Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Human emotions mapped for the first time, shows where we feel love, fear, and shame

Body physiological responses, to various emotions


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.

How the maps of physiological response to emotions were created

To create these maps (view larger), the 700 participants were shown a variety of emotional words, stories, videos, and images. They were then asked to paint two human silhouettes on a computer; one to show where they felt increased sensation, and the other for decreased sensation. The researchers then compiled all of the maps, being careful to mitigate the effect of sensation-specific phrases (cold feet, heartbroken, hot-headed, a shiver down your spine), and to remove any “anomalous painting behavior” (doodles, symbols, etc.) The two silhouettes were then combined, and then the combined images from all participants were averaged to create the final maps.

Emotional response to various stories
This interesting diagram shows the participants’ emotional responses (colored lines) to stories that were intentionally tailored to elicit that emotion. The target emotion is shown on the perimeter. You can see that angry stories also made people sad and disgusted, but happy stories only elicited happiness.

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 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. [Research paper: doi: 10.1073/pnas.1321664111 - "Bodily maps of emotions". Open access.]

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.