Listen to your body. What’s your gut reaction? What does your heart tell you? We use these expressions to describe how we interpret bodily sensations as information. For example, you may get a queasy feeling in your stomach when you meet someone and wonder if you can trust them. Or, you may feel a pang in your heart when someone shares their story, and you feel like reaching out to help. But, sometimes your body signals might be hard to interpret, or you may discover later that your sense of them was incorrect.
What makes one person better at interpreting these signals than others?
You experience your body from the inside and out: You can be aware of how your skin and limbs look, but also how hungry you feel, or how strongly your heart beats during exercise. The processing of internal bodily stimuli is called interoception. While body image refers to external, appearance-related perceptions, affect, and cognitions, your body image is often evoked when you look at yourself in the mirror.
It turns out that how you feel about your body determines how good you are at understanding your body’s internal signals. Interoception includes sensitivity to bodily sensations, the accuracy of interpreting those sensations, and unconscious processes too.
How we see ourselves in the mirror can vary a good deal. For example, some people take great pleasure in their appearance, while for others, a glance in the mirror can evoke feelings of shame and self-reproach. Clearly, we should strive for a positive body image for our mental health and well-being. And now, a new study shows that the effects of a negative body image may be more far-reaching than we realized.
Study: Body Image and Interoception
New research reveals that the strength of the connection between the brain and internal organs is associated with how people feel about their appearance.
This study published in Cortex investigated the association between body image and the brain’s processing of internal signals. The research participants were a group of healthy adults in the UK. They took four body image assessment questionnaires that measured: feelings of body appreciation, body functionality appreciation, body shame, and weight preoccupation.
The researchers then used measurements to assess the participants’ interoception processes. Some of the messages from the heart and gut are processed below conscious awareness. The nervous system interprets these signals and updates the brain continuously with information about the body’s internal state. Unconscious signals such as the strength of the connection between the gut and the brain were measured by recording the electrical activity of both regions simultaneously. They also measured the brain’s responses to heartbeats.
The researchers found that adults whose brains were less efficient at detecting these internal messages were more likely to have a negative body image. Specifically, they discovered that weaker brain responses to the gut and heart were both significantly associated with greater levels of body shame and weight preoccupation in the participants. That is, the less responsive the brain was to the signals from inside the body, the more likely it was that the individuals held negative views about their external appearance.
The researchers reasoned that it might be that when the brain has a weaker connection to the internal body, it’s because the brain puts more emphasis on the external body as a habit of self-awareness. So one’s appearance becomes much more important for self-evaluation than how one’s body feels.
Prior research has consistently shown that negative body image disrupts interoception on a conscious level (like being able to track your heartbeat or the sensations of fullness in your stomach). And now we know that this effect occurs at a deeper, unconscious level too.
The research adds to evidence that a negative body image can seriously impact the quality of one’s life. Perhaps it might be possible to train people to become more aware of internal sensations, and that might be possible to amplify these bodily signals so they focus more on how they are feeling than what they might look like to others.
Dr. Tara Well is a psychology professor at Barnard College in New York City where she developed a mirror-based meditation called “a revelation” in the New York Times. She has taught hundreds of people how to use the mirror to awaken self-compassion, manage emotions, and improve face-to-face communication. Find out more at www.MirrorMeditation.com
Image courtesy of Sasha Kim.