Feeling Our Bodies: Physical, emotional, and social awareness

There’s one thing always connecting us to our physical environment, our emotional experience, and our social relationships: our bodies. But what does this mean? How does the body simultaneously inform our physical, emotional, and social awareness? The research paper entitled “The specificity of the link between alexithymia, interoception, and imitation” offers a few insights into this question which support the idea that social and emotional self-awareness is integrally linked to physical self-awareness.

To help us with the technical terms, let’s start with a few definitions. As defined in the paper, alexithymia is a condition “characterized by difficulties identifying and describing one‘s own emotions;” interoception is “the perception of the internal state of one’s own body;” and imitation inhibition is reflective of the “ability to distinguish and control representations of the ‘self’ and of ‘others’.”

The paper builds on previous research indicating that 1.) increased alexithymia is associated with and possibly caused by reduced interoception (i.e., the less we’re aware of our emotions, the less we’re aware of our bodies) and 2.) increased interoception is associated with reduced inhibition of imitation (i.e., the more we’re aware of our bodies, the less we’re able to ignore others). The implications are that 1.) reduced interoception is associated with increased inhibition of imitation (i.e., the less we’re aware of our bodies, the better we’re able to ignore others), such that 2.) increased alexithymia should also be associated with increased inhibition of imitation (i.e., the less we’re aware of our emotions, the better we’re able to ignore others). The study described in this paper supports these conclusions, providing additional evidence that alexithymia is a function of interoception (i.e., our emotional self-awareness is a byproduct of our physical self-awareness).

At the same time, this and other studies described in the paper indicate that increased physical self-awareness relates to decreased self-vs-other awareness or ability to differentiate between awareness of self and awareness of others. Which seems odd — if we assume that increased self-awareness of one kind should positively correspond to increased self-awareness of another kind. However, these results make sense from an emergent systems perspective of cognition in which all physical information is initially processed at the same cognitive level. This would mean that we do not inherently perceive a distinction between the processing of internal (self) and external (other) physical information, such that being more aware of our own physical bodies would necessitate being more aware of others in our physical environment.

The present study sought to investigate the relationship between alexithymia and the ability to inhibit imitation, based on an association between imitation-inhibition and interoceptive accuracy (Ainley et al., 2014) and the hypothesis that alexithymia is characterized by interoceptive impairment (Bird & Viding, 2014; Brewer et al., 2015). Moreover, the specificity of the link between alexithymia and imitation-inhibition was investigated through the use of a task in which imitative and spatial compatibility effects could be dissociated.

Results were as predicted by models suggesting that alexithymia is a product of general interoceptive deficits; increasing alexithymia was associated with improved ability to inhibit imitation in the same way, and to the same degree, as interoceptive accuracy (Ainley et al., 2014).

The specificity of the link between alexithymia, interoception, and imitation | Sophie Sowden • Rebecca Brewer • Caroline Catmur • Geoffrey Bird

Our Bodies, Ourselves