Linking Emotion to Physical Sensation: Lessons from Yoga and Research

By: 
B Grace Bullock, PhD, E-RYT 500

We all know that we experience emotions not only in our minds, but also in our bodies. In fact, according to a study recently published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (PNAS), different emotional states are experienced in particular regions in the body.

Just as interesting, these somatic experiences may also influence the way we experience emotion. Yoga may be a key practice that enables us to more fully understand this mind-body connection.

The study was conducted by researchers in Finland, who decided to explore whether discrete emotional states might be associated with distinctive patterns of bodily sensations.  Researchers presented 302 adult participants (261 female, mean age 27 years) with either emotional or neutral words. They then asked them to digitally paint where they felt physical sensation on anatomically neutral human silhouettes using a computerized mouse after each word.

Emotional words were either “basic” (anger, fear, disgust, happiness, sadness and surprise), or “nonbasic” (anxiety, love, depression, contempt, pride, shame or envy), or neutral. Images digitally painted on body silhouettes were stored and compared to identify patterns that might be unique to each emotion.

In the second phase of the study, a different sample of 72 participants (mean age 39, 53 female) were asked to look at averaged composites of the silhouette drawings or “heat maps” created from the sample of 302 participants and match each heat map with the emotion word that best described the image.  Researchers then compared these classifications with the initial stimulus words to determine how accurately people matched emotion words with body maps.

When comparing the basic emotions (anger, fear, disgust, happiness, sadness and surprise) and the neutral state against other emotions, participants had an average accuracy of 72%. When discriminating one emotion from another based on these emotion maps participants’ average accuracy dropped to 38%. While that may sound low, that was 24% higher than their ability to detect these emotions by chance.

These accuracy rates were fairly consistent for the “nonbasic” emotions (anxiety, love, depression, contempt, pride, shame or envy: 72% and 36% respectively) as well as all 13 emotions when considered together (72% and 24% respectively). This suggests that people in this sample were reasonably accurate in their assessment of which body maps corresponded to a particular emotion.

This study is particularly noteworthy because the researchers used native Finnish and Swedish (European) as well as Taiwanese (Asian) participants to make certain that the body mapping for particular emotions was not culturally specific. They found no differences by language or ethnic group, leading the authors to conclude that our mapping of emotions onto bodily sensations is culturally universal.

Where Do We Feel Emotional Sensations?

Another interesting aspect of this study is that the patterns of sensation reported by participants were consistent with our existing understanding of how emotions affect us physiologically.

For example, most basic emotions like anger, fear, happiness and sadness were mapped as being felt in the upper chest area. These are likely to correspond to increases in heart and breathing rates that we often notice when experiencing intense primary emotions. Sensations in the upper body and arms were most pronounced for feelings of happiness and anger, whereas less activation in this area was associated with sadness. This makes sense in light of recent research that demonstrates a direct relationship between slumped posture and feeling sad or fearful versus upright posture, which was related to strength, joy and enthusiasm respectively.

The body maps also consistently included sensation in the head, which may represent changes in our facial muscles and jaw as well as the expression of how we process emotional events in our minds as well as our bodies.

It is important to note that participants’ tendency to map emotions onto particular body regions may be a function of language-based stereotypes that we use to describe emotional experience. For example, the expression having butterflies in our stomach may influence the way that we physiologically perceive anxiety or stress because we have an expectation of having a fluttery stomach when we feel those emotions. While this is possible, participants were asked to illustrate their immediate experience on body maps “online” (while experiencing the emotions and sensations), which lessened the probability that they were relying on linguistic stereotypes when mapping their experience.

The researchers suggest that this study may “support models assuming that somatosensation and embodiment “play critical roles in emotional processing.”  They further note that “unraveling the subjective bodily sensations associated with human emotions may help us to better understand mood disorders such as depression and anxiety, which are accompanied by altered emotional processing, autonomic nervous system activity and somatosensation. “

Does Yoga Make Us More Attuned to our Bodies?

This body mapping study is especially interesting when we consider a recent theory that suggests that yoga activates our brains and bodies in a reciprocal exchange of information while we practice. When we feel stress it often includes cognitive and emotional experiences such as a negative evaluation of the situation, emotional reactivity, and rumination. This is often accompanied by physical sensations such as muscle tension, pain and even inflammation. So the body maps and the emotions that they were linked with may represent the ways in which we experience this mind-body connection.

Yoga teaches us mind-body awareness, and gives us the ability to consciously modulate our stress response through the breath, movement and intention. By linking the mind and body through practice we become aware of physical sensations and use them to interpret our mental states. This awareness allows us to downshift the stress response, and to create space in our interactions with others.

It would be fascinating to see future studies that compared the body mapping accuracy of yoga practitioners versus non-practitioners to test the hypothesis that yoga practice enhances this mind-body connection.

 

B Grace Bullock, PhD, E-RYT 500, is the Founding Director of the International Science & Education Alliance, a firm that provides strategic planning, research consultation and assessment design to support the empirically rigorous evaluation and sustainable implementation of programs in education, leadership, health and human services. Grace is an intervention scientist, psychologist, yoga educator and author who has worked extensively in integrated behavioral health settings. Her research, clinical practice, teaching and writing emphasize the incorporation of empirically supported psychotherapy with yoga therapy and mindfulness practices to relieve the symptoms of stress, trauma, anxiety, depression and other psychological illnesses, and to promote healthy relationships. She is Faculty at the Integrated Health Yoga Therapy therapist training program, and Professor of Yoga & Neuroscience at the Taksha University School of Integrative Medicine. Grace is the former Editor in Chief of the International Journal of Yoga Therapy and recipient of a Francisco J. Varela Research Award from the Mind & Life Institute. For more information contact Grace at bgracebullock@me.com or see http://isaeaorg.wix.com/isaea and http://www.mind-bodytherapy.com.

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