07 February 2014

Mapping Emotions

Welcome back. Here’s your science task for the day. Do you see the human figure in the photo? (Make believe it’s androgynous.) Get ready to mark up the figure with some routine or app like Microsoft Paint. 

Human figure from
All set? OK. Suppose you’re feeling sad. Where on your body would you feel the sensation? Paint that part of the body on the figure. Next, suppose you’re watching a horror movie or thriller and you’re frightened. Where on your body would you feel it? Paint it. Now do the same for anger, disgust, happiness, love and other common emotions, and save your results.

If you do this as a party game (scientists go to parties) or just get your spouse, partner or other friend or acquaintance to paint where they feel the sensations on the figure, you’ll probably find the results look similar. A recent study found that most people--at least West Europeans (Finnish and Swedish) and East Asians (Taiwanese)--feel emotional sensations in the same parts of the body.

Where Do You Feel It? Research

Investigators from Finland’s Aalto, Turku and Tampere universities conducted five experiments in which some 700 participants were shown computer displays of silhouettes of two bodies together with emotional words, stories, movies or facial expressions.

For each emotional stimulus, the participants used a computer mouse to paint the specific areas of the silhouetted bodies where they felt sensations becoming stronger or faster (one silhouette) or weaker or slower (other silhouette).

Painting with a specially designed tool was dynamic with successive strokes increasing the opacity of the paint. On the computer display, the painting tool covered 12 pixels and each silhouetted body was composed of over 50,300 pixels. The mapped data were stored as integers, 0 to 100, for each pixel, and the combined data were subjected to detailed statistical analysis.

Study Results

The study found distinct body sensation “maps” associated with each basic emotion considered--anger, fear, disgust, happiness, sadness and surprise--as well as with each complex emotion--anxiety, love, depression, contempt, pride, shame and envy.

All emotions were sensed in the head area, presumably because of both physiological and mind-triggered changes, and happiness (of course) was a full body sensation.

Most of the basic emotions were associated with stronger sensations in the upper chest, likely corresponding to breathing and heart rate changes. Upper limb sensations were most pronounced with anger and happiness, while sadness was associated with decreased limb sensations. Disgust was sensed mainly in the digestive system and throat.

Complex emotions showed much less body sensation and generally less spatial independence. Statistical clustering of the body maps linked happiness, love and pride, while negative emotions split into four separate clusters: anger and fear; anxiety and shame; sadness and depression; and disgust, contempt and envy plus surprise, which is neither positive nor negative.

Wrap Up

Although open to self-reporting error and the effects of broader cultural differences, the body maps constitute the most accurate description available of subjective emotion-related body sensations. The findings could point to a unique tool for emotion research and might even provide a biomarker for emotional disorders, especially if further work were to confirm the universality of the results.

Given my background, I’d be curious to know if any emotional sensations can be observed remotely. Maybe I can get the TSA to run a few body scanner tests the next time I’m in an airport, though I doubt the new scanners would be as revealing as those they replaced. Thanks for stopping by.


- Body emotion mapping paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: www.pnas.org/content/early/2013/12/26/1321664111

- Articles on the research on Science Daily and The Atlantic websites:

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