The idea of an autonomous self which is governed solely by the brain, is a relatively novel cultural and philosophical development which has risen to prominence in the West. The most recent incarnation of this is the construction of the neurobiological self – an intensely technological enterprise. Philosopher Evan Thompson, refers to this materialist and reductive enterprise as neuro-nihilism. These notions have reinforced reductive Western thinking and further alienated the individual from the self as a whole organism, its socio-cultural context and a sense of being environmentally embedded.
With this background in mind, it is reasonable to suggest that distinct socio-cultural trends (e.g. neuro-imaging) and conceptual frameworks shape our experience of self and our relationship to our own senses. Contrary to these trends and reductionist thinking, our experience of self is not exclusively informed by dispassionate neurobiological realities.
The term interoception was first used by Sir Charles Sherrington in 1906 in his influential book ‘The Integrative Action of the Nervous System’. Sherrington differentiated the following seven senses:
1. interoception – sensation from inside the body, particularly the organs
2. exteroception – sensory inputs from outside the body
3. proprioception – sensory inputs that relate to limb position and movements
4. teloreception – vision and audition
5. chemoreception – taste and smell
6. thermoreception – temperature
7. nociception – sensory input activated by damaging or threatening stimuli
Sherrington situated thermoreception and nociception with exteroception because he regarded these as ‘discriminative cutaneous sensations triggered by external stimuli’. Sherrington’s classification gained traction because both thermoreception and nociception have the capacity for fine grained spatial discrimination. This perspective has informed all modern neuroscience at the exclusion of the more integrated notion of Gemeingefuhl (which translates from German as common sensation). Gemeingefuhl preceded Sherrington’s schema and was the prevailing notion at that time.
Organisational map of the homeostatic afferent system and its extension into the forebrain of primates. The afferent limb is shown in the top row and the efferent limb in the bottom row. The hierarchy consists of input-output loops at several levels, all of which are modulated by the hypothalamus (black lines) as well as the limbic sensory (insula) and limbic motor (cingulate) cortices (not shown). The red lines indicate the phylogenetically new pathways in primates that provide a direct thalamocortical input reflecting the physiological condition of the body. In humans, re-representations of the interoceptive cortex lead to a meta-representation of the state of the body in the right anterior insula that is associated with the subjective awareness of the ‘feeling self’. B Craig (2003)
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