Emotions move us in the same places, study says

Fear, surprise, disgust, happiness: Across the world, humans' bodily experience of emotions is pretty much the same, a new study finds.
(Altaf Qadri)

The clenched-fist, hair-on-fire feeling you get when gripped by anger, the warm-all-over sensation of happiness, the bilious wave that gnaws at your throat with disgust: these are the cues the body sends up to ready the mind for what comes next: fighting, hugging or withdrawal. And they appear to vary little across cultures, says a new study, which draws a detailed map of emotions and the distinct bodily sensations that accompany them.

The corporal topography of emotion is likely to have evolved over millions of generations, and even if the mind isn’t listening, those somato-sensory cues make sense: with anger, fear or surprise, our heartbeat picks up in readiness for flight or fight, and so our chest feels tight. The muscles in our arms and legs feel clenched in anger, but in sadness, they feel limp. Happiness spreads its warmth even across the hips and genitals, but those areas typically go cold when we feel sad, angry or disgusted.

Writing in the journal PNAS, researchers in Finland report that across five different experiments ranging in size from 32 to 305 subjects, participants linked seven different emotions with the same somato-sensory experiences with such consistency, it could not be a matter of chance. The pairings they made were consistent whether they were asked to react to emotionally suggestive words or to read short stories and view films that conjured strong emotional responses.

Even when viewing photographs of a person’s face conveying a specific emotion, subjects drew maps of that person’s likely feelings that were consistently similar.


The pairings of emotion and accompanying sensation also transcended language: Participants were Northern Europeans who were either Finnish or Swedish speakers and Taiwanese individuals whose native tongue is Hokkein, one of a family of Chinese languages. Even across the linguistic barriers, there was 70% agreement among participants on where in the body emotions are felt.

With more complex emotions--pride, shame, envy, depression, contempt, anxiety and love--the study’s participants did not draw somato-sensory maps with as much overlap. But they were still similar enough to beat chance.

Studies of emotional processing that have used brain scans also suggest that we link distinct bodily sensations with certain emotions, and do so consistently--and perhaps that there is overlap between the neural circuits of emotion and the personal body map each of us has in our sensory cortex.

The authors of the study, led by Lauri Nummenmaa of Aalto University’s School of Science in Espoo, Finland, suggest that people with emotional processing difficulties stemming, say, from anxiety, depression or psychopathy, may also “feel” their emotions in places different from those in good mental health. “Topographical changes in emotion-triggered sensations in the body could thus provide a novel biomarker for emotional disorders,” they write.