Emotional Response Coherence and Interoceptive Awareness: Development and Validation of a Novel Assessment Method
Interoceptive awareness (IA), the conscious perception of signals originating in the body, is a fundamental component of our subjective experience of emotion and may be its proximate cause. IA is integral to attention, motivation, emotion regulation, and decision-making—processes that are essential to our survival, sense of agency, and wellbeing. A clear understanding of individual differences in IA is currently hampered by the limitations of prevailing assessments—namely, self-report questionnaires and heartbeat perception tasks—which have questionable reliability and validity, fail to capture the full spectrum of individual variability, and disregard the emotional contexts in which interoceptive processes naturally unfold. This dissertation proposes a novel method for assessing IA that capitalizes on emotional response coherence. Specifically, the method assesses variability in the extent to which physiology and subjective experience track together within individuals while they are experiencing strong emotions. Theoretical and empirical rationales for considering the “Coherence Task” to be a proxy measure of IA are elucidated and its psychometric properties are systematically evaluated.
Fifty-six men and women aged 18 to 50 completed the coherence task on two occasions spaced one week apart. While watching evocative film montages that captured a range of emotions, subjects provided momentary ratings of their subjective experience on valence and arousal dimensions (2 separate trials per session) and their physiology was continuously recorded. Cross-correlation coefficients of the coherence between subjective ratings and heart period (“Coherence Scores”) were then computed for each individual.
Coherence Scores derived from valence-based ratings of subjective experience and heart period demonstrated significant 1-week test-retest reliability (i.e., temporal stability); were positively associated with self-reported body awareness (i.e., convergent validity); and were negatively associated with a composite measure of distress and positively associated with empathy (i.e., predictive validity). Moreover, these findings showed specificity for the coherence between subjective experience and visceral over somatic signals (i.e., for interoceptive over proprioceptive awareness; discriminant validity).
The Coherence Task shows early promise as an empirically grounded assessment of individual differences in IA. This task would also enable us to evaluate the efficacy of interventions that target interoceptive awareness for health and wellbeing (e.g., mindfulness meditation).