Can Extreme Resilience Be Taught?

An improved sense of interoception may help us all gain a better understanding of our bodies’ ability to deal with stress and to promote mindfulness.

You’re struggling up a hill halfway through a ten-mile race. Your breathing is ragged, and your footfalls seem heavy. You lurch toward the water station, grab a cup, and gulp it down. Back in the middle of the pack, you feel strengthened and pick up the pace.

Your decision to lope over to the water station relied on your interoceptive sense—the ability to sense your internal state. When you talk to your physician about a nagging pain or discomfort, you are also acting on information passing through your brain’s interoceptive system. Facing a major mental and physical challenge, however, requires you to do more. You need to match your internal sensations with an assessment of what the environment will demand of you. Do you need to slow down to summit the hill, or can you power through to the next water station?

group from the University of California at San Diego and the Naval Health Research Center theorizes that the extra edge that allows certain people to perform particularly well in stressful situations may come not from a physiological advantage but from differences in the brain. To explore this question, they tested a group of Navy SEALs, adventure racers, and Marines, all of whom have learned to triumph over physical challenges without succumbing to stress. “Navy SEALs don’t all share a prototypical body type—they’re all different,” Nate Thom, a stress physiologist at the Naval Health Research Center, says. Nonetheless, they share a certain amount of resilience.

Specifically, they surmised that individuals who shine in tough circumstances may benefit from highly attuned interoception, which then informs the decision-making areas of the brain. Interoception is thought to rely heavily on the insula, a small brain area that plays an important role in self-awareness and emotional experiences.

Article Credit: Sandra Upson from Scientific American.

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