Body mapping shows where emotions affect us the most

Getting sweaty palms or butterflies in our stomach when we feel nervous. Feeling the hot rush in our cheeks when we're embarrassed or ashamed. Having that all-over warm feeling from being in love. Our emotions produce some pretty strong effects on the body, and now a team of Finnish researchers has produced a set of 'body maps' showing just what effect different emotions have on us.

According to the researchers, although it's well known that emotions cause changes in the body, what's less clear is just how subjective these changes are, and whether or not the changes for each emotion are distinct.

To investigate these questions, the researchers ran five different experiments, exposing a total of over 700 participants to sets of words, stories, movies or facial expressions. Provided along with each stimulus they were given, the participants were provided with two 'body maps' — one for them to indicate where they felt any increased activity, whether positive or negative, and one for them to show where they felt decreased activity. So, for example, if a person was experiencing sadness, they felt it more in their chest, neck and face (perhaps heartache, becoming 'choked up' and maybe shedding some tears), but they felt less in their extremities. This is reflected on the map with warmer colours showing higher 'emotional topography' and cooler colours showing lower 'emotional topography.'

In all, they gathered information on a total of 13 different emotions — six 'basic' ones (anger, fear, disgust, happiness, sadness and surprise) and seven 'complex' ones (anxiety, love, depression, contempt, pride, shame and envy). Putting the results from all participants together, they came up with a 'body atlas' of sorts, showing how these different emotions affect the body.

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With participants reporting how they feel and where they feel various sensations, rather than specific biological factors being tracked, there is definitely a subjective aspect to these findings. However, the maps show the overall trends of all the participants together, and even with Finnish, Swedish and Taiwanese participants, representing three different language groups (Uralic, Germanic and Chinese, respectively), and the different cultural backgrounds involved, the results were still fairly consistent.

The researchers are hopeful that their findings can form the basis for new studies into emotions, and possibly even help us gain a better understand of mood disorders like depression and anxiety.

The study is available online to read, published in in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences, and if you'd like to participate in the study, to expand their findings, you can do so by clicking here. At the very least, it's an interesting tool for figuring out exactly how different emotions actually make us feel.

(Images courtesy: Lauri Nummenmaa, Enrico Glerean, Riitta Hari, and Jari Hietanen)

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