Research Mapping Human Emotions Shows Strong Mind Body Connection

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Mind-body interconnectivity is nothing new to the ancients or to the spiritual traditions of the East, such as Yoga.  Carl Jung noticed the mind-body connection when he developed the association experiment, a system which measures both a person’s physiological and psychological response to trigger words. The modern West, still mostly trapped in the misconception of mind-body separation, is finally catching up to the idea of mind-body interconnectivity – several thousand years later. Using what they call a “topographical self-report tool,the emBody tool, researchers in Finland believe they have mapped the landscape of human emotions and their effects on the human body.

While it may come as groundbreaking news to some people, to others it is just plain common sense, information which should require no special reporting tool or technique. We experience emotions just as much in the body as we do in the mind. Think about how it feels when you fall in love, especially for the first time. Falling in love is more than just a psychological experience – something that happens in your mind. It is also a physical experience, felt as pleasurable sensations in the body. Physiologically, love can be measured in terms of neurotransmitters and endorphins.  The initial sexual tension of love is charged by the hormones testosterone and estrogen. The magnetic attraction we feel for our love-interest is fueled by adrenaline, which is associated with heart-racing and sweaty palms; dopamine, associated with feelings of desire, reward, and pleasure; and serotonin, which is associated with regulation of mood and appetite, and also, obsessive-compulsive disorder, the latter of which certainly explains why we can’t get that certain someone out of our heads or why people do the strangest things in the name of love.

So, what does the landscape of our emotions look like on our bodies?  Let’s take a look at the results of the Finland study, which were published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  In the experiment, 700 participants from Western Europe and Eastern Asia were shown two silhouettes of bodies alongside emotional words, stories, movies, or facial expressions.  They were asked to color the bodily regions whose activity they felt increasing or decreasing while viewing each stimulus. Different emotions were consistently associated with statistically separable bodily sensation maps across experiments. These maps were concordant across West European and East Asian samples. Statistical classifiers distinguished emotion-specific activation maps accurately, confirming independence of topographies across emotions. We propose that emotions are represented in the somatosensory system as culturally universal categorical somatotopic maps. Perception of these emotion-triggered bodily changes may play a key role in generating consciously felt emotions.

The emotions studied were anger, fear, disgust, happiness, sadness, surprise, anxiety, love, depression, contempt, pride, shame, and envy. Using computer-modeled human silhouettes, the participants in the experiment first colored red in the area of the body where they felt increasing or decreasing shifts in activity.  As the sensations became more intense, they colored yellow. If the sensations decreased or dulled, they colored shades of blue.  The maps have also revealed that sensation patterns associated with each emotion correspond to the physiological changes in the body (those we discussed when we talked about the chemical experience of love).

All of the participants showed similar responses, indicating that the sensations associated with emotions are cross-cultural, supporting the notion that we are one human species, undivided by race and ethnicity at our deepest levels. What the participants reported was that sensations of happiness are felt throughout the entire body, while sensations of depression show dulled sensations throughout the body.  The scans also showed an interesting correlation between our seemingly metaphorical descriptions of emotions and the places in which those emotions are felt.  For example, sadness, ore broken-heartedness, was actually experienced as heightened sensations in the area of the heart.  Anger, or hot-headedness, showed clear indications of heightened sensations in the head.  Disgust, or something that makes you feel sick to your stomach, was felt in the gut.

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 (Nummenmaa, Glerean, Hari, and Hietane).  Nummenmaa also added, “Many mental disorders are associated with altered functioning of the emotional system, so unraveling how emotions coordinate with the minds and bodies of healthy individuals is important for developing treatments for such disorders.”

Depth psychologists such as Carl Jung have reported numerous cases of the connection between unresolved emotional states and physical symptoms of illnesses, such as heart and digestive disorders. For example, patients who “can’t stomach” the reality of an unwanted situation will often manifest digestive disorders. Once the psychological issue is worked out, the symptoms disappear.  Results of these kind, combined with the type of research happening in Finland, offer hope to those who would rather choose to confront their emotions through psycho-dynamic intervention, rather than dull their emotions with pharmaceuticals.

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