PsychologiCALL

On interoception, with Dr Jenny Murphy

June 18, 2020 SalvesenResearch Season 1 Episode 9
PsychologiCALL
On interoception, with Dr Jenny Murphy
Show Notes Transcript

Dr Jenny Murphy is a psychologist at Royal Holloway University of London who specialises in interoception and social perception. During this podcast she chats to Sue about a piece of work looking at the relationship between interoceptive attention and interoceptive accuracy.

You can follow Jenny on Twitter here.

The paper discussed in this episode is:
Murphy, J., Brewer, R., Plans, D., Khalsa, S. S., Catmur, C., & Bird, G. (2020). Testing the independence of self-reported interoceptive accuracy and attention. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 73(1), 115-133.

Sue:

[Podcast jingle] [ringtone] Hello? Oh, it is recording. I see the little figure. Okay, great. I will do my little spiel and then I'll introduce you. Nice. Okay. Here I go. Hi everyone. I'm Sue Fletcher-Watson from the University of Edinburgh, and we are recording another PsychologiCALL this time with Jenny Murphy from Royal Holloway University of London. And I'm really excited to talk to Jenny today. I approached her because I saw that she'd been doing some work on interoception, which is something I'm really fascinated by. And I think is probably fairly understudied. Um , I thought it might be interesting for some of you to hear about this as well, so, welcome Jenny, how are you today?

Jenny:

Good, thank you! Thanks for inviting me on!

Sue:

You are very welcome! So , um, yeah. So why don't you start by telling us a little bit about what you've been discovering about , uh, interoception in this piece of research.

Jenny:

Sure! Uh, so really the key finding in this study was that self-reported interoceptive accuracy and self-reported interoceptive attention don't show a linear relationship with each other. So the amount of attention you pay to your body, or that you think you pay to your body, doesn't seem to map onto how good you think you are at accurately perceiving these signals from your body. So really that was the key finding from here.

Sue:

Okay. So, so I could be spending a lot of time thinking about my kind of physical states, if you like, but that doesn't mean I'm actually very good at working out what those physical states are.

Jenny:

Exactly. So we don't know how this relates in terms of , um, objective tasks. Um, so in this study we're focusing on self report measures, but it seems to be that the amount of attention you think you're paying to your body doesn't necessarily map on to how accurate you think you are. And that kind of makes sense if you think about situations, we might find ourselves in. So you might feel like you're always paying attention to whether you need to go to the toilet, but find that when you go to the toilet that you don't need to , um , in the same way that we might invite someone into the lab to do a study, and they're very good at receiving their internal signals, but in their everyday life, they don't pay attention to them at all. So it's not necessarily surprising that we don't find the relationship between the two, that this hasn't necessarily been, I think, appreciated in the literature before.

Sue:

Mmh... So before we go any further, I think probably we should backtrack a little bit and just define what we mean by interoception because it's maybe not a familiar term to some people.

Jenny:

Sure. Well, defining interoception is somewhat easier said than done [laugh], but most people I think would agree that when we, we were talking about interoception, we're referring to how you perceive or evaluate the internal state of your body. So things like your heart beating, your breathing, or when you need to go to the toilets. Um... Where researchers disagree is exactly what would be an internal signal. So the boundaries between internal and external can be a little bit fuzzy. Um , but for most signals things like your heartbeat, breathing, gastric signals, I think most people would agree that these would be , um, interoceptives.

Sue:

Um , and what about the , um, interpretation of those signals? Right. So it's one thing for me to attend to my heart rate, for example, and then it's a different thing for me to work out if I'm feeling anxious or not. Right. I might use my heart rate, if I think it's racing really fast, I might use that to inform myself perception of anxiety, but, but they are still two separate things. So is , is there a boundary there where interoception stops and sort of, I don't know emotion starts or , or is it...

Jenny:

It's a great question! I don't actually think that anyone has , uh , pretty much narrowed, narrowed this down, to be honest. I think if we think back to the sort of very old studies , um... So for example, where we see that it's not just the internal signal that results in the emotion, that it's also the sort of cognitive evaluation of the signal, as well as signals from our , from our environment, that feed into sort of how we interpret a signal. Um, we would say that although the internal signals are important for our experience of emotions, they- they're not everything. So it's sort of , uh , potentially a sort of multiple stage process where we might have our heart racing fast, um... But then we might, in certain situations say that we feel excited. Um, for example, if we're watching a football game and our team is just about to win, whereas in another situation, if our heart is beating and we're about to give a class presentation or something like that, we might say that we feel nervous or anxious.

Sue:

Um, okay. So, so given these , um, challenges defining interoception then I think obviously the next question is how you measured it. So you've talked that it's self-report measures , but I wonder if you could describe in a bit more detail what those measures look like and also who, who you were doing this study, with who your participants were.

Jenny:

Sure. So in terms of our participants for this study , uh , we, well, there was multiple studies in this paper, but for most of them we used opportunity samples. So this is: anyone who responds to the study invite is invited to take part , um, in terms of the , uh, first question regarding the questionnaire . So for this study, we actually developed a new questionnaire of self-reported interoceptive accuracy. And this is because, well , there , there is one , um, that is available. We... There aren't actually many questionnaires that fully separate sort of attention and accuracy. So most questionnaire measures of interoception seem to be sort of an amalgamation of different aspects of interoception and sort of evaluation of internal signals. So we had in the end throughout most of the studies three questionnaires, so one that was asking participants how aware they are of internal signals during most situations. So this would be how much attention they're paying to these signals. And then now there are two questionnaires, one that we divided that was simply asking, you know , whether you agree with statements, like "I can always accurately perceive where my heart is beating fast", and another questionnaire, which , um , was developed by Rebecca Brewer . And this questionnaire , um , has specific examples. So it would be things like "when I turn the heat up in the car, other people feel uncomfortable". And so although this would be a measure of accuracy, the tricky thing with this kind of questionnaire is it's specific situations. And so people might not agree with that situation, but might still have difficulties perceiving when they're hot and cold, for example. So those are the three measures that we used in this study.

Sue:

Um, and what kind of analysis did you do with this? So you said it was a non-linear relationship. So was it sort of more than just looking at correlations? It sounds like there could have been something complicated!

Jenny:

Yes , no, no. So mostly it was just looking at correlations. I guess the most complicated aspects of the study , um, although not too complicated, was the factor analysis. Um, so because we developed this new questionnaire, we evaluated it , uh, to some extent. And so what a factor analysis basically is, is looking at whether all of the questions on the questionnaire have a sort of similar response pattern , um , and other aspects that we looked at as well after we collected that data, we had a sort of secondary set where we look to confirm this pattern and see if we find the pattern that we found in the first set of data in the second set of data. Um, but unfortunately the factor structure of this questionnaire is not perfect. And so we're still collecting more data, we're looking at it now, finally got a big sample collected to have another look and see what's going on in terms of the factor structure.

Sue:

Mm . So when you say "not perfect", what were you hoping for? Did you want it all onto load onto one big factor or were you expecting some sort of sub-domains of different kinds?

Jenny:

So I guess that we were sort of expecting that either we would find a one factor solution or if we did find multiple factors that they would be interpretable. [Laughs] I think that what we, what we did find is that signals that were potentially not very socially acceptable. So certain gastric signals , um, tended to load onto one factor, but , um, and also sort of items that seem to be sort of , uh... where your internal state is maybe disrupted in some way. So for example, if you need to burp , um, but the... It wasn't a clean differentiation, so it didn't seem that these followed particular neural pathways , it didn't seem that there was a very clear gripping of why we had this two factor solutions. So we focused on , um, the total scores for our analysis, but I'm hoping that with these larger dataset , we'll be able to get a , a better idea of what's going on in terms of the actual structure and gripping of beliefs regarding your accuracy of perceiving different signals.

Sue:

I can, well, imagine though, I mean, if you're asking people questions about how , um, how alert they are to some of those internal states, then you're going to get a loss of response bias from people who , um , are well brought up and don't want to [laughs] confess to their, to their , uh, knowledge of their internal states [laughs]!

Jenny:

Yeah. I imagine there is an element of that, for sure. I think partly having these sort of responses anonymous helps, [laughs] but , [laughs] but yeah, I think that there certainly might be individual differences in that , um, and potentially even cross-cultural differences as well. Um, so we've collected some recent data looking at that, though I haven't had a chance to look at it yet, so it'd be interesting to see whether the factor structure holds across different groups.

Sue:

Hmm , really interesting. Yeah. I mean, we do have an issue don't we more broadly in psychology with a sort of lack of diversity in our samples. So I think that's very valuable. Um , so what do you think then we can learn from this? You mentioned , um, you know, this is one study of a group of studies, so hopefully to kind of think more broadly about , um, the lessons from this research, I suppose I'm particularly interested in what it might have to tell us about , um, children and child development and so on, you know, kind of broader literature.

Jenny:

Sure. So I guess in terms of the sort of potential separation between accuracy and attention with regards to interoception is that thinking about these separately might be useful for understanding how interoception might relate to mental health. So certain conditions like anxiety, for example, might be related to more attention to internal signals, but not necessarily greater accuracy. And in the same way, as we kind of mentioned earlier, when the emotional abilities might relate to your interoceptive accuracy, but not necessarily your interoceptive attention. And so I think if we can find distinct patterning across , uh, different , uh, conditions, we might actually be able to resolve some of the mixed findings that there are in the fields and also in the, in the future, this is potentially a way towards , uh , personalized and more effective interventions if we want to adjust different aspects of interoception. So if, if a difficulty is due to too much attention that might be related to sort of a very different intervention or benefit from a very different intervention to someone who has difficulties perceiving these internal signals, if you see what I mean.

Sue:

The causality of it is quite interesting as well, isn't it? Because I can, well, imagine that if my... If I didn't feel I was very accurate in interpreting my internal states, I might start to become very attentive to them, in a sort of desperate quest for more knowledge and understanding, you know.

Jenny:

Yeah, definitely! And this is kind of why I think it's interesting to start. Um, hopefully now we've got sort of , uh , a bigger data set coming in at the moment that we'll be able to look at sort of, as I say, possibilities of non-linear relationships between the two that we kind of might expect in, in some respects. And it will say , um, potentially also look at this sort of patterning across different groups. So we might find that attention and accuracy relate differently , um, in, in different populations.

Sue:

Mmh... So interesting! Um, well we could go on forever. So with the case, but , um, let me ask before we finish then something about , um, the advice that you might have for early career researchers or students who are listening, because I know that you are relatively fresh from your PhD yourself. And so you've got some very up to date knowledge on the transition into kind of , uh , job security. So I'm sure people will be hanging on your, every word, Jenny .

Jenny:

Oh, well, I mean, I would say that if you're , uh , a student who's thinking about a career in research um... The best advice I got was not to be afraid to reach out and seek research experience. So this is actually how I first got involved in research. And I think most people are happy to hear from people who are keen to help out and get involved in research. Um, and I guess for those who are at the sort of latest stages, or have sort of already set themselves up for a career in research, I would say that the most important thing that I have, I think I've , or at least I have found is to find mentors that are going to champion you through the potentially more difficult times. So there's certainly going to be some rejections and disappointments, but I think I've felt quite lucky to have , uh , people around who've helped me pick myself up and brush myself off and try again. And I think that's sort of , uh , potentially undervalued when picking the people that you work with, that I think that that sort of aspect of people that are going to champion you at different stages of your career in particularly when things go wrong, it's particularly important.

Sue:

Brilliant Jenny, thank you. That's really great advice, and I completely agree, especially on the mentoring thing. Um, so thank you very much for your time and I'll just flag for anyone listening that you'll be able to find out more about Jenny Murphy's work by following the links on the podcast page, which is at ed.ac.uk/salvesen-research. And thank you very much, Jenny .

Jenny:

No, thank you!

Sue:

Bye!

Jenny:

Bye-bye! [laughs] [ringtone]

Sue:

Okay we did it! I thought that went quite smoothly! [Podcast jingle]