Why Do We Feel Intense Emotions In Our Chest?

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When you hear bad news, you might feel your ‘heart drop’ or have to deal with ‘heart ache.’ There’s more to these metaphors than simply describing intense emotions – they point to the fascinating way our bodies experience these feelings, both emotionally and physically. But surely that doesn't make sense - we all know that the heart is simply a symbol for love and pain, and that all the "feeling" is done by our brains. So how exactly do intense emotions trigger specific sensations in our chest?

The simple answer is: scientists aren’t really sure. Robert Emery and Jim Coan, professors of psychology at the University of Virginia, explain in Scientific American that it could be down to the anterior cingulate cortex, a region in the brain thought to regulate emotional reactions. They suggest that the anterior cingulate cortex becomes more active during stressful situations. This region is thought to stimulate the vagus nerve, which starts in the brain stem and connects to the chest and abdomen. This stimulation is thought to lead to the 'pain' we feel in our chest. 

So what types of emotions lead to these sensations? In a 2013 study, researchers from Aalto University, University of Turku and University of Tampere set out to examine this very question. They asked 700 individuals to pinpoint where they felt different emotions on their bodies.

Image credit: Lauri Nummenmaa, Enrico Glerean, Riitta Hari, and Jari Hietanen

The study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that the results were consistent and surprisingly similar across different cultures. Researchers found that certain emotions could be grouped together – for example, anger, anxiety and fear were all associated with strong sensations in the chest area. On the other hand, volunteers reported that happiness and even love sparked activity all over their body.

Researchers explained that these sensations – our hearts pounding or our chest tightening – may be triggered to help us respond to specific challenges in our environment and deal with particular threats, for example by adjusting the activities of the cardiovascular or nervous system. As of now, though, it’s still hotly debated whether these bodily changes are distinct for each emotional feeling. Further research will be required to record particular bodily changes, such as shifts in blood flow, when subjects are feeling a particular emotion. 

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