A study published in this week’s PNAS has found that we all quite literally feel our emotions. The study mapped out how people physically feel when they are happy, sad, angry, or even in love and the results are pretty remarkable.
The group had participants color in a bodily sensation map, or BSM, to show where they felt an emotion’s effect. Using images, stories, and even movie clips, the group elicited emotional responses from their subjects and then had them illustrate the sensations that went along with each emotion, like whether they felt warmer in their face but went cold below the knees or felt their arms and legs flush while their stomach got chills. They found that anger carried an intense physical feeling, but almost exclusively above the waist. Sadness on the other hand saw decreases in sensation to the arms and legs, with the feeling residing mostly in the face and torso. Happiness and love we get to feel pretty much all over, which is a really nice thought if you ask me.
The group looked at fourteen total emotional states, six “basic” emotions (happy, sad, angry, afraid, etc), seven “complex” emotions (anxiety, love, depression, etc.), and a neutral state. To make sure that these weren’t cultural constructs based around how we talk about our emotions (like feeling “butterflies in your stomach” when you catch sight of your crush or feeling “blue”) the group used different languages and different cultures. They compared Finnish responses to Swedish responses, since Finnish hails from the Uralic language family while Swedish is Germanic, and then also compared their Finnish results to those of another sample in Taiwan.
The group found that across both linguistic and cultural barriers, whether someone speaks Finnish, Swedish, or Taiwanese and regardless of if they were raised in a Western European culture or an East Asian one, people tended to feel things the same way. The BSMs were remarkably similar (that is, they were statistically the same for each emotion) and there were fewer mismatches of emotional descriptions, like say a Finnish description of the sensation of happiness being the same as a Taiwanese description of depression, than there were matches. So according to these findings, feelings are in fact pretty universal.
The authors do note that, despite how thorough their work is, they cannot guarantee that these physical responses are not somewhat affected by cultural conceptions of emotion that the body then creates. Instead, all they can really point out is that specific cultures don’t have different sensations for those emotions, suggesting that there if a conceptual connection is influencing a physical sensation, it is a concept that exists across cultural barriers (like if both Eastern and Western cultures had a phrase similar to “butterflies in your stomach” that might make you feel those butterflies whenever you’re smitten). But if these conceptual descriptions cross cultural barriers so regularly, it is also highly possible that those descriptions only arose because a universal biological reaction. So it could go either way really.
Regardless, it’s a very cool study, and kind of reassuring to know everyone actually does feel the same way. Except men. Men don’t have feelings. Everyone knows that.