Universal Body Map Pinpoints Where Emotions are Experienced

Lauri Nummenmaa

Lauri Nummenmaa

Emotions are associated with physiological changes in specific body regions, such as increased heart rate, sweaty palms, or startle response, according to Aalto University’s Lauri Nummenmaa, Enrico Glerean, and Riitta Hari, with Jari Hietanen of University of Tampere.

Enrico Glerean

Enrico Glerean

Nummenmaa and team showed emotion-laden words, videos, facial expressions and stories to more than 700 participants in Finland, Sweden and Taiwan, who then reported body regions that “felt different” after they viewed the emotion-evoking media.

Riitta Hari

Riitta Hari

Many people described the physical experience of emotions with metaphors including:

  • “Cold feet” to signal hesitation
  • “Heartbroken” to describe disappointment
  •  “Shivers down the spine” to indicate fear,
Jari Hietanen

Jari Hietanen

according to Durham University’s Zoltán Kövecses, Gary B. Palmer then of University of Nevada, Las Vegas and Rene Dirven then of University of Duisburg-Essen.

Zoltán Kövecses

Zoltán Kövecses

Nummenmaa’s team controlled for these linguistic representations by evoking emotional experiences with guided mental imagery from:

Then, volunteers reported bodily sensations they experienced during the emotion induction and rated physical sensations they expected people displaying different emotions would experience in their bodies.

Nummenmaa and colleagues found distinctly different body areas associated with emotional experiences of happiness, contempt, love, and other feelings, with consistent results across nationalities.
They represented regions of greatest sensation associated with specific emotions with a computer-generated topographical body map.

The team proposed that emotions are represented as “culturally universal categorical somatotopic maps,” and sensing emotion-triggered bodily changes is required to perceive basic and complex emotions.Somatopic Emotion Map

Top row displays “basic” emotions:

  • Anger
  • Fear
  • Disgust
  • Happiness
  • Sadness
  • SurpriseBottom row displays “complex” emotions:
    • Anxiety
    • Love
    • Depression
    • Contempt
    • Pride
    • Shame
    • Envy

Happiness was a “full-body experience,” with increased sensation throughout the body, but some emotions were experienced in specific regions.

Christian Keysers

Christian Keysers

Likewise, most basic emotions, like anger and fear were associated with sensations of elevated activity in the upper chest area, corresponding to changes in breathing and heart rate, reported University of Groningen’s Christian Keysers and Valeria Gazzola with Jon H. Kaas of Vanderbilt.

Valeria Gazzola

Valeria Gazzola

In addition, all evoked emotions increased sensations in the head, reflecting changes in the facial area by muscle activation, skin temperature, tearing, and thoughts of emotional events.

Jon Kaas

Jon Kaas

Approach-oriented emotions,” including anger and happiness, were associated with increased upper limb sensation whereas depression was linked to decreased limb activity and sensation.
Disgust was felt in the digestive system and around the throat.

Positive emotions, including happiness, love, and pride, clustered in one group.
In contrast negative emotions diverged into four separate groups based on linguistic analysis and sensed body location:

  • Anger and fear
  • Anxiety and shame
  • Sadness and depression
  • Disgust, contempt, and envy.

Surprise was seen as neither a negative nor a positive emotion, yet it was distinctly different from neutral emotion.

Emotional metaphors appear connected to actual physiological experience of emotions, even when researchers controlled for familiar linguistic stereotypes and “conventional wisdom.”

-*What discrepancies have you observed between emotion descriptions and physical experience of emotion?


Twitter  @kathrynwelds
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©Kathryn Welds


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