Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science

Embodiment and Self

The experience of having (and being) a body

A key aspect of conscious experience is the experience of being a self, and a key part of that is the experience of being, or having, a body.  Bodily experience is often approached from the perspective of multisensory integration, as illustrated in the now famous rubber hand illusion.

At the Sackler Centre we are extending these ideas using both new theory and innovative experimental methods.  Theoretically we are interested in the role of expectations (or 'priors') in shaping experiences of embodiment, following the principles of 'predictive coding' or the 'free energy principle'.  We test these ideas using our state-of-art virtual reality technologies, which include not only standard VR but also augmented and substitutional reality environments.  Using these methods, we are studying the experience of bodily self in various aspects, such as the feeling of body ownership, the feeling of agency and the feeling of presence. In addition, we have a strong focus on interoceptive signals, which tell the brain about the physiological state of the body. Various techniques for measuring physiological signals and interoceptive perception allows us to study how cognitive and affective aspects of consciousness and grounded in brain-body interactions.

Interoception and emotion

Interoception refers to the sensing of internal bodily sensations, such as being aware of one’s heartbeat. This sensitivity to internal bodily sensations through body-brain interactions can influence cognition in a multitude of ways. In a major body of work undertaken at the Sackler Centre, psychophysiological investigations combined with neuroimaging have begun to reveal new insights into the body-brain basis of interoception (Garfinkel et al, 2014), and to inspire important theoretical models of interoceptive inference (Seth, 2013).

This research programme is led by Sackler Centre Co-Directors Professor Hugo Critchley and Professor Anil Seth. Research highlights include:

  • Findings that emotion and cognition can be influenced by our bodily context, for example fearful stimuli presented in synchrony with one’s heartbeat may increase our sensitivity to detect these environmental cues (Garfinkel et al, 2014).
  • An influential new model of ‘interoceptive inference’, which applies the Bayesian brain framework to interoception and emotion (Seth, 2013).
  • An important distinction has recently been drawn between the ability to detect internal bodily signals (such as heartbeat), known as interoceptive accuracy, and the insight into one's ability to detect such bodily signals, known as interoceptive awareness (Garfinkel et al., 2015).
  • A recent discovery (using an innovative augmented reality paradigm) that visual feedback of heartbeat signals can modify the experience of body ownership (Suzuki et al, 2013).
  • A key strand of clinical research investigates cardiac influences on emotional experience in anxiety disorders.
  • The importance of body-brain interactions in clinical disorder groups is also further explored in work looking at the association between joint hypermobility (“double-jointedness”) and emotion in a variety of disorder groups, including developmental conditions and anxiety. 

This core strength of interoception research within the Sackler Centre provides important theoretical foundations for further strands of clinical work, including research into dissociation in psychosis and action control in Tourette Syndrome. Our clinical research on cardiac feedback and novel treatment options in anxiety disorders also makes strong use of Sackler Centre expertise in virtual reality technology.

References

Garfinkel, S.N., Minati, L., Gray, M.A., Seth, A.K., Dolan, R.J., Critchley, H.D. (2014). Fear from the heart: sensitivity to fear stimuli depends on individual heartbeats. Journal of Neuroscience, 34(19):6573-6582.

Garfinkel, S.N., Seth, A.K., Barrett, A.B., Suzuki, K., & Critchley, H.D. (2015). Knowing your own heart: Distinguishing interoceptive accuracy from interoceptive awareness. Biological Psychology 104:65-74.

Seth, A.K. (2013). Interoceptive inference, emotion, and the embodied self. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 17(11):565-573.

Suzuki, K., Garfinkel, S.N., Critchley, H.D., Seth, A.K. (2013) Multisensory integration across exteroceptive and interoceptive domains modulates self-experience in the rubber-hand illusion, Neuropsychologia, 51 (13).