True Colors: Research Sheds Light On Body Emotions

Colors, like features, follow the changes of the emotions.
~ Pablo Picasso

There is a saying in bodywork that your “issues are in your tissues.”

Now there is some evidence to support this: New research reveals that various emotions, both positive and negative, are felt in different body areas.

A study published on Dec. 31, 2013 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences finds that bodily sensations related to different emotions appear to be a universal phenomena. From an anxious lump in the throat or cold feet, to the excitement and warm feeling of a first kiss or a long hug, our bodies respond to our feelings with physiological fluctuations. While this information isn’t headline news, the fact that these researchers were able to find that this is a universal phenomenon is something of a breakthrough.

The researchers studied the basic emotions of anger, fear, disgust, happiness, sadness, and surprise, as well as a neutral state. They also looked at seven non-basic emotions — anxiety, love, depression, contempt, pride, shame, and envy.

Over 700 participants in Finland, Sweden and Taiwan self-reported where in their bodies they felt an increase or decrease in feeling. Then they used colors on a computer palette (called emBODY) to show both positive and negative feelings on body sensation maps (BSMs) to various emotional conditions. Scales ranged from red (activation) to dark blue (deactivation).

In a series of five experiments, the participants were shown two bodies, which had been placed next to emotional words, stories, movies, or facial expressions. They were then asked to color in the body regions on these computerized silhouettes where they felt an increase or a decrease in activity while they were looking at the various stimuli.

Proof Positive

The topology atlas from the article, shown at the beginning of this post, demonstrates the dramatic differences between happiness (center image on the top row) and depression (third image from the left on the second row). Apparently the phrase “feeling blue” for depression has some truth to it. In comparison, happiness is the only emotion to cause increased responsiveness all over the body.

Depression and sadness were similar in their deactivation of feelings. According to the researchers: “The non-basic emotions showed a much smaller degree of bodily sensations and spatial independence with the exception of a high degree of similarity across the emotional states of fear and sadness, and their respective prolonged, clinical variants of anxiety and depression” (p. 4).

What this means is that bodily sensations that are linked to emotions regardless of one’s language or culture can be used as ways of helping to diagnose and treat emotional disorders. According to the study: “Unraveling the subjective bodily sensations associated with human emotions may help us to better understand mood disorders such as depression and anxiety” (p. 5).

But there is more here for researchers in positive psychology as well. The unique activation of the whole body when we are feeling happy may be important for neuroscientists trying to understand the role of positive emotions on neurological processes. The field of positive neuroscience has been identified as a subspecialty of positive psychology since 2008. Research focuses on everything from neural pathways in the brain corresponding to compassion to the neurogenics of resilience. According to Professor Martin E.P. Seligman, the person who established The Positive Neuroscience Project:

“Research has shown that positive emotions and interventions can bolster health, achievement, and resilience, and can buffer against depression and anxiety. And while considerable research in neuroscience has focused on disease, dysfunction, and the harmful effects of stress and trauma, very little is known about the neural mechanisms of human flourishing. Creating this network of positive neuroscience researchers will change that.”

You can learn more about positive neuroscience here.

But we might not have to wait years to use this new information. We may be able to start using this understanding to have empathy for others. When we hear of another’s plight, their anger or happiness, or sadness or fear, this research shows their stories activate us: We feel what they have been feeling. How can this help? By knowing that emotions are universally experienced, it may provide a bridge for us to have more compassion for and understanding of others. Having more empathy, compassion and understanding is always a good thing.

Lastly, I was struck by the fact that green, even with envy on the list, doesn’t show up. I’ve checked the known research, and looked at the neurological reasons why this is the case. Only one authority seems to have proposed the lone logical explanation:

“It ain’t easy being green.” ~ Kermit the Frog


Nummenmaa, L., Glerean, E., Hari, R., Hietanen, J.K. Bodily maps of emotions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2013; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1321664111