“Liberate the minds of men and ultimately you will liberate the bodies of men.”  Marcus Garvey  (I know this isn’t how he meant it but it seems strangely relevant here.)


I saw this fascinating, albeit abbreviated, article on Discover Magazine’s blog that documents the results of a study aimed at mapping the physical sensations of varying emotions in the human body. Scientists asked 700 participants to self-report their sensations when met with visual imagery and/or storytelling evoking specific emotions. More sensation in the body is reported in gradients of red to yellow and fewer sensations in gradients of dark blue to light blue with black being neutral.

13-21664-largeAt first glance there’s little surprise because we actually use terms like “cold feet” to describe anxiety and “hot headedness” to describe someone quick to anger. I did make some observations of my own, however that I’d like to share and I’d LOVE your feedback and observations, too. I’m a curious human being and can’t help but wonder what these maps might mean to you.

How many of these are positive emotions?
My first observation is that there are 13 images of emotion (14 in total with one of the images being neutral) and only two (maybe 3 if you include pride) of those depict emotions that we would consistently desire to experience: happiness and love. I understand that this was compiled to understand emotion and therefore potentially treat emotional disorders. I also understand that our own Negativity Bias brings the uncomfortable to the forefront of our minds and what we notice. That being said, I was still struck that we have a map of the nuance of unhappiness (anger, fear, disgust, depression, etc) and happiness is kind of just it’s own category. Where’s contentment? Where’s curiosity, playfulness or connectedness?

Is it lack of foresight on the part of the researchers to include these positive emotions? Or is it a habit of our language and default interactions to exclude more positive communication and emotions?

I had a student in one of my classes, we’ll call her Diane, who sought a change from her default view of life as a series of unfortunate events and even went so far as to recognize that her friends were glad to have Diane help and support them yet offered little help in return. Yet, when she had the opportunity to team with another person in the room I noticed that when her partner was describing positive events Diane nodded politely and listened quietly. When her partner described a difficulty, however, Diane leaned forward, asked questions and became fully engaged in the conversation. It’s entirely possible that the reason Diane couldn’t change her view or her friend’s response is that the only time she fully engaged in her life was when life itself was particularly harsh.

I’m afraid that is illustrated by this study – that we have an entire continuum in which we can engage when we experience something uncomfortable and yet the continuum on the comfortable side of life’s experiences are easy to ignore.

How many of these are similar?

There are some that are similar that we might expect, like anxiety and fear. After all, how different are the two from one another anyway? Interestingly fear resides more in the head and anxiety more in the body which could tell us a little something about how quickly we feel threat versus the insidious quiet seep that anxiety provides. But what about pride and anger? With the exception of the distinct need to punch something (anger’s fists are the most felt part of the body) they’re very similar to one another. This reveals to me, the mind body connection and makes it crystal clear how someone posturing at a bar with their partner (filled with pride) could quickly become defensive and angry if the sensations in the body are similar enough and the muscle memory were to engage. I’m not saying all pride is ego-filled and fragile enough to turn to anger – I’m just noticing in this instance how our bodies could be primed for a reaction without us being totally aware since we were feeling SO good just moments before.

These leads me to wonder about the emotions that are missing from the list.

When I scan my body while I sit here feeling intellectually engaged as I try to find the right words (which is a happy state for me) – I notice more sensation in my forehead, eyes, neck and hands. How similar is that to surprise?
When I scan my body while sitting contentedly with my cat in my lap I notice almost a lack of sensation in my body as I become more and more relaxed and more sensation in my face and heart space as I smile and feel a little warm inside. Looking at the body atlas I might be describing envy.
When I’m feeling appreciated and loved to the point that it brings me to tears I might describe what the chart says is shame.

What I gained by reflecting on this is…
All of this makes me wonder how often we misinterpret our lives based on what we think our bodies’ reaction is telling us. If we’ve so readily focused on our negative emotions and their physical counterparts wouldn’t it be easy to misinterpret a positive emotion that felt the same to us physically? It is kind of a chicken and egg situation (does the physical sensation bring the thought or does the thought bring the physical sensation) but either way we have clarity that it is the emotion that changes the overall response in our bodies because it is the emotion that creates the sensations in the body.

What if we were to be more conscious of our language when describing our positive emotions? It seems to me that if we focus on when we’re describing positive events (they needn’t be life-altering, safely arriving at our destination might create contentment) then we create the opportunity to notice our bodies when we’re living on the plus side of the spectrum.
What if we were to spend some time visualizing our positive outcomes so completely that we could feel the emotions associated with it? I feel like we could create some true physiological changes in our bodies if we moved past the visual images of obtaining what we want and really engage ourselves in the feelings of having it. The happiness body is lit up from head to toe and completely engaged in the moment. It is the only mapped emotion (so far) where people are completely aware of their entire body.

As a first attempt at the study I feel like it provides some points of interest and curiosity for me. As with all study the more we questions we answer the more questions we create. Of one thing, I’m sure (and this study confirms it in my mind)…when we are happy we are fully engaged. For me, personally, the reverse is true as well – when I am fully engaged I am more happy … even when my circumstances are uncomfortable.