The heart and the mind: Neuroscientific evidence for an overlap between bodily sensations and emotion.

New research from Josh Davis, Kevin Ochsner, and I, suggests that the brain might process emotion and internal bodily states in the same way, suggesting a strong link between what we feel and how we feel. We hope this work can help advance our basic understanding of how emotions work and how they go wrong in psychiatric disorders.

Many of us hold the intuition that our emotions come from the “bottom up.” We feel our heart race, or our limbs tense, and these bodily signals tell us something about how we feel. Over a century ago, William James had the same idea, and took it even further. In a classic article called “What is an Emotion?” James suggested that bodily sensations are not just symptoms of experiencing an emotion; they are (at least in part) the experience of emotion. This controversial theory has been supported by more recent data from neuroscience. Specifically, scientists have found that a brain region known as the anterior insula becomes active both during “interoception” (when people pay attention to internal bodily states like their heartbeat) and during emotion experience. However, scientists had previously only examined activity in the insula during either interoception or emotion, making it unclear how much these two phenomena actually overlap in the brain. In this study, we took a closer look at the extent to which thinking about your body and feeling emotions share a neural signature.

Our participants were scanned using functional MRI during two separate tasks. First, they viewed emotional videos and rated how they much these videos made them feel positively or negatively. Second, they focused on and tapped along with their heartbeat (interoception). We found that the insula was the only brain region that showed activity in response to 3 phenomena: (1) focusing on one’s heartbeat, (2) watching emotional videos, and (3) the intensity of emotion participants felt during these videos. Further, the same part of the insula responded to bodily sensation and emotion within each participant. It’s important to realize that the insula is engaged by many different states (pain, disgust, uncertainty), and we are not claiming that only bodily sensations and emotion activate this region. However, it’s interesting and important to think about the common “psychological ingredients” that connect the different states that activate the insula. One intriguing possibility is that the body—and attention to the body—is one such common ingredient. We hope that this study, along with other similar work, will help us more deeply understand the architecture of human emotion, in ways that can eventually help those with affective disorders such as anxiety and depression.

You can find the paper here:

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    • Aaron
    • I'm certainly no scientist. I suppose that makes me one of the people. :)
    • 3 yrs ago
    • flag

    I was just thinking about a related (i think) question earlier this week...

    In my personal experience, the physical sensations of say, "excitement" and "anxiety" are almost exactly the same... Physically, there's a sort of a flutter/burn/tingle in the chest area. And, depending on the level of excitement or anxiety, that fluttering/burning/tingling sensation often travels from it's origin in the mid-chest, up to the neck/head area and down the shoulders & arms.

    At least, that's been my experience of the physical sensations associated with each emotion.

    So, I wondered, then—what IS the difference between the positive experience of "excitement" and the negative experience of "anxiety" if the physical sensations are SO similar??

    The ONLY difference that I determined (for myself, personally) was my current state of mind at the time I was perceiving each particular physical sensation. :)

    Could how we think about physical sensations actually determine the emotion we experience?

    Like Reply
  • Hi Aaron -- 

    This is such a great question, and actually connects to some classic work on emotion.  Over 50 years ago, Schachter and Singer conducted some classic work on emotion in which they administered adrenaline to subjects (which produces the "fluttering" sensation you describe).  Critically, they were then exposed to another person who either acted giddy or angry.  Schachter & Singer found that people interpreted their OWN emotion differently depending on the context.  This suggests that the physical feeling of arousal is just one part of the whole experience of emotion, and what differentiates anxiety and excitement might, in part, come from the way we interpret our own arousal.  

    Like Reply
  • This reminds me of a study I read about where subjects (I think) filled out an attitude survey while listening to a heartbeat they thought was their own, but was actually a recording. When the heart rate was faster/slower than normal, they reported a better attitude toward whatever was on the survey. 

    Also, this makes me wonder: is arousal some sort of pre-emotion, in an evolutionary sense, and other emotions are just complexities of arousal added on as humans grew more social? It seems like it's the first activated in situations, and it influences subsequent emotions a lot.  Maybe as humans grow more socially oriented and dangers lessen/change, emotions develop in order to channel arousal differently...?

    Like Reply
  • Hi, 
    do you have any fresh notes of this research to share in public?
    thanks in advance!

    Like Reply
  • I was really interested in these responses. I'm a CAMHS clinician who also has problems with anxiety. Intuitively it has always made sense to me that anxiety (and other emotions) are quite simply a physical sensation, in an environmental context, interpreted to one degree or another by some of the head-dwelling parts of the brain. This becomes problematic when the focus for therapies and helping becomes cognitions and emotions which only arrive late in the piece. In the same way that low mood is not all it's cracked up to be in depression, worry is not the main player in anxiety.

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