Categorical interoception and the role of threat

Nadia Zacharioudakis, Elke Vlemincx, Omer Van den Bergh*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Interoceptive fears and biased interoception are important characteristics of somatic symptom disorders. Categorization of interoceptive sensations impacts perception of their intensity and unpleasantness. In this study we investigated whether making interoceptive categories threat-relevant further biases interoception of individual sensations compared to safe categories. Either a category containing low- or high-intensity stimuli was made threat-relevant by instructing (and occasionally experiencing) that interoceptive sensations could be followed by an unpredictable electrocutaneous stimulus. We replicated that categorization had a profound impact on perceived interoceptive sensations, with stimuli within categories being perceived as more similar than equidistant stimuli at the category border. We found some evidence for the impact of threat on perceived characteristics of stimuli (with the direction of these effects depending on whether interoceptive stimuli of low or high intensity were threat-relevant), but not for altered categorical choice behaviour. These results imply that the perception of respiratory stimuli is influenced strongly by top-down processes such as categorization, and suggest that interoceptive processing may flexibly adapt to contextual factors such as threat in healthy individuals. However, inflexible responding to repeated and/or severe threat to the internal body may compromise accurate interoception and may result in interoceptive illusions contributing to medically unexplained symptoms and syndromes.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)25-34
Number of pages10
JournalInternational Journal of Psychophysiology
Publication statusPublished - 1 Feb 2020
Externally publishedYes


The authors would like to thank Mathijs Franssen for his technical assistance and help with data processing, and Sarah Hoeylaerts, Annelies Vermeulen, and Anabella Dobre for their help with data collection. This work was supported by the Center for Excellence on Generalization Research [GRIP*TT, KU Leuven grant PF/10/005 ]; and the Asthenes long-term structural funding by the FWO -Vlaanderen, Flemish Government, Belgium under Grant [ METH/15/011 ].

FundersFunder number
Center for Excellence on Generalization
Fonds Wetenschappelijk Onderzoek
KU LeuvenPF/10/005
Israeli Centers for Research Excellence
Vlaamse regeringMETH/15/011


    • Anxiety
    • Categorization
    • Interoception
    • Threat


    Dive into the research topics of 'Categorical interoception and the role of threat'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

    Cite this