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New Study Maps Where in the Body Feelings are Experienced

Dec 31, 2013 12:08 PM EST
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Researchers from Aalto University in Finland have pieced together a map of where in the body emotions are experienced.

Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the study included more than 700 individuals from Finland, Sweden and Taiwan. Each was asked to color the part of the body where they felt decreasing or increasing activity when faced with a range of stimuli, including emotional words, stories, movies or facial expressions.

The results showed that even among individuals from places as different as Western Europe and East Asia, emotions were reportedly played out in similar parts of the body, suggesting less of a cultural and more of a biological basis for how feelings are experienced.

True to the cliche of one's chest swelling with pride, participants overwhelmingly reported experiencing the emotion in their chest. Happiness, meanwhile, stretched from people's toes to their heads, while depression and neutrality were both characterized by numbness throughout the body. When the participants felt love, they reported their head, arms, hands and especially their chest all increasing in activity, while shame triggered the greatest amount of activity in the face.

 

Different emotions are associated with discernible patterns of bodily sensations. Credit: Aalto University and Turku PET Centre.

Based on their results, the researchers wrote in the study's abstract that "Perception of these emotion-triggered bodily changes may play a key role in generating consciously felt emotions."

Not only do emotions alter a person's mental state, but their bodily state as well. "This way they prepare us to react swiftly to the dangers, but also to the opportunities such as pleasurable social interactions present in the environment," Aalto University wrote in a statement.

Lauri Nummenmaa is an assistant professor at the school's Department of Biomedical Engineering and Computational Science and co-author of the study. He notes that our emotions play an important, sometimes life-saving, role in how we interact with our environment.

"Our emotional system in the brain sends signals to the body so we can deal with our situation," he told NPR"Say you see a snake and you feel fear. Your nervous system increases oxygen to your muscles and raises your heart rate so you can deal with the threat. It's an automated system. We don't have to think about it."

Going forward, the researchers say their study has important implications for understanding the function of emotions, as well as helping to shed light on emotional disorders.

Want to give the experiment a try? Click here

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