How exteroceptive attention (EA) alters neural representations of the external world is well characterized, yet little is known about how interoceptive attention (IA) alters neural representations of the body’s internal state. We contrasted visual EA against IA toward respiration. Visual EA modulated striate and extrastriate cortices and a lateral frontoparietal “executive” network. By contrast, respiratory IA modulated a posterior insula region sensitive to respiratory frequency, consistent with primary interoceptive cortex, and a posterior limbic and medial parietal network, including the hippocampus, precuneus, and midcingulate cortex. Further distinguishing between EA and IA networks, attention-dependent connectivity analyses revealed that EA enhanced visual cortex connectivity with the inferior parietal lobule and pulvinar of the thalamus, while IA enhanced insula connectivity with the posterior ventromedial thalamus, a relay of the laminar I spinothalamocortical pathway supporting interoceptive afference. Despite strong connectivity between the posterior and the anterior insula, anatomical parcellation of the insula revealed a gradient of IA to EA recruitment along its posterior–anterior axis. These results suggest that distinct networks may support EA and IA. Furthermore, the anterior insula is not an area of pure body awareness but may link representations of the outside world with the body’s internal state—a potential basis for emotional experience.
Farb, N. A., Segal, Z. V., & Anderson, A. K. (2012). Attentional modulation of primary interoceptive and exteroceptive cortices. Cerebral cortex, 23(1), 114-126.