How are our senses linked to our emotions?

We are taught about our five senses from childhood: sight, smell, taste, touch, and hearing. Even from a young age, we know to “use our senses” to investigate the world around us. But these senses do more than just identify the world we live in, right?

Put simply, our emotional reactions can be guided by sensory information. Just because something looks gross, we may instinctively not like it. Thomson et. al (2010) defines this as a “conceptual association.” In other words, what we sense triggers a feeling.

For me, the forests and the lake are linked with a sense of energy, positive feelings, and calmness.

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These associations can be activated from me seeing a cup of coffee, smelling it, hearing a coffee maker, or tasting it. (Not so much by touch, I don’t really like sticking my hand in a cup of hot liquid!) Thomson et. al (2010) studied what emotional words were chosen to describe various chocolates. It was found that we associate different emotional words with different sensory qualities. Levels of bitterness, sweetness, creaminess, and even color impacted the participant’s emotional interpretation of what was all just chocolate. Deeper down, our sensory brain areas are involved with emotion too.

Our emotions and sensory cortices can impact one another in both directions.

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A review by Vuilleumier (2005) explained that emotions provide a boost to our sensory cortices. Neuroimaging showed that in response emotional, our sensory cortices have increased activation. Vuilleumier (2005) hypothesized that this is due to learning from the sensory characteristics of emotional situations. Think about if you heard a fire alarm or smelled smoke.

These sensory cues mean it’s time to run (or walk safely to your nearest exit)! Similar findings were present in the research of fear memory. Using fear conditioning, Sacco and Sacchetti (2010) found that sensory cortices affect emotional memory. Rats were trained to associate visual, auditory, or olfactory cues with an aversive stimulus.

As stated throughout this blog, our emotions and senses are very tightly intertwined. What we hear, see, taste, smell, and touch can provide us with information on how to feel. In the other direction, what we feel can be heavily influenced by what our senses are taking in.

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References:

Sacco, T., & Sacchetti, B. (2010). Role of secondary sensory cortices in emotional memory storage and retrieval in rats. Science329(5992), 649-656. doi: 10.1126/science.1183165

Thomson, D. M., Crocker, C., & Marketo, C. G. (2010). Linking sensory characteristics to
emotions: An example using dark chocolate. Food quality and preference21(8), 1117-1125. doi: 10.1016/j.foodqual.2010.04.011

Vuilleumier, P. (2005). How brains beware: neural mechanisms of emotional attention. Trends in cognitive sciences9(12), 585-594. doi: 10.1016/j.tics.2005.10.011

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