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Mapping Emotions in the Body

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Have you ever felt a shiver go down your spine as a scary thought flashed through your mind? Or have you been so angry that you clenched your fists? If you take a moment to consider it, you can identify where you feel particular emotions in your body. This embodiment of feelings is an aspect of the mind-body connection and seems to reflect universally human physical reactions to common emotions.

Researchers from Aalto University in Espoo, the University of Turku in Turku and the University of Tampere in Tampere, all in Finland, wanted to address this question scientifically and determine whether different emotional states could be “mapped” in distinct bodily areas to identify a pattern of universally human emotion-driven bodily sensations. Investigators conducted five experiments with 36-302 subjects in each of them.

One experiment required each participant to digitally paint on a gender-neutral human silhouette where he or
she felt bodily sensations in response to different emotions. Feelings ranged from basic emotions like anger and fear
to more complex sentiments like love and depression.

Another experiment asked participants to look at a “heat map” showing a colored pattern of responsiveness on a digital human silhouette. Subjects then identified which emotion they thought triggered that specific bodily reaction.

To eliminate cultural biases and stereotypical word associations as influencing factors, the researchers recruited both Finnish participants with a European cultural background and Taiwanese participants of Asian heritage. As an additional safeguard, investigators elicited emotions using a variety of means—including stories, movies and facial expressions— when asking participants where they felt emotions in the body.

After analyzing data from subjects’ responses, study authors concluded that different emotions are represented in distinct bodily patterns and that these experiences are universally human, rather than defined by cultural background. The findings also strengthen the argument that embodiment of feelings plays a critical role in emotional processing, the authors said.

“Unraveling the subjective bodily sensations associated with human emotions may help us to better understand mood disorders such as depression and anxiety, which are accompanied by altered emotional processing, autonomic nervous system activity, and somatosensation,” noted the researchers.

The study, titled “Bodily Maps of Emotions,” was published in PNAS (2014; 111 [2], 646-51) and is available online at www.pnas.org/content/111/2/646.abstract

Shirley Eichenberger-Archer, JD, MA

Shirley Archer, JD, MA, is an internationally acknowledged integrative health and mindfulness specialist, best-selling author of 16 fitness and wellness books translated into multiple languages and sold worldwide, award-winning health journalist, contributing editor to Fitness Journal, media spokesperson, and IDEA's 2008 Fitness Instructor of the Year. She's a 25-year industry veteran and former health and fitness educator at the Stanford Prevention Research Center, who has served on multiple industry committees and co-authored trade books and manuals for ACE, ACSM and YMCA of the USA. She has appeared on TV worldwide and was a featured trainer on America's Next Top Model.

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