I used to be confused when people talked about feeling their emotions in their bodies. My emotions didn’t feel like physical sensations - they just felt like emotions. Doesn’t sadness or happiness just feel like sadness or happiness? I had trouble with a lot of advice for how to better manage or get in touch with emotions for this reason.
I sometimes felt my emotions saliently, but I experienced nothing like the variety of qualia other people reported. I basically had a four-quadrant model of emotion:
More subtle distinctions felt like they surely must refer to the situations that caused the emotion, or my intent while feeling it. For instance, if I was feeling irritable because something was thwarting my plans, then I described myself - consistent with the literal archaic meaning of the term - as frustrated. My plans were frustrated, and I disliked this - so I felt frustrated.
Then I found out about alexithymia - difficulty recognizing or naming emotions - and it seemed to me like I was at least somewhat in that direction relative to the typical person.
Later, I learned that other people have the opposite problem - they don’t necessarily know what they’re feeling emotionally even on the very coarse level, but they can reliably identify what’s going on with their bodies. This made sense of the advice to track emotions by tracking body sensations - for many people, body sensations aren’t the arcane advanced work, but the easy stuff that they already know how to do.
When I went to the Vipassana Center meditation retreat, I got a lot more awareness of body sensations, and to my surprise, they substantially increased the subtlety of my own internal emotional awareness:
The model behind vipassana meditation is that if you learn to perceive sensations while not reacting to them, you’ll be able to perceive cravings and aversions more reliably too, while not being compelled to obey them. The technique they teach is supposed to promote equanimity through increased embodiment and sensory/emotional awareness. I was surprised at how many ways this turned out to be good for me.
I also started noticing what one might call microemotions – small preverbal emotional responses I had to things, that would have just passed away without any conscious notice before. This helps me connect emotionally with people in more complex ways during conversations; I’ll notice some sort of sensory change, and dig around for words to express the subtle emotion, and often this will point out some aspect of the interaction that neither of us had quite seen before, or help them get more detail and color around my experience of the conversation. For example, I was talking with a friend about one of their problems, and I felt a subtle sense of warmth coming up from the middle of my chest, catching at my throat. I was able to verbalize this as a kind of empathy and wishing that I could make things better, and this helped us feel closer, because they knew how their words were landing with me.
Part of what surprised me was that I was not only more aware of physical sensations, but immediately and effortlessly able to interpret them as subtle emotions. This suggested to me that somatic awareness isn’t just a workaround, but part of the ordinary way our brains process emotions.
Three levels of awareness
It’s uncontroversial that emotions are generally cognitive responses to situations. Some process in the brain is set up to recognize some sort of characteristic situation for which a given emotional response is appropriate, and makes us feel the emotion when the situation arises. For instance, our anger-generating process looks for situations where it’s advantageous to punish someone, and makes us display anger behavior in those situations.
It seems to me, though, like the typical model looks like this:
By this model, emotions originate in a situation-assessing cognitive process, which directly produces emotional qualia. If you don’t perceive much in the way of emotional responses, it’s either because your emotion-generating function is broken, or you’re just not very attuned to it.
My model adds an additional cognitive step:
Here, the emotion-generating process doesn’t create emotional qualia directly (Emotion-cognition -> Emotion-detection). Instead, it alters some behavioral tendencies, including how you hold your body. Fear readies you to run away, for example, while anger readies you to fight. Then, since your brain is by nature a pattern-collector, if it pays enough attention to those somatic and mental responses, some cognitive process will start taking the somatic responses to emotions as inputs, and output a summary of what emotion you’re feeling as outputs. Thus, the cognitive process has three stages: Emotion-generation -> Somatic-response -> Emotion-detection.
This allows for a more precise articulation of problems recognizing emotions. Some people could conceivably have deficiencies in the underlying ability to read situations as emotionally relevant or generate emotions on this basis. (Some autistic people appear to have the former. Sociopaths appear to have the latter, for some emotions such as fear.) Others might not have strong processes that summarize their somatic responses into emotional qualia. Then there are the people like I used to be, who have conscious access to the emotional summaries, but not the raw somatic data.
It’s obvious why people in the last group would benefit from paying close attention to bodily sensations - conscious bodily awareness is exactly the part they lack. But I suspect that people lacking strong summarizing processes would benefit from this too - because the mind tends to work harder to summarize data when you pay a lot of attention to it.