When Our Feelings Become Physical: Understanding Our Bodily Responses To Emotion

When Our Feelings Become Physical: Understanding Our Bodily Responses To Emotion

May 1, 20233 min read

Alicia Walf is a neuroscientist and senior lecturer at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute whose research interests are fueled by the broad question: Why are there individual differences in stress? This question led to studying hormones' actions for growth and plasticity in the brain and body. She has since refined her pursuit to include consideration of body, brain, and mind relationships as they relate to memory, perception, social cognition, and emotions. Dr. Walf has taken a cross-species and cross-discipline approach in her work. Dr. Walf’s studies of the effects and mechanisms of stress and well-being often occur in the “wild,” such as in architectural built environments, artistic installations, interactions with technology, contemplative practices, conference rooms, and classrooms.

Here, Walf examines what we know and what we have yet to learn about the physical manifestations of our emotions.

Over 100 years ago, the earliest ponderings of how feelings are reflected in our body were described. Also, several decades ago, the first personality associated with an intense stress response was Type A personality. This personality type is characterized by quickness to anger and competitive drive as well as the negative consequences of chronic stress on the cardiovascular system. Recent work in mice shows that increasing heart rate produces an anxiety-like state (Hsueh et al., 2023, Nature). Now, a focus is trying to link changes in the body with feelings to brain mechanisms.

Even after all of these years of study, we do not fully understand if there is a signature bodily response associated with specific feelings. For example, both anger and love (and other feelings that have been studied like jealousy) are associated with changes in the body that look indistinguishable from stress. The heart beat quickens, the eyes widen and the pupils become larger, blood rushes to the muscles and surface of the body. As surface body temperature and blood flow rises with these changes, a blush may become apparent on our cheeks. Indeed, a study showed that people have similar responses in describing which areas of the body are activated or deactivated in different emotional states; that is, where they feel these emotions in their body (Nummenmaa et al., 2013, PNAS). In this study, people said that love most greatly activated the head and trunk, whereas anger’s activation of the body was more focused on the head, arms, and chest.

We can agree that love and anger – and all the strong feelings we have – mentally feel quite different from each other and we also have different behaviors. Those differences are likely due to a cognitive component, or how we assess the current situation in relation to what we know and our past experiences. Neuroscientists would argue that there are likely different brain circuits active in an angry and love state (and others), but those precise mechanisms are yet to be figured out. To date, we understand that feelings of love activate a reward pathway. Neurochemical differences may also play a role. For example, release of dopamine in this reward pathway and oxytocin in areas involved in social bonding are tied to love. The challenge of understanding the links between these expressions of emotions in the body to the mechanisms in our brain remains.

Walf is available to speak with media - simply click on her icon now to arrange an interview today.

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  • Alicia Walf
    Alicia Walf Senior Lecturer, Cognitive Science

    Neuroscientist with extensive research into body, brain, and mind relationships related to brain health, social cognition and emotions.

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