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Mapping How Emotions Manifest in the Body

Across cultures, people feel increased activity in different parts of the body as their mental state changes.

Many years ago, I was in Brussels, Belgium, spending a day interviewing with a series of prospective internships. I frantically rehearsed my resume bullet points—in English and French—as I tried to navigate my way through the unfamiliar city to make four different appointments. Just as I was mouthing sciences politiques to myself for the hundredth time on the metro, I realized that my hands and feet had begun to sweat uncontrollably. Soon, I was sliding around in my sensible, black “grown person” shoes as I dashed through the cobblestoned streets. Each new potential internship boss was met with a shaky bonjour and an outstretched hand that felt like a cold sponge. I hadn’t contracted some rare, waffle-induced glandular disorder. Emotions (anxiety, in my case) can activate nervous system, endocrine, and musculoskeletal responses, giving us tingles down the spine, flushed faces, and other classic physical manifestations. The question is, do certain sentiments generate similar responses in all of us? Do we all get glowy cheeks when we’re feeling amorous, for example, or butterflies when we’re feeling nervous? A new study by Finnish researchers published today in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences, suggests that our emotions do indeed tend to influence our bodies in consistent ways. Across five experiments, 701 participants “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.” The emotions were generated by having the subjects read short stories or watch movies. On a blank, computerized figurine, they were then asked to color in the areas of their body where sensations became stronger (the red and yellow) or weaker (blue and black) when they felt a certain way. (via Mapping How Emotions Manifest in the Body - Olga Khazan - The Atlantic)