Paying Attention to Sensations Can Help Reset the Mind

MARCH 8, 2024

Paying Attention to Sensations Can Help Reset the Mind

Learning to observe bodily sensation is a powerful strategy for improving mental health



Having grown up in the Danish city of Copenhagen, chef Rene Redzepi recalls feeling dissatisfied with the fast-food world to which many city-dwellers were accustomed. He instead attributes his love for food to his summers in Macedonia, which were filled with farm life and foraging in the nearby woods. Despite the lack of technological sophistication, “life there was really rich and full. We were happy,” Redzepi told the webzine Haute de Gamme.

Years later, Redzepi had the opportunity to start his own restaurant. Tirelessly combing the Nordic coastline and forests, he brought edible flowers, sea buckthorn shrubs, kelp, shellfish and berries from rose bushes to feature on the menu of his restaurant, Noma. People may have scoffed, but the proof was in the wood sorrel pudding: Noma was number one on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list five times in 12 years. And that success may have kicked off a foraging fascination.

For many foragers, the activity is a delightful return to nature-an alternative to more mundane means of gathering food such as grocery shopping. In an increasingly industrial world, it offers a different relationship with the environment, an opportunity to attend to the rhythms of plants and seasons.

That shift can appeal for many reasons. Since COVID global rates of depression and anxiety have been at all-time highs. People seem to be stuck in a rut-caught in a chain of daily habits with little to show for it. But heading into the woods is not the only option. There may be an even simpler solution. The science of sensation suggests that much can be gained by hitting pause-in this case on the brain’s default activities-and foraging-specifically by sense foraging, which involves redirecting attention towards one’s bodily sensations. In contrast to heading out into the wilderness, sense foraging means exploring the wilderness within.

To understand the value of shifting towards our senses, it first helps to consider the problem at hand. Our brain is better at making habits than breaking them. Indeed, modern neuroscience suggests that much of our brain’s energy is spent in creating a set of “default” habits, so that we effortlessly sort our reality into familiar templates: waiting at an intersection, meeting a friend, having to pee. From these templates, our possible actions just seem to emerge automatically, providing a sense of familiarity and control in the business of daily life. What’s more, leaning on these automatic patterns of behavior frees our mind to learn new things and solve new problems.

But these templates can outlive their usefulness. For instance, checking social media to stay on top of current events is laudable, but doomscrolling deep into the night can be disastrous for your next day at work. Unless we create or update our default habits as we grow, the once uplifting choices we’ve made may start to drag us down. So how do we break out of autopilot? As several recent studies have revealed, the brain’s sensory network can inject fresh insight to counter the network that supports our learned defaults. What’s more, these networks are yoked in such a way that heightening our attention to one diminishes the activity of the other.

In one of the largest studies of its kind, published in 2022, we tracked the brain activity of 85 people in treatment for depression as they watched sad and neutral film clips. As expected, sad clips made people feel sadder than neutral ones. Comparing the neural activities for watching sad and neutral clips allowed us to model how negative emotions unfolded in the brain. We then administered an intervention aimed at improving their mental health. When we followed up during the next two years, we discovered that the people at highest risk of relapse were the ones whose sensory cortices-the brain areas engaged in processing sensation-showed less activity while watching sad film clips. Importantly, people seemed unaware of this suppression: the participants who showed diminished brain activity reported feeling just as sad in the moment as people who did not show inhibition in their sensory cortices.

We found that sensory shutdown was associated with an eightfold increase in risk for a new episode of depression. These findings aligned with our earlier research involving a group of people who did not have depression, which linked stress-related sensory shutdown with higher levels of depressive symptoms. In that work, people who were under emotional stress and consequently showed dampened activity in the brain’s sensory areas reported more feelings tied to depression.

Our studies further suggest that not all sensation is created equal. Different brain regions support different kinds of sensory processing. Specifically, a decline in activity in the regions involved in body awareness- as opposed to, say, the brain regions linked to external senses, such as hearing and vision­ was the biggest predictor of risk.

The ability to sense what is happening in the body, a skill known as interoception, varies from person to person. But the good news, for those of us seeking to disrupt ruminative thinking and other problematic behaviors, is that there is ample evidence that interoception can be trained and that improving it can benefit our mental health. One study found that taking several months of yoga classes taught with an emphasis on interoceptive awareness led to improvements in sustained attention when compared with taking more typical yoga classes. What’s more, the yoga students who improved their attention became more confident reporters of their internal landscape.

While any kind of exercise is likely to improve your mood, the ability to maintain sensory awareness may be the key to loosening habit’s grip. One of us (Farb) published an investigation in 2023 that tracked brain activity in 22 people who had to attend to their breath. Specifically, participants tracked either their breath (inhalations and exhalations) or the pulsing of a circle on a screen (expansions and contractions). During this task, several notable changes in the brain occurred, including one surprise: attending to one’s breathing seemed to deactivate the higher cortical functions that researchers associate with “doing” or “problem solving” brain activity. Becoming more aware of one’s body seemed to dim the brain’s spotlight on other inputs.

In the face of stress, our attention is too often devoted to analyzing why we feel badly, leaving us caught in the habit of “managing negativity,” with little room for insight or novelty in each passing moment. By contrast, people can engage in what we call “sense foraging,” or making time to attend to our varied physical sensations, including something as simple as the breath in our lungs. Sticking with sensation in spite of rumination’s siren call allows curiosity, novelty and new learning to interrupt established routines. This reclaimed ability to trust in our senses may be one reason why sensory-focused clinical interventions such as mindfulness-based therapies have a growing evidence base for breaking cycles of recurrent depression.

To reap the benefits of sense foraging, we simply need to tune into our feelings more frequently: the feet pressing into hard pavement, the heat of the sun against our skin, the pulse quickening at the top of a water slide. When we’re stressed or stuck, pausing to notice and feel the dynamic, vibrant world around us can provide a moment’s boost to our resilience, well-being, health and creativity. Where we go from there is up to us.