Can I ‘read’ your emotions in my body? Alignment between persons

Can I ‘read’ your emotions in my body?

Have you ever felt a shiver or the pricking of tears when you see someone grieving about a dead loved one? “Feeling” others’ emotions does not only happen in our heads: it affects our entire bodies. But are those changes actually informative?

What’s the purpose?

Like many success stories, bodily reactions to emotion displays are rooted in evolutionary advantages. Without the instinctive response to run when other group members displayed fear, our early ancestors would have been easy prey. In addition, aligning with others’ highs and lows strengthens the bonds within the group. Expressions of emotion are thus crucial ingredients in the communication between social animals like us.

How does it work?

While we sometimes have to force ourselves to smile politely, bodily reactions to others’ emotional expressions are fully automatic. We barely notice them and mostly have no control over them. The major player in evoking these uncontrollable changes is the autonomic nervous system (ANS). Targeting our internal organs, the ANS can trigger rises in body temperature, a slowing of the heartbeat, blushing, sweating and many more processes. Importantly, not all of these processes respond in the same way when the ANS is activated by an emotional experience: the type of emotion matters.

Solving the puzzle

Looking at patterns in bodily changes might thus be the key to unveiling emotional states. Established emotion theories like the James-Lange Theory of Emotion or the Somatic marker hypothesis suggest that this is how we figure out our own emotions – based on our bodily changes. However, recent research has shown that bodily responses related to one specific emotion such as anger are not always the same for everyone and in every situation. Thus, is it even possible to distinguish emotions in one’s own bodily reactions to another person’s emotion display?

Our latest study

To answer this question, we measured changes in sweating, cheek temperature, and muscles involved in smiling and frowning when participants viewed images showing emotion displays. As emotion displays do not always come all-inclusive in daily life (think of masks or video calls), these images contained either emotional faces, emotional bodies, or more subtle signs of emotion (a blush, tears, or larger pupils). After viewing all 104 images, our 71 participants were also required to assign emotion labels (e.g. ‘happy’) to each display.

So could we identify bodily response patterns typical for viewing a display of a specific emotion, such as anger, for instance? In short: not really. While we seem to be very good at labeling others’ emotions, whether displayed on the face or through bodily signs, we show only very limited bodily reactions that are typical for a specific emotion.

A cautionary note

Similarly to many previous studies, we presented emotion displays on a screen, in a laboratory. While this approach makes it possible to present exactly the same display to different people in the exactly same environment, it comes with one big shortcoming: there is no real other human involved. Without the possibility to learn about others’ current states and interact with them, aligning to emotion displays of others does not yield huge benefits. Why should an image of a frightened face without any relevant context get your body all stressed out? To tackle this limitation, research in our field is moving towards performing studies in real social situations.

So what now?

I still like to think of our bodies as spaces in which other people’s emotions can resonate, just like music. Those reactions may not be very strong, and may not always be the same, but they can help us understand how others feel. Does it matter that you have a good sense of what’s going on in your body to ‘read’ the resonance? That’s another question that we will tackle in future projects. So stay tuned and embrace the fascinating contribution of your body in ‘feeling’ others.

Participate in research

Would you like to participate in my research on how our own body awareness is linked to recognizing other’s emotions?
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Folz, J., Fiacchino, D., Nikolic, M., van Steenbergen, H., & Kret, M.E. (in press). Reading your emotions in my physiology? Reliable emotion interpretations in absence of a robust physiological resonance. Affective Science.