Discovering the ‘Sixth Sense’ in Humans: Its Crucial Role in Maintaining Our Health & Well-being

It’s common knowledge that humans have five senses – touch, sight, hearing, smell, and taste. However, there’s a lesser-known sixth sense called interoception that many may not be aware of.

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Interoception gives us an awareness of the internal state of our bodies. It’s responsible for recognizing and responding to signals from within, like hunger, thirst, the need to regulate body temperature, and monitoring our heart rate.

We often overlook this sense, but it’s critical for maintaining the body’s internal balance and making sure everything is functioning properly.

For instance, interoception is what prompts us to grab a drink when we’re parched or to shed a layer of clothing when we start to overheat.

Moreover, interoception plays a key role in our mental health. It’s intricately involved in a range of psychological activities, from making choices to navigating social interactions and managing our emotions.

Disturbances in interoception have been observed in numerous mental health problems, such as depression, anxiety, and eating disorders. This could also shed light on why these conditions often present overlapping symptoms, like sleep disturbances or persistent tiredness.

Although interoception is crucial for all aspects of our well-being, there’s still much to learn about potential differences in interoceptive accuracy between men and women.

Research into whether cisgender men and women perceive internal signals from their heart, lungs, and stomach in distinct ways have yielded inconsistent findings. Uncovering any differences is vital for enhancing our grasp of the variances in mental and physical health conditions.

To gain a better understanding, we pooled data from 93 studies examining interoceptive differences between the sexes. These studies varied, with some requiring participants to count their heartbeats, while others assessed their ability to synchronize a flashing light with stomach contractions or to notice changes in breathing resistance.

Our findings indicate that men and women do experience interoception differently. Women generally showed less accuracy in tasks related to heart and, to a lesser extent, lung functions compared to men. These discrepancies don’t seem to be caused by factors like effort during tasks or physiological differences such as body mass or blood pressure.

The evidence is less conclusive for tasks beyond heartbeat monitoring, which could be due to the limited research on lung and stomach signal perception. It’s premature to assert definitive differences in these areas.

Understanding these findings is crucial, especially since conditions like anxiety and depression are more common in women post-puberty.

Several explanations have been proposed, including genetic, hormonal, personality factors, and exposure to stress or early life adversity.

However, given the importance of interoception for overall well-being, differences in this sense might partly explain the higher prevalence of anxiety and depression among women.

Problems with interoception can impact emotional, social, and cognitive functions – all known risk factors for mental health issues.

Recognizing how men and women differ in sensing internal cues could enhance mental illness treatment strategies.

Emerging research suggests that improving interoception can benefit mental health, with men perhaps relying more on signals like heartbeats for emotional processing than women.

There are also indications that women may be more attuned to interoceptive signals. This implies that therapeutic approaches focusing on interoception could be more effective for certain individuals, or that varied techniques might be necessary.

Future research must delve into these differences, even though the underlying causes remain unclear. Theories point to distinct physiological and hormonal variations, as well as differences in emotional or interoceptive signal processing, such as pain perception.

A deeper understanding of the factors influencing interoceptive abilities could be key to developing improved treatments for mental health conditions in the future.

Jennifer Murphy, Lecturer in Psychology, Royal Holloway University of London and Freya Prentice, PhD Candidate at Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health, UCL.

This article was originally published by The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Click here to read the original article.

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