Bodily maps of emotions

Lauri Nummenmaaa, Enrico Glereana, Riitta Harib, and Jari K. Hietanend. ‘Bodily maps of emotions.’ Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States. November 27, 2013.

Reports of this research recently appeared in popular news media. It is interesting enough to warrant comment here.

Emotions are often felt in the body, and somatosensory feedback has been proposed to trigger conscious emotional experiences. Here we reveal maps of bodily sensations associated with different emotions using a unique topographical self-report method. In five experiments, participants (n = 701) were shown two silhouettes of bodies alongside emotional words, stories, movies, or facial expressions. They were asked to color the bodily regions whose activity they felt increasing or decreasing while viewing each stimulus. Different emotions were consistently associated with statistically separable bodily sensation maps across experiments. These maps were concordant across West European and East Asian samples. Statistical classifiers distinguished emotion-specific activation maps accurately, confirming independence of topographies across emotions. We propose that emotions are represented in the somatosensory system as culturally universal categorical somatotopic maps. Perception of these emotion-triggered bodily changes may play a key role in generating consciously felt emotions.

Full text of the article is available here. Supporting information here.

Some comments

1. The colourful images attract our attention but note that are not the result of body scanning. They are a pictorial representation of the subjects’ reports of how their bodies felt. They are subjective reports.

2.  Subjective reports, of course, can be valuable. To discover how people feel there seems little alternative. But the images can easily leave the impression that they are the result of scans of somatic changes.

3. These findings complement the theoretical work of Antonio Damasio (which is examined in Unit 5 of this course), particularly his distinction between emotions as objective somatic states and feelings as awareness of those states.

4. This paper and its images remind us that emotions ‘live’ in the entire body, and not just the bit above the shoulders. They are somatic states, not just cognitions.

Finally, for our purposes, these maps are useful in getting us to think about how we experience emotions. The important questions: Do they resonate with your own experiences?

Maps of bodily emotions

Feeling Morally Responsible, or Not

At first, we call individual actions good or evil without any concern for their motives, but instead solely on account of their beneficial or harmful consequences.

We soon forget the origins of these designations and imagine that the quality “good” or “evil” inheres in the actions in themselves, without regard to their consequences: making the same error as when language describes the stone itself as hard, the tree itself as green—that is, by conceiving an effect as the cause.

Then we locate the good or evil in the motives and consider the acts themselves to be morally ambiguous.

We go further and no longer assign the predicate good or evil to the individual motive, but instead to the whole being of a person, from which the motive grows as does a plant from the soil.

Thus we make a person successively responsible for his effects, then for his actions, then for his motives and finally for his being.

We finally discover that even this entity cannot be responsible insofar as it is entirely a necessary consequence, a concretion of the elements and influences of past and present things: hence, that a person cannot be made responsible for anything, neither for his being, nor his motives, nor his actions, nor their effects.

F. Nietzsche. Human, All Too Human. Stanford University Press, 1995, pp. 47-48. (my emphasis)

Consequence → Actions → Motives → Whole Being → Past and Present Influences

To this list of receding moral responsibility we can now add ‘the Brain’. US courts see rise in defendants blaming their brains for criminal acts, The Guardian, November 10, 2013. Thank the ascendency of neuroscience and the celebrity of the brain for this.

Featured image: Andreas Vesalius, 1543 Source This image is worth thinking about.

Transparent brains reveal their secrets

This is interesting:

A team at Stanford University has made brains transparent, allowing entire networks of neurons to be highlighted and then viewed through an optical microscope. They claim that the technique works with other organs of the body.

The findings are published in Nature as Structural and molecular interrogation of intact biological systems (PDF). It’s not an easy read, but the images are colourful and illuminating. It ends with the claim that this technique ‘provides access to structural and molecular information that may help to support integrative understanding of large-scale intact biological systems’.

As an aside: ‘We’re heading into the centre of a mouse’s brain, into the hippocampus, where memories are formed‘. This statement is worthy of our attention.

And finally, just to remind ourselves that there’s more to a mouse than a brain, this is the sound of a deer mouse.

The Great Brain Experiment


This is Brain Awareness Week, so keep your wits about you.

The Brain Awareness Campaign is a worldwide celebration of the brain that brings together scientists, families, schools, and communities. Although Brain Awareness Week is officially March 11-17, 2013, there are many ways to get involved throughout the year. [Society for Neuroscience]

It’s Brain Awareness Week! The Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives would like to wish all BAW partners great success with their activities and efforts on behalf of the campaign. [The Dana Foundation]

You won’t be able to miss it. There’ll be lots of images of young people marvelling at simulated brains overlooked by smiling neuroscientists in white coats. In fact, everyone will be smiling and having fun. (Especially the neuro-marketers lurking in the shadows.)

Now, personally, I find this ‘celebration’ of the brain rather odd, bordering on the creepy. It goes without saying that it is just human brains that warrant this adoration. But how many human brains do you personally know that you would like to ‘celebrate’.

This cult of the brain is quite a recent development. It began on July 18th, 1990 with the announcement of the Decade of the Brain by George H.W. Bush, then President of the United States and ex-Director of the CIA.

There’s nothing wrong in trying to understand the brain, of course. But this is the blog of an inter-disciplinary course on emotions and so I approach ‘the brain’ in this light. Everything works together and we must try to understand the brain in the context of the entire body and that body in its social context. (I’ve written several posts on this so I’m not going to repeat myself here.] Achieving that takes some doing.

The Great Brain Experiment is a (free) mobile app:

Be part of a unique scientific experiment by playing games on your phone.

Test your memory, your impulsivity, your attention and decision making. Learn about the neuroscience of every day life.

You could, of course, test ‘your impulsivity, your attention and decision making’ by giving it a miss—for neuroscience tells us that these gadgets do nothing but harm to those—but I think the idea is that you download this thing and ‘play’ with it.

Why not have a go and tell me what it’s like. Test your impulsivity, attention and decision making further by following it on Twitter: Good luck.

One final point, following on yesterday’s post TWITTER EMPLOYEES MAPPED: HOW ARE THEY CONNECTED?, are we and our brains now just neurones in a vast collective brain that, for want of a better term, we call the ‘internet’?

Isn’t that where our memory now lies? We no longer remember things because the information is on the internet. In every sphere of activity, our intelligence is transferred to a computer. Who now knows how to read a map and use a compass, let alone read the sky and use a sextant? There’s an app for that.

Commit a crime and the police will ransack your mobile phone or computer, for there lies evidence not just of your movements but also of your thoughts, motives and intentions. Not only will that information be used to reveal what you have done, it can also be used to reveal what you are about to do.

Happy Brain Awareness Week

Rats and scientists send mixed messages

This blog’s refrain on the brain is that it is a mistake to abstract the brain from the rest of the body and to abstract that body from the social relations that keep it alive. Neuroscience, of course, does precisely this.

If you want to appreciate how neuroscience understands the brain, approach it from the reverse angle, i.e., from the perspective of the subjects of these experiments. In this case, rats.

In recent days, much has been made of some experiments conducted by scientists at Duke University in the USA and a university in Natal, Brazil. The following links give the details:

BBC News – One rat brain ‘talks’ to another using electronic link.

Brains of rats connected allowing them to share information via internet | Science |

Telepathy closer to becoming reality after rats’ brains ‘linked’ across continents

In essence, two rats in separate locations had electrodes attached to their brains and these electrodes were connected by a brain-to-brain interface (BYBI) which, in one part of the experiments, included the internet. The claim is that the rats shared ‘behaviourally meaningful sensorimotor information.’ This from the paper’s abstract:

In this BTBI, an “encoder” rat performed sensorimotor tasks that required it to select from two choices of tactile or visual stimuli. While the encoder rat performed the task, samples of its cortical activity were transmitted to matching cortical areas of a “decoder” rat using intracortical microstimulation (ICMS). The decoder rat learned to make similar behavioral selections, guided solely by the information provided by the encoder rat’s brain. These results demonstrated that a complex system was formed by coupling the animals’ brains, suggesting that BTBIs can enable dyads or networks of animal’s brains to exchange, process, and store information and, hence, serve as the basis for studies of novel types of social interaction and for biological computing devices. (A Brain-to-Brain Interface for Real-Time Sharing of Sensorimotor Information, Nature. Scientific Reports 3, Article number: 1319).

Cue speculation about cyborg rats, telepathic rats and rats ‘sharing information via internet’. Not so fast though. Let’s read the small print:

Animals assigned to the encoder group were implanted with recording arrays of 32 microelectrodes in the primary motor cortex and after recovery resumed the initial training scheme. Animals assigned to the decoder group were implanted with arrays of 4 to 6 microstimulation electrodes in the primary motor cortex and were further trained to associate the presence of electrical microstimulation pulses with the correct lever press. Extra training followed, with a sequence of 60 to 100 pulses indicating a correct choice in the right lever while the absence of microstimulation pulses (1 pulse) indicated a correct left lever choice. During the electrical microstimulation training phase a trial started with a brief period of white noise, followed by the electrical microstimulation cue. Immediately after this cue both LEDs were turned on. If a correct choice was made the reward port would open and the animal was allowed a brief period of access to water (300 ms), otherwise both LEDs were turned off and the intertrial interval started. (my emphasis)

No ‘information’ nor ‘thoughts’ were transmitted. Rather the receiver or encoder rat was ‘trained to associate the presence of electrical micro stimulation pulses with the correct lever press. Extra training followed …’

This does not prevent these scientists from claiming that this is a step towards the first ‘organic computer’.

The rat population can take care of itself, but what does all this tell us about the two-legged critters conducting these experiments?

There is no mention of these rats having emotions or feelings that might work in conjunction with their cognitions, as they do in humans. To understand that they’d have to forsake the celebrity of the brain and place it in its somatic and social context.

Nor is there recognition that rats are highly social animals and that their intelligence (their ‘brain’) is social too. That’s one reason they are one of the most successful mammals in the natural selection stakes and therefore the most numerous.

All this matters because what scientists first do to other animals they eventually do to us.

The sound of emotions?

A team of Australian researchers is tapping into the nerves and bodies of volunteers to create a raw musical performance driven purely by emotions.  In a world first, the data is fed into special software, which will create music that will be played by small robots.  The research team comprises a neurophysiologist, a roboticist and an artist.

The full news story is here. A brief (4:23) audio account of the research, including a recording of these audible emotions is here: Phil Mercer’s report on Brain Music

This sound is of electrical signals and these signals are taken to be signs of emotion.

I find this interesting. It is as if those feelings we feel privately are externalized to others as sound.

Elsewhere, Professor Vaughan Macefield, one of the researchers, has some interesting things to say about pain.

What an iron bar through the brain tells us about emotions

Most visitors to this blog are guided here by a search engine. The most common search term is ‘Phineas Gage’.

Neuroscience has placed a lot of weight on this dead man’s shoulders. He’s on every syllabus connected to the brain, reason and emotions.

Search engines pick up A Stigmatized Phineas Gage and Neuroscience’s psychopathic view of Phineas Gage in this blog. I imagine that they are students wanting a quick read.

Last Wednesday I noticed a lot of visitors to these posts from Brazil. Why would people in Brazil suddenly be interested in Phineas Gage? When I turned to that day’s news, I discovered the reason: Brazil had its own ‘Phineas Gage’.

Eduardo Leite, 24, was working on a building site in Rio on Wednesday when the sharp 6ft piece of metal fell from five storeys above.

It went through his hard hat, passed through the back of his skull and a major part of his brain, and ended up poking out between his eyes.

The surgeon involved gives more details:

“This metal bar entered the skull through the posterior and lateral part of the brain, perforated the bone, transfixed the entire brain, we call it the core, and exited through the anterior part in between the two eyes.” (Man survives horrific ‘brain skewer’ injury, my emphasis)

And guess what? They removed the iron rod and he is almost back to normal.

The immediate explanation of the medical team involved was that ‘the bar entered a “non-eloquent” area of the brain that doesn’t have a specific, major known function.’ Check and you will find that most of the brain is ‘non-eloquent’ and can be removed with little noticeable effect.

I’m deeply skeptical of the celebrity of the brain, but here I want to explore another aspect to the fortunes of Phineas Gage and Eduardo Leite.

I use ‘fortune’ advisedly. ‘Fortune‘ (OED):

1. a. Chance, hap, or luck, regarded as a cause of events and changes in men’s affairs.

2. a. A chance, hap, accident; an event or incident befalling any one, an adventure. Obs.

 3. a. The chance or luck (good or bad) which falls to any one as his lot in life or in a particular affair.

There was Eduardo working on the ground floor, doing his job and minding his own business, when something five floors up caused this iron bar to hurtle to the ground.

It came from so far away it couldn’t have been deliberate. It was an accident. Construction sites are dangerous.

It could have fallen a few inches in another direction. But it didn’t. Eduardo could have moved, just a fraction. But he didn’t. It could have glanced off his hard hat, to have been a topic of wonder and humour. But it didn’t.

It happened just the way it did and that’s all there is to it. There is no cause here to blame. No one to be angry at. It was a chance event. He was unlucky (for it to have hit him). He was lucky (to have survived).

This was ‘fortune’ at work.

Forget the brain. There is a larger lesson here. We flatter ourselves that we are in control of our lives and that only the actions of others can thwart our plans. Many emotions rest on this belief.

Events such as this correct this error. An iron bar through the brain is an extreme event, but many other things in our lives are down to ‘fortune’ or happenstance, things we cannot control and have to accept and get on with it. Our parents. Where we were born. A chromosome here or there. A chance encounter … All can change a life’s direction.

The lesson here is humility.

Love simulated vs. Love achieved

Here is the latest emotional marketing campaign by Volkswagen with commentary by MemeMachine:

Most car ads focus on the vehicle driving down absurdly quiet streets, or in slow motion on a wide, majestic beach. This ad uses the car as it was intended – as transport. 

Volkswagen may have cast the vehicle as just that, a humble conveyance, but it’s also the driving force behind this love story.

Our heroine sits in her city apartment writing an email to her man. It’s not a happy message, she’s been doing a lot of thinking and wants him to call her as soon as he reads the email. A break-up appears to be looming.

Instead of hitting send, she prints the message and jumps into her Volkswagen, carrying the note with her as she drives through the night.

Alone on the open road, she has time to think about how the long-distance relationship is going, all the interrupted phone calls and where she feels at home.

Dawn breaks and she arrives at the beach. Standing in front of her man, she knows where home is. The pair embrace and the rest of us wonder what this has to do with Volkswagen.

Just in time, the ad tells us, “some technology connects us” (referring to emails). But thinking about Volkswagen’s vehicles, “the best technology brings us together”.

Put together by Ogilvy, Cape Town, the tear-jerking ad has garnered nearly 6,000 views in one week.

This well-crafted ad manages to use the car to tell a great story, without forgetting that the car is just a car. Source

If your emotions are stirred by this contrived sentiment it’s probably time to give your head a good shake.

Nevertheless, what you feel in front of a screen and what you feel in the presence of someone are incomparable, so I like that she’s prepared to break-up with him face-to-face. Even if she doesn’t.

But if she now knows where home is (presumably, with him) she’s not going to need a car at all, is she? She can make do with a bike.

Let’s compare this with a real love story. Noting what the VW driver’s young man has on the back of his T-shirt, let’s choose this one: Order to destroy ‘massive’ shark that killed Perth surfer Ben Linden.

Here his girl-friend of 8 years—Alana Noakes—says this of Ben:

“I’m devastated to let everyone know that my beautiful man, Ben Linden, was the surfer who was taken by the shark at Wedge this morning…

“Ben was the most amazing man, he lit up the lives of all who knew him.

“He was the most talented, good-natured, beautiful person I’ve ever met.

“He was the love of my life, my best friend, my rock and my soulmate.

“I, like everyone who knew him, absolutely cherish every moment of the last 8 years I spent with him.

“He has helped me to be a better person, to learn to ‘ride the waves’ of life.
“Let’s remember that he was doing something that meant the world to him. Surfing was his soul, his life, his culture and his passion.

“He loved mother nature in all her glory and is now in her arms eternally. Let’s rejoice in that.”

Amen to that.

Here they are together:

Ben Linden and Alana Noakes