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'Body Atlas' shows where emotions hit the hardest

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Finnish researchers have attempted to pinpoint the ways in which our emotions affect our bodies. The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences, asked 773 participants to indicate how certain emotionally charged materials made them feel. The researchers argue that human bodies feel emotions in broadly consistent ways.

The participants were first shown words, stories, movies, and expressions, and then asked to highlight on computer-modeled human silhouettes the areas of the body they felt decreasing or increasing activity. Where sensations were intense, participants would color first red, and then yellow as the feelings got stronger; where the sensations were dulled, they would color shades of blue.

The authors of the study note most emotions only exert a minor physiological change in the body

The maps reinforce expectations of human emotional responses to outside stimuli. The silhouette for shame sports bright yellow cheeks, while someone experiencing disgust has a red, roiling stomach. Depression manifests itself as a deadening of feeling in the limbs, while sadness is represented by two blotchy eyes drawn on a silhouetted face as the participant considers crying.

The responses suggest a cultural universality to human emotions

The authors of the study concede that the results of their research could "reflect a purely conceptual association between semantic knowledge of language-based stereotypes" and emotional sensations — such as butterflies in the stomach — but argue that their responses suggest a "cultural universality" to how our emotions impact our bodies. The study was conducted with Taiwanese and Finnish participants, and despite their very different cultural backgrounds, both groups drew similar maps.

Instead of a linguistic or cultural explanation for the universality of the study's responses, the authors suggest their data points in the direction of "a biological basis" for our physical responses to emotions. Although our emotions only exert small influences on our actual physiology — causing minimal differences in skin temperature or heart rate — the study says we're ill-equipped to differentiate between skeletomuscular, visceral, and nerve sensations. Our responses, the churning stomachs or hot flushes on our faces, are our go-to "consciously accessible" bodily states when we deal with an onslaught of emotions.