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Mapping emotions within the body: Study reveals physical topography of feeling

In a recent study published within the journal PNAS, researchers conducted multiple experiments comprising guided stimuli and a novel topographical self-reported computer-based method named “embody” to research the associations between emotions and bodily topographies. They linked these emotions to cohorts from different geographies and racial backgrounds and revealed that subjective emotional feelings are related to identifiable maps of bodily sensations. These findings support hypotheses and models wherein somatosensation and embodiment are critical elements of emotional processing. This research forms the muse for identifying and further delving into hitherto hard-to-understand mood disorders comparable to depression and anxiety, that are assumed to change standard emotional processing.

Research: Bodily maps of emotions

Mind over body

Have you ever ever experienced emotions that make you’re feeling things in your body? You are not alone. Humans often experience altered bodily feelings in response to their temporal emotional landscape, comparable to pounding hearts and lightweight walking when on the technique to meet a lover for a date in a park, versus tight muscles, sweaty hands, and a choked-up throat when anxious. Neural research and studies on somatic responses to emphasize suggest that a person’s emotional state acts as a trigger for modifying the cardiovascular, neuroendocrine, skeletomuscular, and autonomic nervous systems (ANS) in preparation for assumed events.

More moderen research has investigated the verbal descriptions of emotions and bodily states – “cold feet” is a typical phrase to explain a sudden bout of tension and reluctance prior to a previous eagerly anticipated wedding, as is “heartbroken” is a potentially much more common description of the sentiments accompanying disappointments in love. These findings suggest constant feedback between individuals’ somatic, emotional, and descriptive functions, though adequate research in the sector stays lacking.

Interestingly, clinical research has recently identified that our thoughts about our feelings have minute yet significant voluntary control over a previously assumed completely involuntary phenomenon – perceptions of emotion-related somatic states have been found to change skeletomuscular, ANS, and neuroendocrine responses, suggesting that a person’s conscious perception of their environment can higher fine-tune their voluntary and potentially involuntary behaviors to suit the challenges of their surroundings higher.

“…it continues to be hotly debated whether the bodily changes related to different emotions are specific enough to function the premise for discrete emotional feelings, comparable to anger, fear, or happiness, and the topographical distribution of the emotion-related bodily sensations has remained unknown.”

Understanding the links between mind and body and revealing if the mind can actually control the body to a certain extent will help researchers each discover and treat mood disorders comparable to anxiety and depression and is hence essential in today’s increasingly stressful world.

Concerning the study

In the current study, researchers developed a novel computer-aided, topographical self-reporting method christened “embody.” This system was designed to permit participants to visually represent and reproduce the altered bodily states they felt in response to specific, researcher-provided stimuli. Two digital silhouettes of bodies were provided to every participant who was asked to paint physical regions that they felt experienced altered (increased or decreased) activity on exposure to specific, emotionally triggering words, movies, stories, or facial expressions.

The study cohort comprised 773 total volunteers separated into five cohorts corresponding to the five experimental treatments conducted herein. Most participants were Finnish-speaking aside from cohorts 1b (Swedish) and 1c (Taiwanese Hokkien). Experiment 1 a-c comprised the presentation of emotionally triggering words; Experiment 2 used guided emotional imagery; Experiment 3 used emotional movies; Experiment 4 presented pictures of basic facial expressions; and Experiment 5 used emBODY bodily sensations (BSMs) averaged from Experiment 1 participants.

Statistical analyses of participant inputs were carried out using random effects analyses and mass univariate t-tests, corrected for false positives using false discovery rate (FDR) corrections with alpha levels of 0.05. Hierarchical clustering and Spearman correlations were used to evaluate group- and individual BSM associations, respectively.

Study findings

The current study revealed that distant distinct BSMs were related to basic and sophisticated emotional responses to presented stimuli. Patterns revealed by the emBODY methodology were found to be consistent across six basic emotions categorically represented within the body. Encouragingly, these categories match previously reported results from brain imagining and behavioral investigations, highlighting that the emotional systems and corresponding neural mechanisms are instrumental in emotional processing.

The emBODY tool. Participants colored the initially blank body regions (A) whose activity they felt increasing (left body) and decreasing (right body) during emotions. Subjectwise activation–deactivation data (B) were stored as integers, with the whole body being represented by 50,364 data points. Activation and deactivation maps were subsequently combined (C) for statistical analysis.

The emBODY tool. Participants coloured the initially blank body regions (A) whose activity they felt increasing (left body) and decreasing (right body) during emotions. Subjectwise activation–deactivation data (B) were stored as integers, with the entire body being represented by 50,364 data points. Activation and deactivation maps were subsequently combined (C) for statistical evaluation.

“These (emBODY) maps constitute probably the most accurate description available so far of subjective emotion-related bodily sensations. The discernible sensation patterns related to each emotion correspond well with the key changes in physiological functions related to different emotions.”

A noteworthy finding is that basic emotions trigger elevated sensational responses within the upper chest area, corresponding to respiration and heart rate alterations. Approach-associated stimuli comparable to anger and happiness resulted in sensations within the upper limbs. Sadness, in contrast, reduced limb activity and induced a reluctance to maneuver. Disgust prompted sensational responses within the digestive system and throat region. The top region showed alterations (increased or decreased activity) in response to all stimuli, and happiness was found to universally increase sensations across all bodily components.

Bodily topography of basic (Upper) and nonbasic (Lower) emotions related to words. The body maps show regions whose activation increased (warm colours) or decreased (cool colours) when feeling each emotion. (P < 0.05 FDR corrected; t > 1.94). The colorbar indicates the t-statistic range.

“All cultures have body-related expressions for describing emotional states. A lot of these (e.g., having “butterflies within the stomach”) are metaphorical and don’t describe actual physiological changes related to the emotional response. It’s thus possible that our findings reflect a purely conceptual association between semantic knowledge of language-based stereotypes associating emotions with bodily sensations. When activated, such a conceptual link—slightly than actual underlying physiological changes—could thus guide the person in constructing a mental representation of the associated bodily sensations.”

While the above argument could be made, consistency between Finnish, Taiwanese, and Swedish language natives in BSM reading discredits it. Finally, complex emotions were found to be more nuanced and difficult to categorize than easy emotions. Nevertheless, statistical analyses still discover complex emotional responses as discrete events.

“Unraveling the subjective bodily sensations related to human emotions may help us to raised understand mood disorders comparable to depression and anxiety, that are accompanied by altered emotional processing, ANS activity, and somatosensation. Topographical changes in emotion-triggered sensations within the body could thus provide a novel biomarker for emotional disorders.”

Journal reference:

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