Bodily Emotive Sensations

While awake, the mind creates the body via an intricate continuous process. As part of its portrayal, the mind “paints” emotive sensations onto the body.

The linkage between emotion and body is universal and reflected in languages throughout the world. Regretting a decision may cause “cold feet.” A disappointment may make one “crestfallen” or “heartbroken.” A trepidatious surprise may bring “goose bumps.”

Researchers catalogued experiment participant responses to emotive stimuli (words, stories, movies) to create body sensation maps (BSMs) of increased warmth or chill. Participants were from several cultures.

“All cultures have body-related expressions for describing emotional states. Many of these (e.g., having “butterflies in the stomach”) are metaphorical and do not describe actual physiological changes associated with the emotional response,” reported Finnish human ecologist Lauri Nummenmaa and her colleagues.

The research showed “distinct BSMs associated with both basic and complex emotions.” Most basic emotions are associated with sensations of elevated activity in the upper chest and head. Disgust is felt in the throat and digestive system.

Unspoken, instant recognition of emotions in others relies upon cues associated with the body. Foremost, we sense a “vibe” coming off people which does not necessarily have a physical correlate. Physiologically, unlike many other mammals, human eyes are attuned to subtle shades of red which may reveal the thermal state of someone else’s skin. Through this we sense whether someone is “cool”, “warm”, “hot” or “cold” – attributions of both temperature and emotive state.

Emotions fall into 2 basic categories: affirmation (approach) or rejection (withdrawal). “Sensations in the upper limbs were most prominent in approach-oriented emotions, anger and happiness, whereas sensations of decreased limb activity were a defining feature of sadness. In contrast with all of the other emotions, happiness was associated with enhanced sensations all over the body.”

We feel our best – the most balanced, and are most aware, when comfortably warm. Happiness is an overwhelming momentary sensation refracting contentment. Contentment is an affirmation sensation, and is an abiding state in elevated levels of consciousness.


Lauri Nummenmaa et al, “Bodily maps of emotions,” PNAS (14 January 2014).