The Athlete's Way

Sweat and the biology of bliss

Researchers Map Body Areas Linked to Specific Emotions

Scientists have created color-coded body maps that correspond to 14 emotions.

Hot colors represent engagement of a body area. Cool colors represent disengagement of a body area.

We all know colloquial sayings that link body areas and physical sensations to specific emotions. Sayings like, "cold feet, sweaty palms, goose bumps, shivers down my spine, butterflies in my stomach, weak in the knees, hot headed, cold hearted..." are commonly used to sum up emotional states. Recently, researchers from Finland created colorful images that map how the engagement of specific body areas corresponds to 14 different emotions.

The new cross-cultural study titled, “Bodily Maps of Emotions" was published December 31, 2013 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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Around the turn of the 20th Century, psychologists William James and Karl Lange proposed that human emotions were primarily cognitive interpretations of bodily states. The basic premise of the theory was that physiological arousal triggers specific emotions.

According to the James-Lange Theory, “we do not tremble because we are scared, but rather we are scared because we tremble." On the flip side, the theory would suggest "we are not happy because we laugh, we laugh because we are happy.” This new study is fascinating because it expands on these ideas by correlating specific body areas with 14 different emotions as part of a feedback loop.

Body Map of "Contempt"

The feedback loop between external stimuli and an emotional response happens at lightning fast speed. One of the key components of The Athlete’s Way is learning how to harness the autonomic nervous system by taking a dual-pronged approach of doing body work that triggers an optimal state of mind while simultaneously creating a mindset that stimulates optimal physiological responses. Creating a unified body-mind state of joyful enthusiasm takes practice, but is the key to peak performance. Negative emotions can derail anyone's performance in life and sport.

James-Lange Theory of Emotions

The James–Lange Theory was one of the earliest theories of emotion within modern psychology. Instead of feeling an emotion and subsequent physiological (bodily) response, the theory proposes that the physiological change is primary, and emotion is then experienced when the brain reacts to the information received via the autonomic nervous system (ANS). The ANS is classically divided into two subsystems: the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS) and sympathetic nervous system (SNS).

The hyptothesis is that all emotion is derived from the presence of a stimulus, which evokes a physiological response, such as: muscular tension, a rise in heart rate, perspiration, dryness of mouth... This physical arousal makes a person feel a specific emotion. According to this theory, emotion is a secondary feeling, indirectly caused by the primary feeling, which is the physiological response caused by the presence of a stimulus.

Body Map of "Fear vs. Love"

I do a lot of running on trails and see snakes a few times a year. Like most people, I have a strong aversion to snakes and always have an instantaneous fight-or-flight response at the sight of a snake. The jolt is really amazing because it’s so clearly buried deep in my subconscious mind and occurs in milliseconds of seeing the slithering creature. Even though I know intellectually that the snake is probably harmless, my amygdala operates more quickly than my prefrontal cortex and sends a signal that makes my nervous system go into hyper-drive. The color-coding of "fear" in this body map captures what it feels like when I see a snake on a trail run.

What situations make you fearful? The fight-or-flight response is one of our most deeply ingrained reflexes and causes cortisol levels to skyrocket. In our modern day-to-day lives many of us are in a constant physiological state of fight-or-flight. This is why mindfulness training is so helpful for re-framing your fear and harnessing your emotions. By doing simple things like deep breathing—and using other tricks to calm your body down—you create a calmness of mind.

Having body maps like this helps to visualize and target an ideal mind-body state as connected to an emotion. For example, the body map of "love" captures the warm glow you would feel when your parasympathetic nervous system puts you in a state of 'rest-and-digest' or 'tend-and-befriend,' which are the opposite of fear based fight-or-flight.

Since the inception of the James-Lange theory, scientists have found evidence that not all aspects of the theory are completely accurate. The theory was challenged in the 1920s by psychologists such as Walter Cannon and Philip Bard, who theorized that physiological changes are also caused by emotions, in what is collectively known as the Cannon–Bard theory of emotion. Again, I believe that emotions are a blend of cognitive content and visceral body sensations.

Body Maps for Emotions

Body Map of "Happiness"

The new study from Aalto University in Finland isolated a broad spectrum of emotions and created colorful body maps that correspond to 14 different emotions. The researchers found that the most common emotions trigger strong bodily sensations, and the bodily maps of these sensations were cross-cultural. The engagement and disengagement patterns of the emotional body maps were consistent across different West European and East Asian cultures. This suggests that emotions and their corresponding bodily sensation patterns have a universal biological topography.

"Emotions adjust not only our mental, but also our bodily states. This way they prepare us to react swiftly to the dangers, but also to the opportunities such as pleasurable social interactions present in the environment. Awareness of the corresponding bodily changes may subsequently trigger the conscious emotional sensations, such as the feeling of happiness," said assistant professor Lauri Nummenmaa from Aalto University.

The researchers conclude, "The findings have major implications for our understanding of the functions of emotions and their bodily basis. On the other hand, the results help us to understand different emotional disorders and provide novel tools for their diagnosis."

Body Map of "Depression"

The research included over 700 individuals from Finland, Sweden and Taiwan. The researchers induced different emotional states in their Finnish and Taiwanese participants. Subsequently the participants were shown pictures of human bodies on a computer, and asked to color the bodily regions whose activity they felt increasing or decreasing.

Conclusion: Daily Physicality Improves Emotional Intelligence

Through daily physicality you learn to understand how your individual body feels in corellation to a wide range of emotions. Understanding this connection makes it easier to create a mindset that is in synch with your physical body and to stay in touch with a broad spectrum of emotions. This improves your emotional intelligence.

These colorful images of emotional body maps allow you to visualize a target emotion as it is color-coded to areas of your body. For example, if your target emotions are those of happiness and love, you can picture the body images radiating with orange and yellow light in those regions. Likewise, when you look at the image of fear or contempt you can see where you would want to direct your bodily energy to disengage that negativity.

By visualizing this bodily state in your mind’s eye first, you can kick-start a chain reaction that can make that emotion a self-fulfilling prophecy. I call this ‘putting the cart before the horse’ in that you enter the feedback loop from the body and create an upward spiral towards a positive mindset.

You can use the visualization of these body maps to disengage neural networks linked to negative emotions. By doing this regularly, you will fine-tune a mindset of pragmatic optimism through neural pruning and brain plasticity. The more regularly you engage a neural network linked to positive emotions and outcomes, the more automatically your mind and body clicks into that state of being. This is the key to The Athlete's Way philosophy.

Recent scientific findings have also confirmed the role of the vagus nerve as a crucial link between our conscious mind and subconscious physical body. The outside environment and nervous system appear to be fully integrated into creating specific emotions as linked to the vagus nerve. If you'd like to read more on the vagus nerve and healthy vagal tone check out my Psychology Today blog post "The Neurobiology of Grace Under Pressure."

When looking at the vibrant yellows and oranges radiating throughout the body in connection to positive emotions, I can’t help but think of the classic poem “I Sing the Body Electric” by Walt Whitman. The body maps of love and happiness cause lines from the poem to spring into my mind, “I sing the body electric, The armies of those I love engirth me and I engirth them... And if the body were not the soul, what is the soul?”

In a sedentary digital age many of us are becoming disconnected from our physical bodies. The current research confirms that emotional intelligence and ‘wholehearted’ connection to your own emotions and the emotions of others is part of a mind-body feedback loop. 

A simple way to keep the feedback loop between your body and mind well-oiled is to create daily habits that combine physical activity like—aerobic exercise, strength training, yoga—with mindfulness practices like meditation. That said, consciously maintaining close-knit, intimate social connections is probably the single most important component for wellness. This combination of lifestyle choices will improve your health, happiness and well-being in 2014 and for a lifespan.

If you'd like to read more on this topic, check out my Psychology Today blog posts:

Follow me on Twitter @ckbergland for updates on The Athlete’s Way blog posts.

Christopher Bergland is a world-class endurance athlete, coach, author, and political activist.

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