Children can sense emotions in their bodies

Changes in bodily sensations associated with basic feelings among research participants of different ages. The warm colours (from red to yellow) indicate those parts of the body where the research participants experienced feelings more strongly or quickly. The cold colours (the blue hues) indicate the body parts where they sensed their feelings more weakly or slowly.

Changes in bodily sensations associated with basic feelings among research participants of different ages. The warm colours (from red to yellow) indicate those parts of the body where the research participants experienced feelings more strongly or quickly. The cold colours (the blue hues) indicate the body parts where they sensed their feelings more weakly or slowly.

Bodily changes are an important aspect of our feelings of emotion. As we experience emotions, changes occur, for example, in our muscle tone, breathing and autonomous nervous responses. Different emotions – such as fear and anger – evoke different bodily sensations, which means that different emotions literally produce different feelings. In adults, each emotion comes with a specifically defined ‘map’ of bodily sensations.

A recently published study by researchers at the University of Tampere and Aalto University in Finland showed that children also experience different emotions in different ways in their bodies. Children of different ages were asked to mark on a map those parts of the body where they felt physical changes caused by emotions.

Children as young as six years were discovered to be able to distinguish bodily sensations related to basic emotions. This ability to differentiate emotions improves with age up until late adolescence. The ability of children to distinguish discrete bodily sensations develops in step with their ability to use words to describe their emotions. It is possible that the development of the sensibility of children to different bodily sensations associated with emotions has an impact on their ability to perceive and interpret the emotions that occur in their environment.

“The method we developed can easily be used to investigate the bodily sensations of even very young children,” says Jari Hietanen, professor of psychology, who was a member of the research team.

“It is possible to use this method to support the ability of children to distinguish their own feelings. Being aware of one’s emotions is among the most important developmental milestones in childhood. Problems in emotional regulation may be reflected in various problems in later life,” Hietanen explains.

The results were published in the journal Developmental Science:
Hietanen, J. K., Glerean, E., Hari, R., & Nummenmaa, L. (2016). “Bodily maps of emotions across child development”. Developmental Science. doi: 10.1111/desc.12389
http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/desc.12389/abstract

For more information, please contact:
Professor Jari Hietanen
tel. +358 (0)40 190 1384, jari.hietanen@uta.fi