Mapping Emotional Sensations Shows Cross-Cultural Similarities

x-ray illustration of human brainEmotions are typically perceived as sensations in various parts of the body. Happiness may feel light and energetic, while sadness may feel heavy and devoid of energy, and anxiety often produces a tightening sensation in the chest area. According to a recent set of studies that mapped the way participants’ bodies experience the wide range of human emotions, human perceptions of emotional sensations are also shared across cultures and countries.

In a series of five online experiments conducted by researchers from Aalto University in Finland, over 700 participants from Finland, Sweden, and Taiwan contributed to the effective utilization of a “topographical self-report tool” (Nummenmaa, 2013). Those who participated were shown two silhouettes of bodies placed next to words, stories, movies, or facial expressions designed to evoke emotions.

As they looked at each of the items shown, the participants were asked to color the areas of the body where they felt their emotional sensations increasing or decreasing. “Hot colors” were used to indicate emotionally active regions, while “cool colors” were used to identify deactivated ones.

The results, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, revealed that despite cultural differences, the West European and East Asian respondents experienced emotional sensations similarly, with specific areas of the body affected in particular ways by each emotion. For example, anger was reportedly felt from the chest up as an active sensation, while happiness spread throughout the body, also active. Sadness showed minor activity in the heart and brain areas, but cool colors dominated the limbs and lower regions of the body.

In their report, the researchers said that examining these “emotion-triggered bodily sensations” may provide a new basis for research and, potentially, a greater understanding of the biological components involved in emotional disorders.


  1. Medical News Today. (2014, January 4). Mapping emotions in the body yields consistent global results. Retrieved from
  2. Nummenmaa, L., Glerean, E., Hari, R., and Hietanen, J. K. (2013, December 30). Bodily maps of emotions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1321664111. Abstract retrieved from

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  • Leave a Comment
  • gwen


    January 8th, 2014 at 2:16 PM

    so was there some kind of question about whether or not different cultures experienced emotions differently?

  • Gus


    January 9th, 2014 at 3:57 AM

    In some ways I would have suspected that because of such striking cultural differences that this could also lead to striking emotional differences and reactions as well.

  • Antoinette


    January 14th, 2014 at 4:02 AM

    Great study. would love to read more about it

  • treva


    January 16th, 2014 at 6:29 PM

    The body doesn’t lie and doesn’t know language or cultural barriers.
    the emotions and the feelings that go along with the emotions know no barriers when it comes to culture

  • Orlagh OBrien

    Orlagh OBrien

    January 27th, 2014 at 3:49 PM

    Interesting to note another project, which I completed 7 years ago is along similar lines – while completing a graphic design research MA at London College of Communication. It’s amazing how the humanities and science can overlap. Conference presentation:

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