Sadness, Goosebumps, and Tears
What is it that we feel when we are emotional? Pleasant, or unpleasant? Heart racing, or heaviness in our bodies? Psychologists tend to talk about emotion and the body’s physiology as if they are completely separate domains. Most studies of emotion place people in the lab, show them emotional films or images, and ask them what emotions they’re feeling. This doesn’t tell us everything we need to know.
“Interoception” is the term for a person’s awareness of what’s happening inside the body. People can be asked to report on their physiological changes. But even those reports don’t tell the whole story.
When people are asked to talk about their emotions in their own words, they produce descriptions that are both emotional ("I was happy") and bodily ("I felt goosebumps"), revealing that they do not cleanly differentiate between these domains. And why should they? Emotions are bodily phenomena. Neuroscience evidence tells us that areas of the brain that support experiences of emotions and bodily sensations are both active when we experience emotions.
Cultures differ in the importance assigned to these two domains. In the United States, we often think of emotions as an important slice of our subjective experience. Americans tend to direct children's attention to emotions very early on, teaching them emotional vocabulary, and encouraging them to verbalize and respond to their emotions. Our bookstores sell children's titles like "The Feelings Book" and "Today I Feel Silly & Other Moods that Make my Day." Of course, some bodily changes, such as aches and pains, are noticed by people in their daily lives, but the body is given relatively less attention.
Contrast Between Cultures: Chinese Versus American
In contrast, contemporary Chinese culture directs relatively more attention to the physiological slice of subjective experience and—in line with Traditional Chinese Medicine beliefs—treat it as fundamentally connected to the emotional one. Chinese parents and teachers foster conversations that reference the body and give attention to bodily complaints. Chinese language itself makes it hard to describe one's emotions without referencing the body, as many emotional terms are compounds that include bodily terms. For instance, “心悸”—literally meaning “beating heart”—is the word for fear.
We examined how cultural norms of monitoring and expressing emotional and bodily changes affect emotional experience. We invited two groups of young women into the lab: European Americans and Chinese/Chinese Americans. We attached them to physiological sensors and gave them a sad cartoon to watch. In it, a young girl parts with her father. Time flies and she becomes a teenager, then a young mother. Eventually, she is old and frail. Time after time, she comes back to the spot where she last saw her father, with her loss and longing palpable.
Once the movie finished, we gave participants a list of emotion words (such as "sadness," "satisfaction") and bodily changes (such as "goosebumps," "heartbeat changes") and asked them whether they had experienced them while watching the cartoon.
Both groups of women reported that they felt sad and showed signs of sadness in the lab (furrowed brows, crying). Differences emerged, however, in reports of bodily experiences. For European American women, the film was largely emotional in its effects, and they reported experiencing very low levels of bodily changes.
In contrast, Chinese/Chinese American women reported a range of bodily sensations along with sadness. For example, they were more likely to notice that their breathing and heartbeat changed and detected a lump-in-throat sensation and goosebumps. This is in line with past research showing that depressed mood is also often described as a bodily complaint in Chinese cultural contexts (among others).
So, watching the sad cartoon was a uniquely emotional experience for European American women and a more complex experience involving emotional and bodily changes for Chinese/Chinese American women.
Interestingly, reports of bodily changes by Chinese/Chinese American women did not tend to reflect patterns of physiological activity recorded by our sensors but were instead associated with observed behavior. That is, they might have reported a rise in heartrate, but no change was seen on the heartrate monitor. If these Chinese and Chinese American women are not basing their reports on actual physiological changes, what do they base them on? More work needs to be done to understand these findings.
The reports were also associated with cultural orientation, with Chinese/Chinese American participants who were more oriented to American culture reporting fewer bodily changes, similar to their European American counterparts. This indicates that the reports are indeed shaped by cultural factors—perhaps culturally-specific understandings of what emotions are like.
Perceptions of bodily changes are important regardless of whether or not they accurately reflect physiological changes, since they shape how people remember and communicate emotional experiences, and they impact how people feel on a daily basis. Expanding research on cultural differences in emotion experience would be a fruitful endeavor.
For Further Reading
Chentsova-Dutton, Y. E., Gold, A., Gomes, A., & Ryder, A. G. (2020). Feelings in the body: Cultural variations in the somatic concomitants of affective experience. Emotion, 20(8), 1490-1494. https://doi.org/10.1037/emo0000683
Ma-Kellams, C., Blascovich, J., & McCall, C. (2012). Culture and the body: East–West differences in visceral perception. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102, 718–728. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0027010
Wang, Q. (2001). “Did you have fun?”: American and Chinese mother-child conversations about shared emotional experiences. Cognitive Development, 16, 693–715. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0885-2014(01)00055-7
Yulia Chentsova Dutton is Associate Professor of Psychology at Georgetown University. She studies cultural shaping of emotions.