This Is What Your Feelings Look Like, According To Science

Nummenmaa et al, PNAS

Katie Spalding 03 Sep 2018, 15:58

The results showed that for most of us, it's the same feelings that can set our heart a-flutter – or deliver an emotional gut punch. 

"Feelings were systematically referenced to bodily states, even for states considered as purely cognitive, such as attending or reasoning," explains the study. "Additionally, the more strongly some feeling was experienced in the body, the more salient it was mentally."

And unlike the researchers' previous work, which looked at the bodily manifestations of just a few basic and complex emotions, studying such a wide range of feelings showed something interesting about how we experience the world.

"Nearly all subjective feelings were imbued with emotional qualities," reveals the study. "Despite both scientists and laypersons alike often considering affect [feeling or emotion] and cognition at least partially independent, we found that most feelings actually carry affective valence [a positive or negative emotional impact], further underlining the importance of affect to conscious states in general." 

Intriguingly, the study may offer some insight into the role of feelings in society. Since the feeling spaces were so similar across participants, the authors suggest that an understanding of others' feelings may have provided an important evolutionary advantage to our ancestors. But there are practical applications too: the authors also believe their results may support the common advice that acting out an emotion could cause you to actually feel it.

But although the results are attractive, it's important to note that the study had some limitations. First of all, the feelings were examined in quite broad, crude categories – for example, the researchers note, "'seeing' would likely feel very different when we are seeing a growling black bear rather than a cute baby." On top of this, it relies on people being able to evaluate their own emotional state – something we're not necessarily that good at.

The authors caution that their study does not answer what's known as the "hard problem" of consciousness – how physical phenomena, such as increased activity in some regions of the brain, are connected to experience, like sadness – but there are still some conclusions to be drawn.

"Although consciousness emerges due to brain function and we experience our consciousness to be 'housed' in the brain, bodily feedback contributes significantly to a wide variety of subjective feelings," said lead author Lauri Nummenmaa in a statement. "Our findings help to understand how illnesses and bodily states in general influence our subjective well-being. Importantly, they also demonstrate the strong embodiment of cognitive and emotional states."

The survey used for this study is still live and collecting data for future work. If you want to take it, click here.

Bodily feeling maps, showing the physical location and strength of 100 feelings. Lauri Nummenmaa / PNAS
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