Where in the body do our emotions lie?

17 January 2014 by Stephanie Swift, posted in Science

lego emotions cc danielito311

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”.

feeling emotions

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.


4 Responses to “Where in the body do our emotions lie?”

  1. Paige Brown Reply | Permalink

    Great Post! So did the researchers confirm where people indicated that they experience these emotions with actual physiological data?

    • Stephanie Swift Reply | Permalink

      Hi Paige! Thanks for your question. The "activity" recorded in this study was purely based on where volunteers felt things changing, so essentially a qualitative study. BUT, it's interesting to see that for the "shame" emotion, the biggest change in activity was felt in the cheeks - an area where anecdotal evidence would suggest a real physiological reaction occurs, since many of us blush when we're ashamed. Maybe linking the feeling to the reaction will be the subject of a follow-up study!

  2. Maddie Stone Reply | Permalink

    Really interesting study! It would be great if they could follow it up with a more quantitative analysis, perhaps measuring blood flow in different parts of the body, and see how much overlap there is between where people think they experience emotions and where our physiological responses actually lie. I also wonder about their sample pool- whether the volunteers are from similar or different cultural / ethnic backgrounds. It would be really interesting if there were certain emotion - body associations that were very culturally specific.

  3. [BLOCKED BY STBV] Where in the body do our emotions lie? | With M... Reply | Permalink

    […] 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 ...  […]

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