By: Sophie Bellenis, OTD, OTR/L
Occupational Therapist; Real-life Skills Program Manager and Coach
Conventionally, children are taught that there are five different senses, and that these senses help them to experience and understand the world around them. These five senses are sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. Clinically, we refer to these sensory systems as the visual, auditory, olfactory, gustatory and tactile systems. Each system provides unique information and works to alert the brain about the environment around them. Children all develop these systems differently, and all have unique preferences, strengths and interpretations of the world around them. As adults, a sommelier likely has an incredibly refined gustatory system, while a classical musician’s strength lies in their auditory system.
As knowledge about the human body continues to expand, two additional sensory systems have started to make their way into the common lexicon—the vestibular system and the proprioceptive system—both of which describe body awareness. The vestibular system gathers information from the inner ear and tells us where our body is in space. It monitors movement, acceleration and deceleration, balance and any changes in position. A gymnast uses this sense constantly as they flip across a mat or balance on the beam. The proprioceptive system gathers information from our muscles and joints and tells our brains about our position in space and any strength or force that we are using. Proprioception allows us to touch our noses with our eyes closed! These seven senses are all generally acknowledged and frequently assessed by occupational therapists. But what is interoception? And why is it referred to as the hidden sense?
Interoception refers to the perception of information coming from inside the body. Organ systems and the autonomic nervous system provide information about heart rate, hunger, thirst, temperature, respiration and even emotion (Vaitl, 1996). This sense of interoception helps us meet our most basic needs, such as knowing when we need food and water, realizing that it is time to use the restroom and putting on a jacket if it is cold outside. It also helps us to gain a more nuanced understanding of ourselves, such as realizing that an activity is making us anxious by acknowledging heightened heart rate and perspiration. This sensory system is often referred to as the “hidden sense,” because it is completely unique to each individual and no one knows exactly what someone else is feeling internally.
Children develop this sense slowly, with the most basic cues, such as hunger being recognized first. As they continue to grow, different internal signals are more easily understood and start to impact behavior. For example, around the age of two or three, most children start the process of potty training when they begin to recognize what it feels like to have a full bladder. As children continue to grow through their elementary, middle and high school years, this sense continues to be refined. As is expected, this is easier for some children than others.
Recent research shows that there is a strong connection between interoception and emotional/self-regulation. Individuals with low interoception often have more difficulty with both understanding and regulating their bodies and emotions (Zamariola et al., 2019). It appears that the ability to truly understand our body allows us to more intentionally control our responses. Luckily, as with other sensory systems, there are ways to increase interoceptive awareness and help children to notice the information that their bodies are feeding to their brains. In our next OT Tuesday blog, we will discuss some tips and strategies for helping children to perceive, understand and appropriately respond to this internal information.
Vaitl D. (1996). Interoception. Biol. Psychol. 42 1–27. 10.1016/0301-0511(95)05144-9
Zamariola G., Frost N., Van Oost A., Corneille O., Luminet O. (2019). Relationship between interoception and emotion regulation: new evidence from mixed methods. J Affect Disord 246:480–5. doi: 10.1016/j.jad.2018.12.101
About the Author
Dr. Sophie Bellenis is a Licensed Occupational Therapist in Massachusetts, specializing in educational OT and functional life skills development. Dr. Bellenis joined NESCA in the fall of 2017 to offer community-based skills coaching services as a part of the Real-life Skills Program within NESCA’s Transition Services team. Dr. Bellenis graduated from the MGH Institute of Health Professions with a Doctorate in Occupational Therapy, with a focus on pediatrics and international program evaluation. She is a member of the American Occupational Therapy Association, as well as the World Federation of Occupational Therapists. Having spent years delivering direct services at the elementary, middle school and high school levels, Dr. Bellenis has extensive background with school-based occupational therapy services. She believes that individual sensory needs and visual skills must be taken into account to create comprehensive educational programming.
Neuropsychology & Education Services for Children & Adolescents (NESCA) is a pediatric neuropsychology practice and integrative treatment center with offices in Newton, Massachusetts, Plainville, Massachusetts, and Londonderry, New Hampshire, serving clients from preschool through young adulthood and their families. For more information, please email email@example.com or call 617-658-9800.