Internal State: Dynamic, Interconnected Communication Loops Distributed Across Body, Brain, and Time
Integrative and Comparative Biology 61:867–886
Internal state profoundly alters perception and behavior. For example, a starved fly may approach and consume foods that it would otherwise find undesirable. A socially engaged newt may remain engaged in the presence of a predator, whereas a solitary newt would otherwise attempt to escape. Yet, the definition of internal state is fluid and ill-defined. As an interdisciplinary group of scholars spanning five career stages (from undergraduate to full professor) and six academic institutions, we came together in an attempt to provide an operational definition of internal state that could be useful in understanding the behavior and the function of nervous systems, at timescales relevant to the individual. In this perspective, we propose to define internal state through an integrative framework centered on dynamic and interconnected communication loops within and between the body and the brain. This framework is informed by a synthesis of historical and contemporary paradigms used by neurobiologists, ethologists, physiologists, and endocrinologists. We view internal state as composed of both spatially distributed networks (body–brain communication loops), and temporally distributed mechanisms that weave together neural circuits, physiology, and behavior. Given the wide spatial and temporal scales at which internal state operates—and therefore the broad range of scales at which it could be defined—we choose to anchor our definition in the body. Here we focus on studies that highlight body-to-brain signaling; body represented in endocrine signaling, and brain represented in sensory signaling. This integrative framework of internal state potentially unites the disparate paradigms often used by scientists grappling with body–brain interactions. We invite others to join us as we examine approaches and question assumptions to study the underlying mechanisms and temporal dynamics of internal state.