Emotions - A body of evidence

May 25 2015

Emotional mapping is a core part of TapestryWorks work, and we have often argued that emotions are much more physical and non-conscious than cognitive (see our white paper here). So I was fascinated to find a paper from 2013 in which the authors reported several studies inn which they had asked people to “map” bodily sensations though a topographical self-report method. The results are fascinating and show that different emotions produce sensations in different parts of the body. They also show evidence that in the majority of cases these sensations and states are culturally universal.Over the course of five experiments, they asked individuals to self-report sensations associated with emotions through silhouettes of bodies shown alongside words, stories, movies and facial expressions. Reporting was done by colouring the bodily regions associated with increases or decreases in in activity while experiencing a particular stimulus.

The experimenters found that different emotions were associated with (statistically) separable and distinctively different bodily sensations, and also that these sensations were consistent across West European and East Asian people (all speaking their own language). In total, the experiments used more than 700 participants, looking at six basic emotions (Happiness, Sadness, Surprise, Disgust, Fear, Anger) and seven non-basic or complex ones  (Love, Pride, Anxiety, Shame, Contempt, Envy, Depression). You can see example body maps below.

The body maps produced from the work are fascinating, showing the highly physical nature of most emotions (with contempt and envy the most focused on sensations in the head and on the face). Happiness seems to have the biggest impact, producing an increase in sensations across pretty much the whole of the body. By contrast, Sadness and Depression both produce a decrease in sensations in the arms and legs (as does Shame to a lesser extent).

The experimenters conducted cluster analysis on the data and found that positive emotions (Happiness, Love, Pride) formed one cluster, whereas negative emotions diverged into four clusters (Anger and Fear; Anxiety and Shame; Sadness and Depression; Disgust, Contempt, Envy). Surprise, which is neither a positive or negative emotion, fell into the last of these clusters, and Neutral body states were distinct from any of these categories.

The work is a reminder that emotions are the ways in which our body reacts to the outside world to direct our behaviour towards our goals. In The World Beyond Your Head (which I am half-way through reading), Matthew Crawford argues that the brain does not have to construct a representation of the world, because we live and act in it all the time and therefore our knowledge of the world is the sum of our experience. He also points to work in Artificial Intelligence, which shows that robots are very bad at accumulating knowledge of the world, which requires not only a brain, but a brain, body and the world interacting with each other.

Although we can put labels on emotions (e.g. Happy or Sad), ultimately they are experiential. In order for researchers to capture such experiences, words are never enough, and we need to turn to more behavioural and visual tools to understand how people feel outside as well as inside their heads.


“Bodily maps of emotions” by Nummenmaa, Glerean, Hari & Hietanen available through PNAS open access here.

The World Beyond Your Head: On becoming an individual in an age of distraction by Matthew Crawford

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