The embodiment of emotion: language use during the feeling of social emotions predicts cortical somatosensory activity


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Abstract

Complex social emotions involve both abstract cognitions and bodily sensations, and individuals may differ on their relative reliance on these. We hypothesized that individuals’ descriptions of their feelings during a semi-structured emotion induction interview would reveal two distinct psychological styles—a more abstract, cognitive style and a more body-based, affective style—and that these would be associated with somatosensory neural activity. We examined 28 participants’ open-ended verbal responses to admiration- and compassion-provoking narratives in an interview and BOLD activity to the same narratives during subsequent functional magnetic resonance imaging scanning. Consistent with hypotheses, individuals’ affective and cognitive word use were stable across emotion conditions, negatively correlated and unrelated to reported emotion strength in the scanner. Greater use of affective relative to cognitive words predicted more activation in SI, SII, middle anterior cingulate cortex and insula during emotion trials. The results suggest that individuals’ verbal descriptions of their feelings reflect differential recruitment of neural regions supporting physical body awareness. Although somatosensation has long been recognized as an important component of emotion processing, these results offer ‘proof of concept’ that individual differences in open-ended speech reflect different processing styles at the neurobiological level. This study also demonstrates SI involvement during social emotional experience.

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