Background: Interoception refers to the conscious perception of body signals. Mindfulness is a meditation practice that encourages individuals to focus on their internal experiences such as bodily sensations, thoughts, and emotions. In this study, we selected a behavioral measure of interoceptive sensitivity (heartbeat detection task, HBD) to compare the effect of meditation practice on interoceptive sensitivity among long term practitioners (LTP), short term meditators (STM, subjects that completed a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program) and controls (non-meditators). All participants were examined with a battery of different tasks including mood state, executive function and social cognition tests (emotion recognition, empathy and theory of mind).
Findings: Compared to controls, both meditators' groups showed lower levels of anxiety and depression, but no improvement in executive function or social cognition performance was observed (except for lower scores compared to controls only in the personal distress dimension of empathy). More importantly, meditators' performance did not differ from that of nonmeditators regarding cardiac interoceptive sensitivity.
Conclusion: Results suggest no influence of meditation practice in cardiac interoception and in most related social cognition measures. These negative results could be partially due to the fact that awareness of heartbeat sensations is not emphasized during mindfulness/vipassana meditation and may not be the best index of the awareness supported by the practice of meditation.