Why do you feel?: A case for the evolutionary benefits of the ability to respond to our internal physical states

| Research on transformation, adaptation, behavior, and interoception |

One definition of learning is the ability to change our behaviors in response to our past experiences. A related dimension of learning involves the ability to respond in the moment to whatever changes are happening to us as well as whatever changes are physically, emotionally, and/or mentally happening within us.

At a different scale of learning, evolution involves an organism not only adapting to better fit its normative environment, but adapting to the ways both its external and internal environments change too.

In a paper on adaptation and behavior, scientists describe transformational events “such as genetic mutations, infection by parasites or symbionts, and change environmental encounters” that can affect how “an organism’s internal state changes in response to a given environment.” They argue that in these instances an organism’s capacity for interoceptive behavior (responsiveness to its internal physical environment) is a significant adaptive advantage over purely exteroceptive behavior (responsiveness to its external physical environment). By responding to its internal environment, an organism can effectively “adapt to the adaptation” necessitated by the various transformational events it might experience.

The topics of adaptation and behavior bring us back to themes of the body related to perception, awareness, and emotion. There is the implication that our ability to respond to our internal physical environment (interoceptive behavior) is enhanced by an ability to perceive our internal physical environment (interoception). It seems likely that insights from this research could also inform inquiries into emotional intelligence, mindfulness practices, and even organizational behavior.

Interoceptive behaviour, like other forms of phenotypic plasticity allow an organism to adapt to new environments… It is also now widely accepted that phenotypic plasticity can also facilitate adaptive evolution by influencing selection pressures via the Baldwin effect. Interoceptive behavior can provide these benefits, but… it can also automatically adapt to modifications in the way that an organism’s internal state changes in a given environment. Put another way, interoceptive behaviour can adapt to changes in the organisation of the organism itself…

What underlies this difference between interoceptive and exteroceptive behaviours? An organism’s internal
state is influenced by its environment, but in the absence of interoceptive behaviour, the converse does not generally hold; i.e. the environment is not particularly influenced by the organism’s internal state… This asymmetrical relationship limits the sensitivity of exteroceptive behaviour, while allowing interoceptive behaviour to adapt not only to changes in the organism’s essential variables, but also to changes in its environment and to the interaction between the two.


Adapting to adaptations: Behavioural strategies that are robust to mutations and other organisational-transformations | Matthew D. Egbert • Juan Pérez-Mercader


Baldwin effect | Wikipedia