorded an exploration of your small intestine, which you can access through the button below. I plan to create guided visualizations for other internal systems: organs, membranes, joints, and processes. These are exercises in enhanced internal awareness, and they are not that different from developing your awareness as part of the general process of personal growth.
It is likely that many of those things we internally perceive are, in fact, interactions with our external world. We are amplifiers, and not only don’t we always discern the internal from the external, but that is how the external communicates with us. The external world generates signals we perceive internally. It’s often unclear if these messages are inferences we’ve created, or events that we’ve perceived. For that reason, my book on interoception will also work toward heightened external perception, or subtle perception, as I prefer to call it.
We Hold Ourselves Back
There is plenty of external perception that we’re not aware of either because it’s too subtle, too quick, or both. In fact, as you must agree, we are unaware of almost everything that occurs in the world around us. This includes our own communication, must of which occurs without our intent.
Paul Ekman has made a profession of teaching people how to understand others. See his book Telling Lies: Clues to Deceit in the Marketplace, Politics, and Marriage for an exploration of our ubiquitous, facial micro-expressions—expressions that reveal our feelings and intentions which we are both unaware that we’re generating, and are not consciously aware of having witnessed. It only stands to reason that with exercise, we could do much better in a range of perceptual abilities.
However, there is a problem: we don’t want to. Interoception, and perception in general, is not an invasive process. Unlike medicine, school, and work, perception does not happen to you. Stimulus happens, but perception requires your compliance. You do this for yourself and until you learn how to alter your perception, you won’t.
I had a client who was plagued with anxiety and discomfort. They were in such a state of alarm that everything was a threat or was seen as a threat. After some time, I made it clear we could focus solely on establishing comfort. The offer was rejected because they preferred not to take the risk of doing anything. Instead, they said they preferred to give all authority to specialists. As they were not willing to collaborate in change, I expect they won’t.
If you have an interesting situation or experience, and you think you might gain greater comfort and control by becoming more sensitive, then tell me. I might create a guided visualization for it.
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