Emotions are felt in the body! The possibility of the perception of these inner body sensations is an important component, so that these emotional experiences can be passed on to the brain and then become conscious to the person.
The afferent (arriving/receiving) signals sent by the body go to the central processing in the brain. There they are assigned to corresponding neural and mental representations (areas/regions). Then the response goes back to the body. Thus, emotions lead to adaptive responses that are driven by autonomic (usually non-volitional and independent) neural responses. This results in changes in heart rate, gut motility, or muscle tone. When this is perceived, people attribute these physical changes to certain emotional states and do so with some reliability.
Emotions can even be sensed topographically, like a map, in the body. Researchers investigated the comparability of these sensations by asking study participants for their somatosensory feedback. They showed maps of body sensations associated with different emotions. Participants were shown two body silhouettes and, next to them, emotional words, stories, movies or facial expressions. They were then asked to color-code the body regions whose activity they perceived as increasing or decreasing when viewing each stimulus. Different emotions were associated with specific body sensations in all experiments. These maps coincided in Western European and East Asian samples. Therefore, it can be assumed that emotions are culturally universal to be felt in specific body regions.
Most basic emotions were associated with sensations of increased activity in the upper chest region, likely related to changes in respiration and heart rate. Sensations in the head region were also the same for all emotions, likely reflecting both physiological changes in the facial region (i.e., facial muscle activation, skin temperature, tear flow) and emotional changes in mental content triggered by the emotional events. Upper limb sensations were most pronounced during approach-oriented emotions, anger, and happiness, whereas sensations of decreased limb activity were a defining feature of sadness. Sensations in the digestive tract and neck region occurred most prominently with disgust. In contrast to all other emotions, happiness was associated with increased sensations throughout the body. The nonbasic emotions exhibited much lower levels of body sensations and spatial independence, except for a high degree of similarity between the emotional states of anxiety and sadness and their respective prolonged clinical variants of anxiety and depression.
Emotions are thus perceived in the body! There is furthermore the phenomenon that emotions are felt in the own body when observing another individual! This is the so-called emotional contagion. Empathy, the feeling into another individual, contains still another component, the distinction, whether the noticeable emotion has its origin in the other or in oneself. Effective social functioning requires the ability to distinguish one's own emotional state from that of others. Accordingly, this distinction between oneself and others during emotional experience is important for the capacity for empathy and is described as one of its characteristics.
According to an experimental study, adults are more capable of this than children. The study participants were shown a silhouette of a human body, on which they drew in places where they felt an emotional reaction when watching film and music clips. Similarly, they were asked to draw in places where they believed the character in the movie or the performer felt an emotion. The relationship between cognitive empathy and the degree of overlap between one's own and another's body was also found in children (8-11 years old), although children performed worse overall on the task (note: the study was not open to public scrutiny, so it is not clear how the children experienced and described the situations).
Some researchers attribute emotions not only to a purely automatic response to a stimulus, but see them in a broader physical-psycho-social context. Emotions, they say, are automatisms, but these are connected to the social world, for example, through the sense of the mother's language. Emotions, moreover, represented an integrative function between the two antagonisms of mind and automatism, or emotion and mind. The original function of emotions concerns the communication system. The first function of emotion, he said, is the search for action in the family circle, through mimicry with the environment and emotional contagion. This emotional system is totally dependent (addicted) to the environment. It can be considered as a tool to coordinate with the environment and favors immediate empathy within the infant and the family circle. This enables mental and motor adaptation, as well as the plasticity necessary for the emergence of consciousness.
The ability to perceive the emotional states of others is thus a key component in social interactions. Corresponding sensorimotor regions exist in the CNS for this purpose. The somatosensory cortex plays a particularly important role in human emotion understanding. However, while different emotions are experienced in specific body parts, it is not known whether the somatosensory cortex has corresponding somatotopic activations for different emotional expressions. If sensations from body parts can be mapped to specific areas on the somatosensory cortex, as is now known, do emotions felt in the body activate the same areas in the brain? In one study, scientists investigated whether the affective response triggered by observing the emotional facial expressions of others leads to different activations in the sensorimotor cortex. Whereas only a few body regions, such as the region for the finger or the toe of the foot were examined. The results showed an emotion-specific response in the finger region of the brain when observing angry as opposed to sad emotional expressions. After controlling for the transfer effects of visual evoked activity. These are the first indications that the regions of bodily sensations and physically perceptible emotions in somatosensory cortex may be the same.
People can experience emotional states of others and use these embodied responses to understand and predict behavior in complex social interactions. Experiencing and understanding observed emotions is supported by a distributed brain network that includes older sensory areas in the visual, auditory, and motor cortex as well as newer brain areas such as the prefrontal and orbitofrontal cortex and the temporo-parietal cortex. The motor and sensory cortexes, including the somatosensory cortex, are highly interconnected with the limbic system. Activity in these areas is related to performance in simple perceptual tasks such as emotion recognition or discrimination of facial and bodily expressions, and in more complex social tasks such as imitation or perspective taking. The observer's body has a special role to play here, since he needs it for this performance. Thus, the body plays an important role in experiencing one's own or other emotions and sensations!
- Sachs et al.(2019) Echoing the emotions of others: empathy is related to how adults and children map emotion onto the body, Cogn Emot 33(8):1639-1654.
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- Sel et al. (2020) The somatotopy of observed emotions, Cortex 129:11-22.