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Andrew Leader

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How are different body parts connected to the emotions we traditionally associate with them?

This week in my bioelectricity class, I learned about cardiac electrophysiology. Afterwords, I read an article about the growing field of neurocardiology: http://madurasinghe.blogspot.com/2008/06/neurocardiology-brain-in-heart.html. The heart’s nervous system contains over 40,000 neurons, and is sufficiently complex that it is referred to by some as its own “little-brain”. This little-brain communicates directly with the medulla in the brain-stem, both sending and receiving signals that have to do with hart rate, hormones, chemicals, and pressure in the heart. These signals help regulate other signals to blood vessels, glands and other organs, but they also “cascade up into the higher centers of the brain, where they may influence perception, decision making and other cognitive processes.”

This article made me wonder: Does perhaps the term “thinking with your heart” have a biological basis after all? How did the heart become the symbol of love? How might this association relate to the connection between emotion and heart health, and what makes up this connection in the first place?

To explore the biological basis of emotional experience, particularly as we traditionally associate these experiences with different parts of the body, I also watched the TED talk “Trust, Morality – and Oxytocin” (http://blog.ted.com/2011/11/01/trust-morality-and-oxytocin-paul-zak-on-ted-com/), in which Paul Zak talks about how oxytocin (a mammalian hormone) increases trustworthiness, generosity, empathy, while oxytocin release is inhibited by high stress.

And so I ask the TED Community: What connections might exist between body parts and the meanings we associate with them? For example, when we say we have a “gut feeling,” how might it relate to the activity of our autonomic nervous system on the GI tract? What about the emotional meanings we associate with the eyes, mouth, hands, and so on? Could age-old associations between body parts and emotion be rooted in biology?

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    Mar 25 2012: I think our largest organ is a excellent example to link to feeling. That is to say our SKIN is often the first to react before we mentally process any conscious thought. I remember the hairs on the back of my arm standing up when I hear and amazing piece of music or my skin goes cold or clammy when I am in danger or under threat. I believe in today's society that some of this transcends biology to lead us to the nuances of human social interaction ( I get the danger elements still being relevant but the skin tingle from pleasurable pursuits is more cryptic). All this said I think it's also worth considering what part the skin plays in physical TOUCH. The countless emotional and physiological meaning loaded from centuries of social evolution may have something to contribute to a discussion on biology and feeling. After-all history and religion has many powerful positive and negative examples of where touch on skin has a dramatic effect on our emotions.
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      Mar 26 2012: Hi, Stuart,

      I agree with you that skin is definitely a pathway to conduct our feeling. Besides personal experience such as goosebumps. I came across two articles that support the idea of skin can reflect human emotion:
      In http://archderm.ama-assn.org/cgi/content/summary/60/6/1063, past dermatologists have observed and believe there is correlations between skin disorder and human disorder. In http://www.mendeley.com/research/eventrelated-skin-conductance-responses-to-musical-emotions-in-humans/, it uses skin conductance response (SCR) to measure emotional reactions.
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        Mar 27 2012: The first organ that I thought of to answer this question was also the skin, so I’m glad to see other people had already made a reference to it. I was in an interview last week and realized my palms started getting sweaty, indicating to me that I was getting nervous. Other than emotions which were previously mentioned about hair standing up or goosebumps, the skin also works with the circulatory system to show emotion. For example, when one gets embarrassed, he/she will blush and show a reddish tint. Fear on the other hand causes skin to go pale. What is interesting to note, however, is that these are all biological responses to something we are experiencing at the time, to which we have tagged an emotion to accompany them. For example, your face getting pale when you are afraid is a direct consequence of your body’s “fight or flight” response, where blood rushes to vital organs and away from non-essential ones like your face. We have thus connected this pale look to the sensation of fear.

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