Across-cultures replicable bodily maps of experienced emotions

In linguistic expressions, emotional experiences are often described as bodily sensations, such as someone “having cold feet” or “heartache” that can be surprisingly similar across different cultures and languages. Furthermore, in cognitive neuroscience theories of emotions, somatosensory feedback has been proposed to support conscious emotional experiences. On the other hand, there are classical findings indicating that it is difficult to classify emotional states (other than changes in the level of arousal) based on measures of autonomic nervous system activity. Somewhat surprisingly, the question of whether emotional experiences during different emotional states (e.g., anger, sadness, happiness) are associated with distinct patterns of bodily sensations has not been addressed empirically.

In their recent study, Nummenmaa et al. (2013) conducted a series of five closely related experiments where a total of 701 participants were presented outlines of bodies along with emotional stimuli of different types and were asked to color bodily regions in the outlines where they felt increasing or decreasing activity while experiencing different kinds of emotions. The authors observed that different emotions were associated with across-stimulus-type replicable patterns of bodily sensations as indicated by the coloring patterns. These patterns of bodily sensations further replicated across Finnish and Swedish speaking subjects, as well as Taiwanese subjects tested in a separate control study. Based on these findings, the authors propose that emotions are represented in the somatosensory system as culturally universal categorical somatotopic maps that contribute to conscious emotional experiences.

Reference: Nummenmaa L, Glerean E, Hari R, Hietanen JK. Bodily maps of emotions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA (2013) e-publication ahead of print. http://dx.doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1321664111

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