Exteroception vs Interoception: Getting Out of Your Head

A cup of tea pinning down a napkin that reads "mind full or mindful" on a table

Most people have an interoceptive bias—they’re focused more on what’s going on internally [mentally] than on what’s happening externally.

I think that this is an issue because we hear so often about the need to do a meditation practice that allows us to focus inward and that we’re getting yanked around by all the stressors of life, etc, etc.

And we are, we’re getting yanked around by all the stressors and demands of life. But as we do that, we tend to be very focused on what’s happening with us.”

Andrew Huberman, The Science of Meditation

With the rise to prominence of vanity-inflating and anxiety-inducing social media channels, I find this claim spot-on—self absorption is at an all-time high.

However, self-obsession and mental affliction isn’t a product of inward mindfulness meditation. Instead, they result from identifying with your thoughts or external constructs without the proper training.

A bias towards interoception doesn’t inherently constitute a high aptitude for self-awareness, i.e., keen interpretation of sensations, impulses, thoughts or feelings—being stuck in your head differs from the capacity to examine your mind and its contents.

Self-awareness is dependent on mindfulness (the ability to stay present), and the capacity for “watching your thoughts pass,” which, ironically, is refined through mindfulness meditation focused on the breath or body.

Therefore, self-contentment and self-actualization can be realized, but the mind needs to be disciplined in order to attain them, by way of self-awareness instead of self-involvement.

Interoception vs Exteroception

Interoception is the perception of what’s going on at the level of your skin or a deeper internal level. In contrast, exteroception is everything more external than skin level.

In Huberman Lab episode I pulled that introductory quote from, neuroscientist Andrew Huberman says that a good benchmark for gauging interoceptive awareness is if you can detect your heartbeat and rate without needing to physically take your pulse using your hand.

Well, I used to not be able to do that worth a lick, and I certainly was in my own head most of the time. That’s why I believe an interceptive bias and the tendency towards being consumed by your thoughts should be viewed as distinct entities.

When we meditate on our mind, or do an externally-focused practice, we dissociate from our internal world and our sensory perceptions. Thus, we are unable to tap into our self-awareness and gather context of ourself in relation to the surrounding environment.

Taking this into consideration, interception at large is not synonymous with self-awareness. Again, insights into yourself arrive when you are conscious of and focused on your body or breath, i.e., practicing mindfulness meditation in contrast to focused on your thoughts.

The realizations can be basic, like the recognition of your breathing, body or posture, or more astounding, like the understanding of your thought patterns.

In the quote above, Huberman alludes to the belief that the majority of us should engage in exteroceptive-focused meditation, as we generally are internal-looking.

But in my experience, ironically, an internally-focused practice – so long as it is not centered on the mind – lends itself to better immersion in the present external environment, and makes us less susceptible to being pulled around or influenced by those externals stressors (distractions) we mentally expound upon.

If you’re more dissociative – somebody who’s more focused on events outside your body – and you want to gain more interoceptive awareness and more “feeling state,” you want to do a practice that’s third eye or breathing-focused.

Andrew Huberman

Personally, I don’t believe dissociation to encompass being caught up in the external environment. Dissociation results when there is a disconnect or lack of continuity between thoughts, memories, surroundings, actions, and identity. Thus, it is more synonymous with being consumed by your fears, worries, or regrets than it is exteroceptive awareness.

Again, there is a more clear-cut divergence between body or breath interoception and mind interoception than between exteroception and general interoception—ruminating on your thoughts removes you from the present, irrespective of if your focus is the external or internal environment.

Consciousness encompasses experiences, feelings (sensations) and perceptions in your environment, body or mind, regardless of if you are cognizant of them. In contrast, awareness is “knowledge or perception of a situation (internal or external) or fact,” or it can be likened to attention.

However, while attention (focus) can only be applied to one or a few things, awareness is a lot more inclusive. It can be focused or unfocused on a particular object or activity, or arrive as insights and understanding. In short, awareness is recognition.

Awareness is awareness, and if you can cultivate it on one level, you can apply it to any other—refined interoception lends itself to exteroceptive capacity. However, cultivating self-awareness – recognizing and regulating thoughts, impulses and actions – is an internal process.

Thus, body or breath mindfulness meditation affords us better understanding of ourselves and our relationship with (how we fit into) the world around us—in a word, better self-awareness.

In contrast, though our default mode generally is to be internally-focused – but more specifically, in our own heads – this tendency doesn’t necessarily translate into improved self-awareness or wellbeing—in fact, it’s quite the opposite.

The Mind: The Interoception Spectrum No-Man’s Land

I’m perceiving things, remembering things, and anticipating things all the time about the future. But by focusing my attention on the one organ for which I have no sensation – that is, my brain – thoughts, feelings (emotions), and memories start to grow in their prominence in my awareness and in my perception.

Andrew Huberman

Based on this statement, Huberman doesn’t discern between perceiving thoughts and being present to – i.e., mindful of – them. For example, I could be highly focused on my thoughts, in which they are tremendously vivid. However, they could come in the form of past memories or expectations of future occurrences.

In this instance, I am not being mindful of the mind. While I may be conscious of and attentive to them, I’m basically letting my thoughts run amuk, without the capacity to understand the underlying patterns and regulate them accordingly—an ability known as metacognition, i.e., self-awareness.

This can be a dangerous game. Though being attentive to the mind is technically interoception, applying attention to your cognitive processes opens the door for racing thoughts. There is a clear distinction in the interoceptive spectrum between feeling (sensing) and thinking (or feeling emotions).

It’s very clear that for people who do that typical third eye meditation for 13 minutes a day, if they do that too close to when they want to go to sleep, they have a hard time falling asleep, which makes perfect sense because they are becoming more interoceptively aware—they are ramping up their level of focus.

Andrew Huberman

Well, they are focusing on their thoughts, so this outcome does make perfect sense.

In contrast, had they “ramped up” focus on their breath or body – on their sensations instead of thoughts – they would have calmed down the nervous system. Therefore, intense focus doesn’t inherently equate to alertness (sympathetic nervous system arousal).

Again, ruminating on your mental formations by meditating on the third eye, especially without proper training, is more dissociation than it is interoception, as Huberman even himself alluded to. This is evident because – as mentioned – you can be fixed on your thoughts without being present, i.e., mindful.

This same principle applies to exteroception; when you focus on the surrounding environment, you may forget entirely that you have a body. You can quickly get swept up in external stimuli.

Even if you don’t and can keep paying half a mind to your breath or posture, your attention is still divided between two points of emphasis, and you won’t receive the benefits you would have had you kept your entire focus on your body.

However, when you bring your full attention to the body and make it the object of your mind, you can’t help but be mindful, remaining in the present—you are aware of your breathe or body, which are only available in the present.

A woman sits at a desk with eyes closed and clasped hands over her lips in deep reflection

In the words of Thich Nhat Hanh, “when body and mind are together, you are established in the present moment.”

Since focusing on your thoughts is an entirely different practice than on your sensory perceptions, though both internal awareness, the two have different outcomes on the body and the mind. Breath or body awareness brings healing and insight, while mind focus often brings negative emotions like discontentment, worry, or fear—primarily because we’re not living in the present.

Mind-wandering appears to be the human brain’s default mode,” a trait that does not lend itself to wellbeing or self-awareness. Mind-wandering is merely not being present, which includes dissociation by way of third-eye meditation.

The study linked above showed a negative correlation between daydreaming (being in the past or the future instead of the present) and mood, regardless of if the participant found the activity they were doing to be pleasant or not.

Fortunately, we can improve both our self-awareness and our mood by constantly bringing our focus back to the present moment through body or breath mindfulness.


The act of refocusing has been proven to benefit all sorts of mental processes, including concentration and emotion. It allows you to adapt default conditioned responses to internal or eternal stimuli by rewiring cognitive connections.

For example, when you bring your attention back to your breath after realizing your mind was wandering, or you let go of feelings of anger when something had triggered you, in both instances you weaken the association between your brain and the stimulus.

This restructuring of neurons is known as neuroplasticity. The process involves weakening synaptic connections between neural pathways, through which impulses are sent after being triggered by a given stimulus.

Through functional neuroplasticity, these connections are adapted to create new default responses (physical and emotional reactions) to those same triggers. When you refocus your attention or release the emotion that had consumed you, you lessen these conditioned inclinations and make the brain malleable enough to begin replacing them with more favorable ones.

Ironically, though recognizing and refocusing your attention or your emotions is a cognitive process, it becomes much easier when you have sharpened your self-awareness through mindfulness of bodily sensations.

Of course, it may be difficult to not get frustrated when you notice your mind wandering, especially when just starting out. However, with each realization, your ability to recognize these tendencies is improved.

Rather than think about your ability to focus, think about your ability to refocus, and the more number of times you have to refocus, the better training you’re getting.

Andrew Huberman

…and the better your self-awareness is becoming.

Wrapping Up

Our thoughts can swallow us whole when we identify with them, or just as quickly if we try to resist them. The perception of our mental formations can have devastating effects on us if we view them from an improper vantage point, or even merely take a dualistic approach, i.e., subject and object, as so many rudimentary meditators do.

Attempting to suppress thoughts can paradoxically ramify our sense of self or self-involvement. However, instead of meditating on the mind, bringing awareness to the breath or the body allows us to be far enough removed from our mental impressions to see them as “emerging objects in consciousness” distinct from the self.

When we put all of our perception into our thoughts, we see how disorganized, how wandering they are and, in fact, how random and intrusive those can be.”

Andrew Huberman

And when we become mindful of them, we gain insight into what is causing them, and hopefully the motivation to do something about those afflictions.

– CC


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