New Research: What Can Emotions Tell You About Your Body?

emotions and body

Horace Walpole said: “The world is a tragedy to those who feel, but a comedy to those who think”, and while I agree with him, in a more philosophical way, I believe that one needs to read between the lines.

Whether “tragic” or “comic”, the way we see our world depends on the way we control and use both our heart and mind. How should we live? Should we rely on our emotions or our reason? This is an old philosophical question no one has answered it properly due to the complexity of the subject.

One thing is sure, although the connection between our heart and mind is so deep and yet to be discovered and researched, emotions can be “mapped” on our body, as this new study has shown.

In a study, which included more than 700 individuals from Finland, Sweden and Taiwan, Finish researchers from Aalto University revealed and confirmed that the most common emotions trigger strong bodily sensations and that these sensations are differently mapped on the body.

The main finding of the study is that the emotions and their bodily sensations have a biological basis.  As explained in the study:

We often experience emotions directly in the body. When strolling through the part to meet with our sweetheart, we walk lightly with our hearts pounding with excitement, whereas anxiety might tighten our muscles and make our hands sweat and tremble before an important job interview.

We have all experienced those emotions in the above mentioned situations, however, as researchers indicated, we did not know that the bodily maps of these sensations can be described in detail. In five experiments, the participants were given two silhouettes of bodies and certain emotional words, movies, stories, or facial expressions. While viewing each of the stimulus, they were to color the regions of the body whose activity they felt increasing or decreasing, and this is the result:

What Can Emotions Tell You About Your Body?

What Can Emotions Tell You About Your Body?

Assistant professor, Lauri Nummenmaa from Aalto University, tells us:

Emotions adjust not only our mental, but also our bodily states. Awareness of the corresponding bodily changes may subsequently trigger the conscious emotional sensations, such as the feeling of happiness.

As you can see from the topography, anxiety can be experienced as a pain in the chest, for instance. For anyone of us, the relationship between body and emotions is something we have experienced in many ways, and certainly we were aware of the connection. The more important question is: in which way can this research help us? Researchers answered the question:

(…) emotional feelings are associated with discrete, yet partially overlapping maps of bodily sensations, which could be at the core of the emotional experience. Unraveling the subjective bodily sensations associated with human emotions may help us to better understand mood disorders such as depression and anxiety (…). Monitoring the topography of emotion-triggered bodily sensations brings forth a unique tool for emotion research and could even provide a biomarker for emotional disorders.

Plato said: “Human behavior flows from three main sources: desire, emotion, and knowledge”, and now, since we have more knowledge on emotions and desire to help, we can certainly improve our overall life. However, we shall wait and see.


L. Nummenmaa, E. Glerean, R. Hari, J. K. Hietanen. Bodily maps of emotions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2013; DOI: 10.1073/pnas. 1321664111

Image credit: ra2studio / 123RF Stock Photo