Sensational Maps: Mind / Body Emotional Experiences



According to research conducted by Lauri Nummenmaa, a psychologist at Aalto University, “Our emotional system in the brain sends signals to the body so we can deal with our situation.” Nemmenmaa led a team of scientists in Finland to ask ask people to map out where they felt different emotions on their bodies. The results, as shown above, were “surprisingly consistent,” even across cultures. “Say you see a snake and you feel fear,” Nummenmaa says. “Your nervous system increases oxygen to your muscles and raises your heart rate so you can deal with the threat. It’s an automated system. We don’t have to think about it.”

We have known that the prefrontal cortex–the more modern part of the brain–is bypassed by the more ancient parts of the brain when confronted with an extreme emotion or scenario. That’s why, if you walked into a room and saw a dead body on the floor, your immediate response would be visceral fear and stomach illness first, rather than a conceptual understanding of what you were witnessing (which happens seconds later). This is a well-known automatic survival mechanism, but scientists are now starting to map these somatic states in various parts of the body. But it hasn’t been mapped onto the human body across cultures and languages before, as this study has done.

How the Study was Conducted. The team showed the test subject volunteers blank silhouettes of a person on a screen and then told the subjects to think about one of 14 emotions (anxiety, love, disgust, anger, contempt, etc.), and asked the volunteers to paint areas of the body in which they felt sensations were stimulated by the emotion. On the second silhouette, they painted areas of the body that get deactivated during that emotion. According to Nummenmaa “”People find the experiment quite amusing. It’s quite fun. We kept the questions online so you try the experiment yourself.” (You can try the experiment here.)

Today, our ancient brains are still responding to threats that may or may not exist. For example, we no longer (generally) have to worry about being attacked by a wild animal, yet our ancient brains work closely with our bodies to maintain the state of alert for that very scenario. As has been written throughout this blog, that’s led to some pretty scary results and is, I believe, a modern pandemic of growing proportions.

nice kittyLevine’s Somatic Experiencing–Precursor to Sensational Maps? Noted Psychologist and researcher Dr. Peter Levine’s been onto the physical response to emotion for a while now. Levine, author of Waking the Tiger has written about  the body’s “somatic experiencing” and how the body’s large vagus nerve transmits signals back and forth between the body’s viscera and the brain. Levine, who has been engaged in “multidisciplinary study of stress physiology, psychology, ethology, biology, neuroscience, indigenous healing practices, and medical biophysics, together with over 45 years of successful clinical application” posits that somatic experiencing is

“…a potent psychobiological method for resolving trauma symptoms and relieving chronic stress. The SE approach releases traumatic shock, which is key to transforming PTSD and the wounds of emotional and early developmental attachment trauma.

In his studies, Dr. Levine found that prey animals in the wild are rarely traumatized despite routine threats to their lives. Yet human beings are readily traumatized. Since humans and other animals possess nearly identical brain- and body-based survival mechanisms, Dr. Levine worked to identify what was interfering with the human threat-recovery process, and to develop tools for restoring people’s innate capacity to rebound following overwhelming experiences.”

Seems Vagus to Me. The vagus nerve is a primitive internal “second brain” in the body. According to Levine’s excellent book for therapists, In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restore Goodness,

“The primitive (unmyelinated) vaugs neve of the immobilization system connects the brain with most of our internal organs. This enormous nerve is the second largest nerve in the our body, comparable in size to the spinal cord. In particular, this nerve largely serves the gastrointestinal system, influencing digestions, assimilation and elimination. It also significantly affects the heart and lungs…”

Note that in the bodies painted by the volunteers, fear, anger, disgust, anxiety, and surprise are all shown in the upper part of the body and in the gastro-intestinal system. Coincidence? Could our traumatic experiences one day be mapped out as experiences in various parts of our bodies? There’s strong data that modern stress and anxiety have led to a host of illnesses in these very specific parts of the body, ranging from Irritable Bowel Syndrome to heart disease, and a host of other illnesses in between. Our mind-body connection is increasingly well understood–no longer are we creatures who have a separate brain and body; they’re very interconnected. Ultimately, wouldn’t it be great if mind-body maps could help determine better how to treat–or even better, prevent–these illnesses in the first place?

horrizontal rule

Here’s more info on the study here.

Here’s more info on polyvagal theory and Peter Levine’s work.

Yours in Mental Hygiene,
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The Ancient Brain and Modern Mindfulness

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  1. Valentin Secor /

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