J Neurophysiol . 2023 Aug 2. doi: 10.1152/jn.00014.2023.

The thermoception task: a thermal-imaging based procedure for measuring awareness of changes in peripheral body temperature

Although thermal body signals provide crucial information about the state of an organism, and changes in body temperature may be a sign of affective states (e.g., stress, pain, sexual arousal), research on thermal awareness is limited. Here we developed a task measuring awareness of changes in peripheral body temperature (thermal interoception) and compared it to the classical heartbeat counting task (cardiac interoception). With an infrared lightbulb we delivered stimuli of different temperature intensities to the right hand of 31 healthy participants. Thermal interoceptive accuracy, i.e., the difference between participants' real and perceived change in hand temperature, showed good inter-individual variability. We found that thermal interoception did not correlate with (and was generally higher than) cardiac interoception, suggesting that different interceptive channels provide separate contributions to awareness of bodily states. Moreover, the results hint at the great salience of thermal signals and the need for thermoregulation in day-to-day life. Finally, thermal interoceptive accuracy was associated with self-reported awareness of body temperature changes, and with the ability to regulate distress by focusing on body sensations. Our task has the potential to significantly increase current knowledge about the role of interoception in cognition and behavior, particularly in social and emotional contexts.

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