Emotions are strange things, bursting over us as we react to life’s joys and challenges. While they might be thought of as ethereal entities with no fixed form or function, emotions actually produce very tangible physical reactions throughout the body.
These emotionally-driven physical reactions are important for surviving in the real world. For example, fear generates a helpful physical response that prepares your body to fight or flee. But we don’t really know if an emotion can fuel a reaction in a certain body part, or if regional body sensors can dictate our conscious emotional experiences.
A team of Finnish researchers were interested in finding out more about this, so they showed 701 volunteers an outline of the human body, and asked them to point out spots on that body where they felt a change in activity (either growing stronger or weaker) after they experienced an emotion generated by a certain word, story, film or facial expression.
They exposed the volunteers to six “basic” emotions (anger, fear, disgust, happiness, sadness and surprise) and seven “complex” emotions (anxiety, love, depression, contempt, pride, shame and envy), and tried their best to weed out the inherent bias of using emotive words that are culturally and lingustically associated with body parts, like “heartache”.
After mapping out the results as emotional activity charts across the human body, they found that positive emotions like happiness, love and pride all looked very similar, with a suffusion of high activity (shown in yellow, above) around the heart, head, and, ahem, nether regions (for love). These associations were supported by some lovely quantitative cluster analysis.
Several of the negative emotions assembled into similar patterns: fear and anger increased activity in the chest, anxiety and shame increased activity in the torso, sadness and depression severely decreased activity in the arms and legs (shown in blue, above), while disgust, contempt and envy increased activity in the head and hands.
So, clearly, emotions can pin themselves quite reliably and reproducibly to certain areas of the human physical form, in a way that transcends cultural heritage (both Western European and Eastern Asian volunteers reacted in the same way). Such bodily associations and sensations likely have a key part in the emotional experience, and may have a core role in helping us to understand emotions in others.
Nummenmaa L, Glerean E, Hari R, & Hietanen JK (2013). Bodily maps of emotions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America PMID: 24379370