Emotions in the Body: The Science of your Character

We all know that ‘show, don’t tell’ is best practice as a general rule (just like any writing ‘rule’, there are always exceptions), but it’s a challenge to find new and engaging ways to honour it. Any resources that can get that part of my writing brain ticking is always useful. So when I was on a course for my day job as a school psychologist recently and the following study was raised, I instantly thought of its relevance to writing (I don’t think that part of my brain ever shuts down…). It was a study that, quite literally, illustrates how we experience emotion in our body…

We’ve all experienced emotions directly in our body. On the way to meet our hot new relationship prospect we can barely keep still as our hearts pounds with excitement; while the prospect of an important job interview may tighten our muscles and make our hands sweat with anxiety. This link between emotions and bodily states is also apparent in the way we speak of emotions; the nervous bride-to-be may suddenly have ‘cold feet’, a breakup can leave us ‘heartbroken’, and our favourite song can send ‘a shiver down our spine’. None of this is surprising considering numerous studies have established that emotion systems prepare us to meet challenges in our environment by adjusting the activation of multiple body systems; including the cardiovascular, skeletomuscular, hormone, and nervous systems.

The cool part is that science has coloured it in!

A 2013 Finnish study asked 700 participants to colour body regions on a human silhouette as they were presented with emotional words, stories, movies, or facial expressions. What they found was that different emotions were consistently associated with separate bodily sensation maps. I predict the image will do most of the talking for me, so check it out (red represents warmer regions, blue cooler):

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The results revealed distinct body areas are associated with both basic emotions; anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise, and complex emotions. How cool is that? I predict that your mind is ticking over whether this is consistent with your experiences, followed by how you can weave this into a scene.

The study raised a host of interesting points that are relevant to writers:

  • Most basic emotions were associated with sensations of increased activity in the upper chest area, most likely corresponding to the physiological changes in breathing and heart rate.
  • Similarly, sensations in the head area were shared across all emotions, reflecting physiological changes in the facial area (i.e., facial muscle activation, skin temperature, the flow of tears). It seems faces are where our emotions really show.
  • Sensations in the upper limbs were most prominent in active-type emotions, anger and happiness, whereas sensations of decreased limb activity were a defining feature of sadness.
  • Sensations in the digestive system and around the throat region were mainly found in disgust (this one certainly seems logical…).
  • In contrast with all of the other emotions, happiness was associated with enhanced sensations all over the body (I love this finding — you can have your characters showing emotion with their whole body!).
  • The more complex emotions showed a much smaller degree of bodily sensations and were more likely to overlap (also kinda logical…).
  • There was a high degree of similarity across the emotional states of fear and sadness, and their clinical relatives, anxiety and depression.
  • Participants recognized emotions and their bodily sensation in others — one part of the study asked participants to label the shadings other participants had completed. There was a consistent understanding of how emotions are felt in the body, across both European and Asian cultures.
  • The researchers included a caveat that they couldn’t completely rule out that an individual’s association between emotions and bodily sensations may be culturally influenced (i.e. we may grow up believing that feeling anxious involves ‘butterflies in my stomach’), although they did point out that results were similar across culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds. They felt a plausible answer was the associations were a results of a biological basis.
  • The researchers concluded that unravelling the subjective experience of emotions as bodily sensations may help us better understand mood disorders such as depression and anxiety, and could ultimately provide a biomarker for emotional disorders.

The relevance to the scene you’re writing right now is obvious. All you have to do is translate those high energy, intense reds, or cool, sad blues into words and it seems our species (i.e. the reader) will understand and connect with it on an almost universal level. Now if you ask me, that’s good show and tell.

What’s your thoughts? Did you see any truths in the image and results? Or do you feel one of these emotions differently? And lastly, do you see this helpful for your writing Comments and feedback are always appreciated. Connecting with others is why I write. You can comment below, or connect with me on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.

Have a wonderful week,


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