Mind and Body Emotional Links

Sarah Godfrey 2021

Ever wondered what a heat scan would show about how we experience emotions? We have a universal image of anger being hot and depression being cold, yet how close to these assumptions are we really? The mind-body experience has intrinsic associations to how we relate feelings to physical parts of our body.

Researchers have investigated how this link between emotions and bodily states is also reflected in the way we speak of emotions, ‘a young bride getting married next week may suddenly have “cold feet,” severely disappointed lovers may be “heartbroken,” and our favourite song may send “a shiver down our spine.” Bodily maps of Emotions

Physical reactions to how we feel are triggered by our autonomic nervous systems (visceral motor system), which engages our body ready for a perceived change in environments, threat or event. Yet, how come different emotions create different physical experiences at different physical locations?

The ability to express and recognise feelings is a vital part of our human experience and skill to communicate. While previously the belief was we had six primary emotional states, current research, now believes our feelings extend to over 27 different emotional states (Emoji fans take heart)

These are: admiration, adoration, aesthetic appreciation,  amusement, anger, anxiety, awe, awkwardness, boredom,  calmness, confusion, craving, disgust, empathic pain,  entrancement, excitement, fear, horror, interest, joy, nostalgia,  relief, romance, sadness, satisfaction, sexual desire and surprise.

Broadening our knowledge on our emotional range helps define mood states, however new research has taken that awareness a step further. The team from Aalto University in Finland ( Emotions and Body Sensations ) has produced some fascinating research on how our bodies literally experience a range of emotions. They looked beyond the traditional top six and incorporated more from the 27 identified states we experience.

Using a topographical self -report measure, the research showed that even the most common emotional experiences produced strong sensations physically. Not only that, but each emotion had its own unique signature, and these signatures were the same across all cultures, unifying our emotional connectivity.

We may wonder the use of such research, however understanding how emotions effect our body can help in the development of diagnostic and treatment options. It allows us a greater understanding of the psychosomatic responses and the physical impact of negative or positive emotional feelings on our well-being.

What is interesting is the warm sensations such as happiness, pride and love are also connected to anger, fear and disgust. Cool sensations such as depression and neutral have no warm signatures at all. Anxiety, contempt, shame, envy, sadness and surprise show a mixed physical response.

From a psychological perspective this reflects the reporting of many individuals where mixed emotions are described. A person may feel excited and yet anxious. We may feel happy and yet sad about an event at the same time. When surprised we feel a mix of joy and fear. When shamed we may feel sad and disgusted. The combination of strong emotional responses, allows us to physically identify the complexity individuals feel, allowing better strategies to be developed to reduce these internal conflicts.

While the Aalto research continues to demonstrate how physically we feel and how our feelings directly affect our physicality, this isn’t the first foray into exploring the mind-body emotional link.

The emotional impact on the structure of tears reshaped how we understood (at a micro-level) emotional influences on our biology. Rose-Lynn Fisher’s 2010 project  Topography of Tears was a fascinating view into the microscopic world of dried emotional tears. Her work, using her own tears, showed us the intrinsic beauty that each emotional experience had at the micro-level. Each feeling produced strikingly different patterns, landscapes of emotion locked in the tears’ structure (pictured is  Compassion).

In 2015 photographer Maurice Mikkers explored how tears are divided into three different categories based on their origin: emotional, basal, and reflex, interested in causation as a point of difference. In his project the Imaginarium of tears which is an active collection of tears linked to personal stories, Mikkers found that tears continued to have unique dimensions, although he was unsure whether the process or the emotion was the origin of the exceptional patterns he found (seen below sadness though challenge and sadness through dying).

Mikkers explained, “It’s hard to say if the physiology described in science is actually seen when a tear is crystallizing under a microscope, or if the emotional waves and state of the person is influencing the way the tear is shaping when crystallizing.”

Our emotions signal many things about ourselves, our memories and our environments. As research continues to explore the impact and connectivity between our mind and body, our ability to self-soothe and self-discover, find better treatments and supports and understand the complexity of mixed emotional states grows. As T.K Coleman said, ‘ Our feelings are not there to be cast out or conquered. They’re there to be engaged and expressed with imagination and intelligence.’