Body Heat

13-21664-large-b12e81ec59ec77bd24c6abc7cf6a221346ed3bdd-s40-c85We often experience emotions directly in the body. Emotions coordinate our behaviour and physiological states during survival-salient events —like meeting a bear(1) in the wild— and also during more pleasurable interactions. Even though we are often consciously aware of our current emotional state, such as anger or happiness, the mechanisms giving rise to these subjective sensations remain largely unresolved.

Emotions are thought to play a critical role in high-level cognition, providing the scaffolding for the construction of social cognition and the self. Each emotion activates a distinct set of body parts and neurologists —like Antonio Damasio— think that  mind’s recognition of those specific patterns is what helps us consciously identify each emotion.

Now a team of scientists has asked people to map out where they feel different emotions on their bodies, and they have found that the results are surprisingly consistent, even across different cultures. When they average the individual results, signature patterns emerge for each emotion. They conclude that emotional feelings are associated with discrete, yet partially overlapping maps of bodily sensations, which could be at the core of the emotional experience.

The team have published the results in PNAS(2). You can participate in the experiment here.


(1) William James, What is an Emotion?”, First published in Mind, 9, 188-205 (1884)

(2) Lauri Nummenmaa, Enrico Glerean, Riitta Harib and Jari K. Hietanend, “Bodily maps of emotions”, PNAS vol. 111 no. 1, January 2014

Featured Image: Bodily topography of basic (Upper) and non-basic (Lower) emotions associated with words. The body maps show regions whose activation increased (warm colors) or decreased (cool colors) when feeling each emotion. (Nummenmaa op. cit.)

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