Bodymaps pt 4: interoception, attention and the heart.

Bodymaps pt 4: interoception, attention and the heart.

So, where were we? Let’s review a couple of points:

– The entire body is “mapped” topographically in various areas in the brain. The best known of these areas are the somatosensory cortex and the motor cortex, but there are many others, some of which I’ll be introducing in this post. The “feelings” we have in our bodies correspond to activity in groups of neurons in these parts of the brain: stroke your left foot and neurons in the “left foot” areas will activate, imagine your left foot being stroked and the same neurons will activate, and (importantly) direct stimulation of the “left foot” areas of the somatosensory cortex will feel the same as your left foot being touched (there are different types of sensation which could be stimulated, like heat or pressure or stabbing, but we don’t need to get into that just yet).


– The take home message is that all sensation happens in the brain: if the foot is touched and sensory neurons in the extremities respond, spinal reflexes and other systems all the way into the brainstem and midbrain can be activated but if the signal does not reach the cortex you won’t feel a thing. Even reaching the cortex doesn’t guarantee that any given sensory signal will be consciously felt, since in any given moment the cortex is receiving a ridiculous number of signals from every sensory modality and only a few of them are strong enough to have a chance of entering our normal awareness.

All of these “bodymaps” are plastic: they are constantly changing and being updated in response to stimuli. If you spend time carefully stimulating every part of the skin of your right hand and moving all of the fingers, palm and wrist in every possible direction paying close attention to how it all feels, the “maps” in your brain representing your right hand will become more detailed (neurons will become more sensitive to smaller stimuli, they will form more synapses with each other, nerve transmission speed will increase, etc), you will feel more and what you do feel will be more accurate. If you injure your right hand and put all of the fingers and wrist in a cast so that they can’t move for months on end, those same maps will degenerate and you’ll feel much less. Thus, it is possible to feel one’s own body in ever-greater detail through appropriate practice.


Most of the various Eastern physical-spiritual traditions (and various others, old and new) involve a systematic exploration of all of the positions and movements of the various bones, muscles and joints of the body through “exercise” and of all of the more subtle sensations of the same areas and throughout the entire body through “meditation”. Those same traditions all place particular emphasis on breathing and drawing the attention into (and thus progressively increasing awareness of) the spine and the deep central axis of the body from the perineum at the base of the pelvic floor to the center of the skull.

I think that pretty much brings us up to speed, so now we can get into the really interesting stuff: interoception – feeling inside the body.

So what happens when we try to feel inside our bodies? Firstly, it’s often very difficult. Our brains and nervous systems are actually much more inclined to notice what’s going on outside: sounds, visual stimuli, smells, people (“what’s that? is it dangerous? can I eat it? can I have sex with it?) and so on. We usually don’t notice what’s taking place inside our bodies except for when they are uncomfortable: when we’re hungry, when we’re in pain, we’re hot, tired, or when we’re really exerting ourselves. Of course all of this makes evolutionary sense since most immediate dangers and rewards necessary for survival are outside, and maintenance of physiological processes needs to go on constantly twenty four hours a day and thus it would be far too tiring and complicated for us if we had to consciously monitor and regulate every breath and every heartbeat and every squeeze of partially digested food through our intestines. Nonetheless we do have sensory nerve endings distributed throughout the insides of our bodies that are transmitting information about the various tissues and organs in which they are embedded, all the time – we just don’t usually notice. Just as there are sensory nerves active in the little toe of your left foot right now, transmitting sensory information through your spinal cord to your brain, but you didn’t notice them because your attention was somewhere else (engrossed in reading my amazing blog – fascinating!)

Attention acts as a filter. The central nervous system is receiving a mind-bogglingly huge amount of information from the periphery constantly, and has to decide which streams of information deserve priority in any given moment, effectively turning up the volume and resolution on those streams and inhibiting the signals from all of the other streams. The slight tingling sensation in your little toe (which you’d no doubt forgotten about again) generally rates as “low priority” whenever just about anything else is going on, and the same is true for the sensations coming from activities inside the body. In order to clearly feel inside the body the attention must be trained so that it is strong enough to amplify the more subtle signals coming from inside while filtering out or inhibiting signals from the other senses.

Another reason we don’t feel as much from inside the body is that those sensory pathways which deal with the interior of the body are less myelinated and thus their signals are much slower and less distinct. These pathways are evolutionarily much older, the more recent pathways from the skin, muscles and joints have a well-myelinated “fast track” through the spinal cord to the cortex and so we are much more inclined to notice information coming in from them – even the little toe.

For the few people who would like to learn about such things in depth, here is one of Dr Najeeb’s excellent medical science lectures on “ascending tracts in the central nervous system”. I’m always (foolishly?) hoping that one or two other serious students of Yoga or Daoist alchemy, “Kundalini” practices etc will realize that our nervous system is where all the action is, and will start putting in some time and effort and giving it the attention it deserves.

Ok so that’s all a bunch of reasons why we’re not particularly aware of this thing called “interoception” – it’s not really that useful for getting things done out there in the world (actually it can be extremely useful, and it turns out that it’s absolutely essential for certain extremely important things, but more on that later) – but what actually happens when we DO feel what’s going on inside our bodies, what is it that we feel?

Screen Shot 2015-09-05 at 10.06.10 am

Blood flow. By far the biggest, strongest, most noticeable activity taking place inside the body is the beating of the heart. A huge ball of muscle, contracting strongly approximately once every second, pumping all of the blood in your body (about 5 litres) through your whole system every minute, causing every artery, vein and capillary in your entire body to pulsate rhythmically with every beat. Every second of every day.

Changes of pressure in the arteries. As blood surges through the system, the elastic walls of the arteries are stretched, so a wave of pressure moves from the heart towards the periphery, spiralling through the arch of the aorta, out through the neck into the head, through the armpits to the arms, through the stomach and down through the groin down to the legs and feet. The pulse, which can be felt by placing the fingers on any of several areas where the arteries pass close to the surface of the body, can be felt throughout the body simply by placing the attention wherever there is an artery and “tuning in” – using the power of selective attention to “focus” on the area and inhibit or “tune out” other competing signals.

With a bit of practice, it is possible to experience the entire body as a pulsating mass of of fluid-filled tubes, beating in time with the heart.

Well, these posts always seem to take longer, and contain more information, than I expect at first. I’ll leave this one here for now, and in my next post I’ll start on the actual method used in every tradition to develop the interoceptive sense: the breath!

In the meantime, for those who don’t mind a bit of serious science talk by serious scientists, this video by neuroanatomist Bud Craig is REALLY interesting:

  • Carole
    Posted at 02:22h, 31 July

    Hi there,
    I have just found your youtube channel and am so excited. After getting into Feldenkrais and Hanna Somatics your “primitive movement” demonstrations and explanations were just what I was looking for. Please, please keep ’em coming:-) Cultivation of movement rather than mindless fitness training is what it’s all about as I am now discovering rather later in life than I should ( Female, 54)
    Thanks so much for putting everything out there and I wish I could artend your class in person, but Hamburg, Germany is a bit too much of a distance!

  • simon
    Posted at 11:38h, 31 July

    Thanks! I’m really glad to be meeting and discovering more and more people thinking and moving along these lines. Obviously, this stuff blows my mind. Thanks for getting in touch – if you ever find interesting links to somatics or feldenkrais or other stuff I’m always keen to see it or read it. Look me (Simon Thakur) up on facebook too if you like!

  • Carole
    Posted at 22:08h, 01 August

    Hi Simon,
    I just posted part of this comment on an old article of yours by mistake. I am reposting it here with a few other interesting links.
    Here’s a clip that might interest you. Dr Frank Wildman performing some ancestral movements similar to the ones you do.. Enjoy:-)

    Here is a Ted Talk by a quantum computer scientist in which she uses bodymind principles from Feldenkrais to illustrate how to creatively solve problems.

    … and another Ted talk by Dr Amy Cuddiy on the relationship between power posing and mood elevation

    And finally, this is my blog on posture on tumblr

  • simon
    Posted at 23:16h, 05 September

    Carole! Thanks I just found this comment of yours, I’ve already seen Amy Cuddy’s talk and was very impressed, and able to implement her suggestions immediately, and use them to understand a huge amount of absolutely standard fundamental yoga, qigong, meditation postures and more. It’s fantastic. I’ll watch the other TED talk and also check your blog post tomorrow. Thanks!

  • Ramon
    Posted at 01:11h, 29 September

    Hey I know it may be a little off the the topic of the post but I was hoping you would have some insight into how to go about the process of sensing the microcosmic orbit now with these newer understandings? I have recently decided to begin that practice again but no longer view it as “moving energy”. Would you say doing vipassana along the orbit is an advisable option? Do you practice in this fashion? I want to really dive in deep into these interoceptions but feel a little lost as to how to go about it with this type of intent and terminology. Thanks man!

  • simon
    Posted at 14:48h, 01 October

    Hi Ramon, yes this is pretty much the way I practice now. We can use movements (like some of those I’ve shown in the “evolutionary movement patterns” videos to help us gain awareness of each individual vertebral joint and how it relates to the ones above and below, and also how it relates to the equivalent point on the front of the body, and the lateral structures to which it is connected (like the ribs). Then when we meditate we can focus our awareness on any point on the central axis, firstly feeling what is happening at the skin level, then following the movement of the breath in this area which will take our awareness deeper inside, until we become able to feel changes in blood flow in the area, and then eventually to feel even more subtle things taking place in what I can only assume to be the level of very small nerve capillaries (something I’ll write more about soon – if you want some good reading get the book “The Sensitive Nervous System” by David Butler). Obviously you can also practice following the breath as it moves through the whole central axis, move your awareness from the back of the body to the front, through the insides, or at each vertebral segment you can identify the equivalent points on the front and sides of the body and feel their relationships to each other through the insides.

    To develop the pinpoint awareness required to feel the really subtle processes, it seems to me to be essential to practice a lot (and always more and more and more and more) one-pointed attention training, on whichever point works best for you. I use the little spot at the entrance to the nostrils, above the upper lip (thanks Goenka), narrowed down to the size of a pin-head, and try to first make “contact” with the point and then practice “fixing” the attention there, focusing the awareness down to ever-smaller increments of time until it becomes an unbroken stream (sometimes for multiple seconds at a time!). Pranayama into pratyahara, dharana into dhyana, if you know your traditional yogic terminology.

    If you want really detailed meditation instructions, I absolutely recommend these texts:

    and this one (550 page manual by Buddhadasa Bhikku):

  • Ramon
    Posted at 12:14h, 13 October

    Thank you so much for the feedback! It is very helpful to know that others are experiencing this ancient world in a newer and clearer understanding. These methods are pretty powerful indeed. Without getting to into it to much, I had a hot burner style “kundalini awakening” when I was 17 and this happend along with a several month long cathartic episode see:

    The process it kick started has not really stopped (although slowed) for 6 years now. However one of its hallmarks for me has been really intense and somewhat what rhythmetic spinal undulations at peak moments of rapture. I have come to understand this process through the nervous/endocrine/fascial system’s and see it as a bioenergetic process.

    Anyway, last night after several days of various interoceptions (along with other variables) I had an EXPLOSION of undulation where I literally felt my bones as conductors and I could hear the humming of bioelectrical forces running across them. My spine undulated so powerfully that for a moment I could swear my thoracic cavity became parallel with the sky. This was all precipitated by an almost unbearable sense of oneness as all possible dualities neutralizing and collapsing into each other left me unable to separate any distinctions (myself included).

    Today I awoke not being able to walk straight so after laying nearly naked on the earth and having a great exploratory movement/play session I felt better although my spine has felt (hot) and sore all day. This process happens along with intense consolidations and clearings of inner psychosomatic processes and emotional material. There are many factors I think contributed to this recent episode but I am sure the interoceptions are part of it.

    I know that processes like that can be explained in these new modes of perception so I was bringing it up because I felt these types of experiences are relevant to this type of work. I will continue with the interoceptions and see how this process of inner awareness unfolds.

    Thanks again fellow traveler!

  • Dirk Broenink
    Posted at 08:42h, 23 December

    Did you end up writing the article about breath, as mentioned in this post?

  • simon
    Posted at 09:30h, 23 December

    No not yet. I got sidetracked by a science degree and a lot of training. Soon.

  • steve
    Posted at 09:00h, 24 December

    Hi Simon,
    My wife and I found your site a while back while continuing to self-educate on work by Feldenkrais and Thomas Hanna. We’ve been practicing these methods regularly and are pretty blow away by the results. We are both former elite athletes who ran into stiffness, injury and pain in our early 40s. Anyway, after years of experimenting with yoga, pilates, AIS stretching, massage and other methods, we feel VERY fortunate to have found such powerful tools to essentially reconnect our brain and body. The results speak for themselves. Since you are farther down this road than us, I’m wondering if you have any personal experience or knowledge about how improving the mental/body map affects efficiency and economy in terms of power output per liter of oxygen in things like running or cycling. It seems like improved sensory/motor connection would improve these endpoints, but I know that running and cycling training create targeted stiffness or extra tonus in certain areas of the body (like the ankle in running) and that plays a significant role in actually improving economy. That’s why performance has been shown to decrease if static stretching is performed before exercise. I’m really curious how improving the mental/body image affects economy. Perhaps there is an initial drop than further improvement with training. Not sure. We certainly feel much better running and riding (and after!), but we have not been tracking our performance data. Curious if you have any thoughts? Thanks, and keep up the good work! Steve

  • simon
    Posted at 13:21h, 24 December

    Thanks for the message Steve, and for the question! It’s an interesting one, which I can’t really answer simply, but I’ll quickly give a few ideas. Firstly – improving body awareness over all will (can, should, might, eventually) improve both recruitment in the muscles we want to use and relaxation of “parasitic tension” in the muscles which don’t need to contribute to the movements in question. So we can save energy by relaxing wherever possible, and also increase power output by recruiting more motor units. Breathing training and gaining voluntary control over smaller muscle groups like the intercostals etc can also add power, stability, help to maintain fine motor control by being more relaxed under pressure, etc.

    The flipside is that during the learning process, while we are consciously working on increasing body awareness, there is a tendency to “over think” or become over conscious of what we are doing, to that point that many people will experience phases of reduced coordination or clumsiness, or inhibiting the natural performance of familiar movements – “paralysis by analysis” kind of stuff. So it’s important to be able to practice with intense focus and awareness on increasing body awareness, but also to practice (or just “do”) the thing, cycling or whatever, in a natural way without trying to pay special attention to the body, just letting the body do what it knows how to do, without interfering.

  • steve jadatz
    Posted at 00:27h, 26 December

    Thanks, Simon. I can see your points. During the learning or “unlearning” process of work to improve the neural connections, we’re sort of re-organizing and creating the foundation for better performance in the future. Then, by practicing and doing the actual complex movements, like running for example, with the new foundation, we’re eventually able to become more powerful and efficient than we were. In other words, you can get to a certain level of performance in any skill with parasitic tension and body map issues. But, by taking the time to hit the reset button and refine the body map, that sets the stage for new and likely higher levels of future performance once the skills are practiced with this new foundation under them. That makes sense on paper at least:) Looking forward to continuing self-experimentation to see if this matches reality. Thanks for your insights!! Steve

  • Pingback:Spiral Anatomy, the Helical Heart and “Energy” | Ancestral Movement
    Posted at 12:03h, 28 February

    […] what this means is that interoception¬†– the feeling of physiological activity taking place inside the body – has potential […]

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