A new study maps how different emotions are felt within the body, with profound implications for ways to control how we feel.
"We often think the emotions are something that happen only in the mind, but there's also lots of evidence suggesting that they also happen in our bodies," lead author Lauri Nummenmaa, of the Aalto University School of Science in Finland, told NPR.
Published in Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences, the study is based on five experiments involving 701 participants who were shown two silhouettes of bodies alongside emotional words, stories, movies, or facial expressions and asked to color the bodily regions whose activity they felt increasing or decreasing while viewing each stimulus.
Here are the results:
(Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America PNAS, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences)
Nummenmaa noted that the maps illustrate how emotions evolved: Approach-related emotions such as anger and love show increased activity in the arms (and to a lesser extent the feet) while avoidance-related emotions sadness and anxiety show deactivation of those areas.
As you can see, happiness and depression evoke the most activity.
The authors contend that the distinct bodily sensation maps represent universal biological responses since the maps were consistent across experiments, including both West European and East Asian samples.
"Our data show bodily sensations associated with different emotions are so specific that, in fact, they could at least in theory contribute significantly to the conscious feeling of the corresponding emotion," said Nummenmaa.
The results led the authors to conclude that our perception of these emotion-triggered bodily changes "may play a key role" in how we consciously experience different emotions.
What that means is that not only can voluntary actions (such as focusing on breathing or smiling) produce corresponding emotions in the body, but also awareness of emotional responses throughout the body can affect our state of mind.
This understanding of this mind-body interplay can be used to deal with strong emotions. In the words of Tibetan teacher Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche:
"A more constructive approach to negative emotions, similar to working with negative thoughts, is simply to rest your attention on the emotion itself rather than on its object. Just look at the emotion without analyzing it intellectually. Don't try to hold on to it and don't try to block it. Just observe it. When you do this, the emotion won't seem as big or powerful as it initially did."
As Columbia professor and scientist Myrna Weissman told Reuters when discussing the effects of spirituality: "The brain is an extraordinary organ. It not only controls, but is controlled by our moods."
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