‘Most Accurate’ Chart of Where Emotion Is Felt in the Human Body, Study

“For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.  I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.”  Psalm 139:13-14 (NIV)

Researchers in Finland have compiled the first authoritative atlas of “body maps” that detail where we feel emotions.

We can now clearly see that happiness actually makes us feel tingly all over, that sadness is felt in the heart, and that depression is characterized by an all-over numbness.  It would seem that idioms such as a chest puffed with pride, or cold feet, are very much seated in physiological reality.

I think all of us know that emotions are linked to physiological changes — nervousness and sweaty palms, shame and a hot head/cheeks, fear and a racing heart — but this study, carried out by Lauri Nummenmaa and friends, is exciting because it uses a very large pool of participants — 700 people from Finland, Sweden, and Taiwan — and is controlled for nationality and language.

In other words, despite differences in language and culture, it seems that all humans have very similar, genetically-coded physiological responses to emotions.  Our chests don’t puff up with pride just because the idiom tells us to; pride really does make your face and torso feel good.

Human emotions

While this method might not sound all that scientific, it is.  With such a large corpus of participants from different walks of life, and intelligent controlling by the researchers, it’s an empirical study with valid, quantitative findings.

The findings (published in in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences) might not be as useful as if they had been recorded with some kind of standardized “emotometer,” but this is the kind of research might lead towards the creation of such a thing in the future.  The researchers hope that, with continued study, these maps may help with diagnosing and treating emotional disorders.

Looking at the maps, it’s amazing how each emotion triggers a very specific and unique physiological response.

  • Happiness and love are the only emotions that increase sensation below the waist.
  • Sadness decreases the feeling of everything, except for the heart and parts of the face.
  • Depression is an all-over lack of sensation.
  • It is startling to see shame’s intense increase of sensation in the head and cheeks, fluttering heart and stomach, and numbness of legs so accurately depicted.

Now we just need to work out why and how each emotion triggers such a physiological response.  Full story here.

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