Have you ever felt your heart ache with sadness, or the flutter of nervous butterflies in your stomach? How about the all-over tingle of happiness or the pit-of-the-stomach emptiness of depression?  We sneer with disgust and puff our chests with pride – all these may be true in a metaphorical sense and we certainly have the language connections to back them up.  However, recent research suggests that our emotions have real physiological reactions to go with them.  

It has long been accepted that emotions induce some sort of physiological reaction – cheeks burning with shame, for example, or palms that sweat with nerves.  Now though, researchers in the Biomedical Engineering department of Aalto University, Finland[1] have mapped exactly which parts of the body are affected by which emotions. 

 The Body Atlas

Researchers tested over 700 participants from Finland, Taiwan, and Sweden in order to map the physiological reactions to emotions.  Participants viewed emotionally-laden material including words, videos, facial expressions, and stories, and were then required to self-report on what they felt and which parts of their bodies felt different.  They were provided with two computer-generated body images for each emotion – one that they coloured to show areas of increased sensation, and one that they coloured to represent areas of decreased sensation.  The experiment was repeated in order to gain greater control over ‘sensation-specific’ phrases, such as ‘cold feet’ or heart-ache’[2]


Although many critics suggest that ‘self-reporting’ reactions produce somewhat of a less reliable result than observation or physical testing, the findings of this experiment prove interesting.  Coloured areas on both the increased and decreased sensation maps were consistent for a range of emotions, regardless of nationality or social standing.  In fact, each of the fifteen emotion tested (basic emotions: anger, fear, disgust, happiness, sadness, and surprise; and complex emotions: anxiety, love, depression, contempt, pride, shame, and envy[3]) produced specifically highlighted areas, although naturally there was some overlap.  Basic emotions, for example, tended to result in increased sensation in the upper chest area, leading the authors of the study to suggest that this is likely a response to increase pulse and respiration rates.   Similarly, action-related emotions such as anger tended to produce increased sensation in the limbs, suggesting a preparation for movement.

It may be true that the study has produced few tangible results, as the ‘say-so’ of participants is both subjective and influenced by numerous factors.  However, the results do suggest a certain cultural universality to human emotions and may lead to greater and more exciting research.  

 The Future and Beyond

The truth is, as interesting as the results may be, the study does not take the notion quite far enough.  The authors suggest that most emotions only exert minor physiological changes in the body[4], but it’s easy to wonder whether that is actually the case.  In fact, we already know that emotions can have biological implications.  It’s well known that stress, for example, can cause weight loss, hair loss, palpitations, and even heart attacks.  Moreover, there are theories that laughter really is the best medicine and that a positive outlook can do wonders for your physical health.  These examples show that this research really is just the beginning.  We need to look at not just where emotions affect us in the external sense, but at how it affects us and what is going on inside.

 The research, as it is, certainly may go some way in examining how we treat emotional disorders but yet another question will be whether research such as this will give emotions more or less weight?  Will depression be given greater levity because finally, they have discovered the intrinsic physiological link?  Or will the joys of falling in love be diminished by the claim that it is not real but merely electrons firing randomly?  Either way, and regardless of the answers, it is clear that this research is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to understanding emotion. 


[1]{C} Adam Withnall, 2013, Racing Pulse, Glowing Cheeks, and a Heavy Heart: Body Atlas Heat Maps Reveal Where We Feel Different Emotions, [online].  Available at: www.independent.co.uk/news/science/racing-pulse-glowing-cheeks-and-a-heavy-heart-body-atlas-heatmaps-reveal-where-we-feel-different-emotions-9031615.html

[2]{C} Gemma Tarlach, 2013, Body Atlas Reveals Where We Feel Happiness and Shame, [online].  Available at: www.blogs.discovermagazine.com/d-brief/2013/12/30/body-atlas-reveals-where-we-feel-happiness-and-shame/#.UsQx2fRdWQ6

[3]{C} Rich McCormick, 2013, ‘Body Atlas’ Shows Where Emotions Hit the Hardest, [online].  Available at: www.theverge.com/2013/12/31/5259884/finnish-study-maps-emotions-onto-a-human-body

[4]{C} Rich McCormick, 2013, ‘Body Atlas’ Shows Where Emotions Hit the Hardest, [online].  Available at: www.theverge.com/2013/12/31/5259884/finnish-study-maps-emotions-onto-a-human-body

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Mapping Emotions by UrbanSculpt Staff Writer Victoria Froud, MA is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
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