Exploring the Body Language of our Emotions

More and more we hear that “body language” is a key component of the way we communicate – but little concrete information is shared about the grammar and syntax of the mysterious language of what isn’t said.

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What we do hear tends to focus on the effectiveness of what appear quite superficial  or artificial gestures purporting to carry the secrets  of non-verbal communication: a raised hand, a penetrating gaze, a foot thrust forward.

Nevertheless it promises to make us more influential and perhaps even more authentic communicators, if we could only grasp how our emotional states affect our body posture.

As social animals, we already know quite a lot about body language. Unconsciously, we recognise in others the facial gestures that look trustworthy or shifty, inviting or rejecting, friendly or threatening. But unless we happen to have attended acting school, it’s much less likely we have the skills to replicate such behaviours by ourselves and at will.


So, if our bodies are the pages upon which this language is written, in which body zones or limbs or organs do certain emotions manifest themselves? And what gestures or postures describe different emotions?

Knowing where our emotions manifest themselves in our bodies is the first step to understanding body language. We still talk about having “a heart bursting with love,” or “a head swollen with pride.” Conversely, our fears may be located “in the pit of the stomach,” perhaps also sending “a shiver down the spine.” Sadness and depression or may produce “heartache” or “numbness in the limbs,” while hesitation cause us to “drag our feet.”

We speak of having  intimate “heart to heart” conversations, or confronting someone “eyeball to eyeball” or “face to face.”  In fact such  proximity or matching of organs is the clearest of all body language messages. It implies communicating without ambiguity or misunderstanding, in emphatic terms.

We have surely learned enough basic science in school to know all such emotions are really based on neurological connections made inside the cerebral cortex, and have nothing to do with these organs.

We live in a dawning golden age of neuroscience, thanks to incredible advances in brain scanning and the ability to map emotions and zones inside the brain. However in our daily lives, Mapping the brain as part of the European Big Brain project and the Brain Initiative in the US, seems to count for nothing beside an archetypal vocabulary that recalls Robert Burton’s 1621 “Anatomy of Melancholy

In fact, we cling to an ancient pattern of bodily associations stretching back to the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates. This continues to guide our speech and behaviour patterns. And as we communicate, our postures regularly betray these underlying emotions.

While it may not be possible to detect a person’s true mood from his or her words alone, gestures can speak volumes. Arms folded around the ribs may reveal an anxious or defensive person feeling tightness in the chest. Likewise, shame may involve attempts to cover the face – perhaps with cheeks already showing a blush.

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A fascinating study by four scientists from Finland (Lauri Nummenmaa, Enrico Glerean, Riitta Hari and Jari K. Hietanen from Universities of Aalto, Turku and Tampere), shows exactly how our imaginations associate a range of emotions with different parts of the body.

On maps of the human body created for their survey — published November 2013 in The Proceedings of the National Academies of Science — the authors show that anger, fear, disgust, shame and anxiety all look radically different to love, happiness and pride.

It’s important to state that compiling these maps involved no scanning technology. No MRI, no PET, no CT. This is the plotting of hand-drawn subjective impressions by survey respondents, not objective tomography data.

In the survey researchers showed 773 participants different words, stories, movies, and expressions, and had them highlight on a human silhouette the areas of the body in which they felt decreasing or increasing activity. More activity sees the colour change from black to red to yellow, while decreasing activity is represented by an increasingly bright shade of blue.

“Different emotional states are associated with topographically distinct and culturally universal bodily sensations,” say the authors. “These sensations could underlie our conscious emotional experiences.”

While their goal is to use their maps as biomarkers for emotional disorders, we see great potential in the fields of professional communication and leadership.

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We maintain some mastery of body language and its power is an essential component of what we call charisma. Mastery of the principles and perceptions of body language will confer natural advantages when it comes to effective communication and leadership.

Whenever it is vital for leaders to gain the trust of their followers, they must reinforce their authenticity by matching their body language to the messages they’re delivering. So a little study of the subject is rewarding.

Dig a little deeper and we find the Finnish study published in The Proceedings of the National Academies of Science crosses paths with disciplines that have roots dating back to the 1950s, in Post-Freudian psychology and Bioenergetics. In particular, it revisits and supports insights developed by pioneers of Core Energetics.

The founders of Core Energetics held that blocked energy shapes the body, creating life–denying patterns. Unblocking these energies and emotions permits bodily expression and fulfilment of human potential. The locations attributed to different emotions in the 2013 study overlap substantially with the results of years of therapeutic practice.

The work of Stanley Keleman explores the complex linkages between emotional states and physical posture. Life makes shapes, and the resulting structures and stresses in our bodies in turn determine the way our life events unfold. Only by disorganising and then reorganising our accumulated layers of experience and body patterns, can we realise our potential.

Particularly, Keleman’s investigations in his books Emotional Anatomy and Embodying Experience show how the constant pulsation of muscle structures between expansion and attraction, lead us to adopt those repetitive and distinctive postures  also known as “body language.” He envisaged this pulsation between rigid, over-filled postures and deflated positions as being much like the movement of a squeeze-box or accordion.


For instance, many of us – particularly life’s “doers” – tend to adopt over-inflated, rigid body postures associated with power and performance. An inflated chest, a tight diaphragm, raised shoulders, rigid neck and chin, and contracted pelvis all betoken a driven personality less able to absorb influences, and perhaps unwilling to listen.

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Conversely the collapsed posture characteristic of the army of life’s “deflated,” may signal a potential victim used to being overwhelmed because of his or her porosity to outside influences. Bowed shoulders, curved upper spine, released pelvis, and deflated chest are all signs we associate with self-effacers, strugglers and disappointed people who nevertheless are selfless givers of emotional nourishment.


We can recognise such figures at a distance, and from their body shapes know intuitively how they will behave socially or in the workspace.

In between these extreme poles of somatic or unconscious bodily positioning, exists a range of postures that embody the way each of us has processed his or her emotions and experiences into a unique “body language.”

We can start to develop a basic mapping of body language, by drawing together these perceptions of where we locate our emotions and how we draw attention to these areas of our bodies, plus the way our overall stance and posture describes our emotional state.

Out of this, we can develop a more conscious attitude to the way we hold ourselves and start to master the grammar and syntax of body language. The process takes time  –  but out of this we can expect to see a measurable increase in the charisma we project outwards to influence others.


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