What is interoception?
We understand interoception as a peculiar psychological function. This function is not fully natural reflective activity; being in contact with consciousness, it is mediated by culturally formed symbolic tools. Interoception has a specificity of development, because nobody can show and call inner sensations directly, say ‘this is it, it’s called this name’, a child himself ‘guesses’ what word is connected to what of his inner sensations. Interoception takes a special place in ontogenesis being dominating, probably even main in infancy. A range of inner feelings is very wide – from pain or itch to hunger or thirst. We have them diffusive and local, strong and barely sensible, indifferent and emotionally colored, vitally important and secondary. The fact that inner sensations are significant determinants of human behavior is seemed to be obvious. For example, a human being with acute pain is compelled to commit some acts to remove it – taking his medicine, looking for medical assistance, etc. Besides, he is aware of the pain, verbalizes and articulates it, reacts to it with mimic or pantomimic patterns, and another person, who sees this, is practically always able to say what sensations the patient has. Another example – a person with strong ‘toilet’ sensations, his behavior becomes fully under the command of these sensations. Thereby, we can determinate range of behavioral patters characteristic for a person with interoceptive sensations of some kind.
Modern researches in this field are very scanty. Researchers study brain areas connected to interoception , often in negative states or pathological forms of behavior , interoceptive vocabularies   . It is obvious that this important sphere definitely requires a much more deep study.
A question of interoceptive etalons, for instance, of ‘normal’ comfortable bodily state, is a very important one. It is assumed, that in his ontogenesis a person forms perceptive etalons and levels to some extend presented to his individual consciousness, for example, in vision we have these etalons for certain colors, and when a person sees an object of some color, a psychical mechanism compares the object color with etalons for different colors and an idea of the color of the object that the person has seen appears in the individual consciousness. The same takes place in interoception. There are etalons of pain, thirst, pleasurable bodily state and so on in our psyche. Probably there also are ‘levels’ (etalons for levels – strong, medium, weak interoceptive signals) for different inner sensations and mechanisms of qualitative qualifications of these sensations there (fixing them as familiar or not, ordinary or not, normal or not, etc.) Let us examine pain as an example. A person has some interoceptove sensation. First he knows that his inner perception doesn’t correspond to his usual comfortable state (differs from an etalon of usual comfortable state), this sensations is familiar to the person – this is exactly pain, not some diffuse sensations. Consciousness determines and names it as pain. Then mechanisms of comparison with etalons and levels inform consciousness what kind of pain it is – for instance, on the possibility of localization (diffuse or local), if local – on localization (from where the pain comes), on character – sharp, nagging, etc., on importance, on significance, on danger, etc., on power (weak or strong). So long as pain is not usual or normal interoceptive pattern, it signals that something is wrong in the organism, sensations will be differ from ‘normal’ etalon, and inner signal owing to the work of the proper mechanisms of comparison gets to consciousness. On the other hand in case of some chronic disease with constant pain the etalon of usual state can transform and inner mechanisms will compare inner signals with etalon of habitual pain. Presence of interoceptive etalons shows systematic character and complexity of the interoceptive analyzer. We can suppose that interoceptive etalons are not some specific element of psyche. They are just very familiar, most habitual inner sensations. However, allowing availability of some genetic factors which facilitate the formation of the etalons/standards of the internal perception, we could assume that there are some inborn ‘praetalons’, on the basis of which in the course of ontogenesis real etalons appear.
Signal function of inner sensations. This function seems to be apparent. A body signals to the consciousness about its state. We can conditionally divide interoceptive signals to concrete (localized) and diffuse (involving all the body) or signals of the way one feels (fluctuations of this way). Even normal ususal interoceptive background we can consider as a specific signal (‘everything is normal’). When the signal gets into consciousness, this signal gets primary meaning (‘pain’ for the above example). And further symbolic work of psyche adds to this meaning other personal symbolic understandings, transforms or broadens the primary meaning, mythologizes or metaphorizes it. So interoceptive sensations resulting from the work of difficult symbolic mechanisms can become means of expression not only natural needs, but also the others directly to them not connected, for example, communicative.
How interoception is connected to behavior?
As we already mentioned above, interoceptive signals are significant determinants of human behavior. Certain inner signal can launch a particular type of the conduct or determine the motive (an inducement to act) of the conduct. Thus pain can launch behavior of looking for medicine; hunger or appetite – of searching for food; sexual signals determine sexual conduct, etc. Behavior that has been launched of an interoceptive signal often is of a social nature. The power of an interoceptive signal determines the priority of conduct. In a case of a very strong signal behavior gets the highest priority, becomes urgent and starts to implement immediately. Let us define subjectively perceived as inconvenient (discomfort) or painful interoceptive signal as negative and subjectively perceived as comfortable as positive. We can assume that behavior motivated with negative interoceptive signal will be directed to the elimination of this signal. The behavior motivated with positive interoceptive signal – to its maintaining or intensification. Interoceptive signal, thus, has a regulatory function in the structure of the mental, and not simply tells the consciousness of organismic processes. We can also assume that interoceptive signal can be not only supraliminal for consciousness, in this case he is realized directly, but it can be subthreshold as well – a person is not aware of it directly, but there are certain psychological mechanisms for representing the signal to the mind indirectly – for example, through desires or ideas.
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