The current study employed the emBODY tool to (1) investigate whether we can use the bodily sensation maps (BSMs) approach to study emotions related to phenomena that are likely to evoke various, and perhaps even conflicting, emotions in people, (2) to check where in the body people map their sensations related to global phenomena such as climate change, COVID-19 pandemic or war, (3) as well as to assess to what extent the BSMs of phenomena are similar to BSMs of distinct emotions. Overall, our results indicate that the body sensations mapping task is understandable to participants and is suitable to study emotions related to different phenomena as indicated by distinct localisation and characteristics of BSMs linked to phenomena used in current study. Specifically, we showed that even complex phenomena, such as climate change, evoke sensations that participants experience in specific locations in the body. Furthermore, we revealed that the BSMs of important global phenomena (i.e. climate change, COVID-19 pandemic, and war) showed high similarity with many unique emotions, specifically with fear, disgust, sadness, surprise, anxiety, depression, contempt, pride, shame, and jealousy, thus, suggesting that at the population level, people may experience a whole variety of different, mainly negative, emotions in relation to these phenomena11–17, 29,30. Below, we discuss our findings in detail.
Firstly, regarding BSMs of basic and complex emotions, our results replicate previous findings8,24, with BSMs of the current study showing a striking similarity to the previously obtained results. This is despite the fact that our sample was smaller than those in the previous studies and we conducted the study in Polish (previously conducted in English). These results support the notion that body maps of emotions are culturally universal at the population level and it also gives us confidence in the novel aspect of the current study: the BSMs of phenomena.
Secondly, participants localised their sensations related to important current phenomena (i.e., climate change, COVID-19 and war) as activations in the head, chest and abdomen. The strongest activation observed in the head may mean that these phenomena evoke high-level mental processing31. Indeed, past research on mapping subjective feelings showed that many cognitive processes such as thinking, being conscious, attending, memorising, reasoning, inferring or estimating are consistently related to sensations in the head area32. Past research also indicated that positive emotions are typically felt as activations of the head/face and the chest31, which is also in agreement with the results from the present study. This pattern is also observed regarding negative emotions but to a lesser extent and intensity. Negative emotions also tend to be represented more as deactivations, particularly in the limbs31. Activations in the heart/chest area may be associated with the increase in heart rate or faster breathing/holding one’s breath, commonly experienced in many emotions regardless of their valence. Indeed, previous work has shown that increased heart rate is related to both positive (e.g. happiness, joy and anticipated pleasure) and negative (e.g. anger, anxiety, fear and sadness) emotions33. COVID-19, and to a lesser extent climate change, BSMs also showed deactivations in the legs, which may reflect a feeling of immobility and avoidance, resembling the deactivation found in the depression and sadness maps.
Therefore, in case of complex phenomena-evoked emotions, activations in the chest and deactivations in legs may suggest that individuals experience a range of different emotions towards climate change, and often these may be conflicting (e.g. anxiety about the future and hope for change17). The findings from the similarity analysis are also in line with the notion that complex phenomena investigated in the present study evoke a variety of emotions in people. We revealed that the pattern of sensations observed for climate change, COVID-19, and war showed high similarity (r > .80) with a range of BSMs of emotions, namely fear, disgust, sadness, surprise, anxiety, depression, contempt, pride, shame, and jealousy. Interestingly, out of all phenomena, climate change BSM showed the highest similarity to the BSM of war, suggesting that both likely evoke similar, plausibly negative, emotions. Indeed, a growing body of evidence indicates that people report a range of emotional responses linked to different aspects of climate change, such as sadness, grief, distress, despair, disgust, anger, fear, anxiety, helplessness and hopelessness but also hope or fascination11–17. Similarly, research has shown that people report various emotions regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, both positive (e.g., relaxation, happiness) and negative (e.g., stress, anxiety, depression), and that these emotions can co-occur29,30.
Despite such striking similarities between the BSMs of important global phenomena and emotions, emotions and phenomena are associated with statistically distinct bodily patterns, as indicated with the LDA. The findings regarding the BSMs of emotions are largely in line with past research24,27. Specifically, the BSMs of neutral state, anger and happiness are consistently reported as emotions with the highest classification accuracy, confirming their unique bodily sensation pattern. Importantly, beyond confirming these findings, we also showed that the BSMs of feelings related to complex phenomena also show distinct bodily topography. This was true for climate change and COVID-19 maps, but not for the map of war, which had classification accuracy below the chance level. Possibly, it is easier for individuals to indicate their emotions to current phenomena (the present study was conducted in spring 2021, during the 3rd wave of the pandemic in Poland and before the breakout of the war in Ukraine, a country located next to Poland), hence the low discrimination for the BSM of war. Future research could investigate whether the BSMs of COVID-19 or war are time-sensitive and differ according to socio-political events.
Some limitations of our study merit comment. This study was conducted in an opportunity sample of internet users recruited online via social media, mailing lists and word of mouth. Although we did have a broad age range (18–83) in our sample, the majority were young women with higher education living in big cities. Likely, these demographics may explain a relatively high concern for climate change in our sample and a large proportion of individuals who reported experiencing strong emotions related to climate change34. In the future, it would be important to replicate current findings in a representative European sample regarding age, gender, education and socioeconomic status.
To our knowledge, this is the first study to explore the topographical maps of phenomena-related emotions. Future studies could investigate the effect of psychological distance (an indicator of how close or distant people feel from the issue) towards distinct phenomena on the topography/intensity of drawing on the bodies (i.e. the intensity of emotions)35,36. Future studies could also investigate whether the body maps of phenomena are culturally universal, as in the case of body maps of emotions8 or are they different (e.g., does the climate change BSM differ across cultures/countries that vary in pro-ecological support or those that are likely to be affected by climate change sooner vs later?).