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Can You Feel the Real Me?

What Feelings Really Look Like

Why you should care

Because if a picture is worth 1,000 words, a bunch of pictures might tell the tale the next time you’re asked, “How are you feeling?”

How do people feel?

“At first, the question seemed flaky,” said Orlagh O’Brien. But for the quiet, withdrawn graphic designer, it was an earnest search for connection. She wondered whether others also felt emotions as physical sensations — anger as a tightness in the gut, happiness as a warm tingle. “We think we’re trapped with a whole world of individuality inside of ourselves, and I had this sense that we have more in common than we realize.”

She offers new ways to identify our emotions based on how we experience them physically.

So O’Brien led a survey of about 250 people over the course of three months. After asking respondents to describe five emotions in drawings, colors and words, she created Emotionally Vague, an online data visualization of the results. Sure enough, distinct patterns emerged. One question, for example, asked respondents to draw lines on a human silhouette to illustrate each emotion. The more pleasurable the emotion, the more the lines radiated outward; the more painful the emotion, the more they contracted inward.

Woman in blue sweater looking down as she speaks on stage with words on screen behind her

Orlagh O’Brien

Emotionally Vague may have been inspired by O’Brien’s interest in science, but it is primarily an art project — not a strictly controlled study — and the results aren’t intended to represent anyone other than the 250 respondents. Nonetheless, the patterns are compelling.

So compelling, in fact, that O’Brien says they’ve attracted “a strange mix of people” since she presented Emotionally Vague at a 2010 PopTech conference. A dance company used the results as choreographic inspiration, while physical therapists built it into their practice. Emotion researchers published scientific papers that asked similar questions, and sure enough, they saw similar patterns.

Today O’Brien employs a similar survey method for Pulse of the People, a project to understand the emotions of people across Ireland and the diaspora. Economic conditions and other factors forced migration away from families and culture, which surged in the 1830s. The data is a collection of responses to phrases like “feeling right now” and “being understood,” which social researchers can use to understand social movements, for example, since emotions can move people to act for change. Another project will inform the construction of a well-being center in Ireland.

Emotionally Vague offers new ways to identify our emotions based on how we experience them physically. For example, we might be able to recognize anger from the tension in our fists, allowing us more time to defuse it. Likewise, adjusting our posture might induce different emotional states and even help us empathize with others.

They didn’t describe emotions in words, which allowed them to bypass their thinking mind. It was a different route to understanding themselves.

Emotionally Vague could offer an alternative, visually based method to describe emotional experience — which can be challenging with words alone. “Emotions are deep experiences, and our language is approximate at best,” said Tor Wager, professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “Often, we have trouble figuring out what we feel, and there are many shades of feeling that don’t have words but nonetheless call to be expressed.” Tools to recognize and express emotions might help those who have neuropsychological disorders, which often cause emotional symptoms.

O’Brien spoke from her home in Cork, unafraid of long pauses as her milky blue eyes seemed to search for just the right words. She grew up in an Irish Catholic family, the classic middle child who threw tantrums for attention. “I wasn’t versed in understanding my emotions.”

It worsened in her teenage years, when she grappled with coming out. Homosexuality wasn’t decriminalized in Ireland until 1993, when O’Brien was 17. Retreating into her head, she threw herself into her schoolwork, excelling in art and physics.

Though she was drawn to the empiricism of science, she wanted to “explore something deeper” through art, and so she enrolled in a master’s program in graphic design at the London College of Communication. She traces the decision to her spiritual upbringing; both of her parents studied philosophy, two of her aunts entered a convent, and her uncle became a priest.

Around the same time, O’Brien took up meditation and tai chi. They brought a heightened awareness of her bodily sensations, which she recognized as the emotions that had long mystified her. “But I wasn’t totally connected with them,” she said. “They were almost a third party.”

2 groupings of colorful dots, left, Male and right, female

What color do you associate with courage?

”Did other people feel emotions in their body?” she wondered. O’Brien made a master’s project of finding the answer, approaching it like a designer conforming to a corporate brand’s designs — only in reverse. Rather than trying to create an emotional response to a product by using a brand’s color palette, shapes and typography, she asked others for the design elements that matched their anger, joy, fear, sadness and love. Other questions asked people to list the words and colors that made them feel each emotion, while the rest involved drawing the location of each emotion on human silhouettes and the direction in which they moved.

A computer program used the tallies for each color selection to generate a color spectrum for each emotion. O’Brien suggests that we might be able to learn from the few people who associate yellow with fear. “Maybe people with bright experiences of fear are able to grasp it and go with it,” she said.

“People realized that they do experience emotions physically,” she said. “The fact that they didn’t describe them in words allowed them to bypass their thinking mind. It was a different route to people’s own understanding of themselves.”

When she layered the silhouettes in Photoshop, her jaw dropped. Despite the respondents’ broad range in age and cultural backgrounds, a clear pattern emerged. The composite silhouette for anger showed dark spots around the head and fists, for example, while a huge spot covered the chest region for joy. A swirling upward vortex surrounded the one for love, suggesting that “it moves us to connect with other people.”

“We’re not so different,” O’Brien realized. ”Emotion is a force that can literally change and move us.” She named her project Emotionally Vague, after people who don’t know exactly how they feel.

Emotion is a force that can literally change and move us.

— Orlagh O’Brien

But since Emotionally Vague is an informal survey, it has limitations. Although it affirms that emotional experiences exist, only a strictly controlled scientific experiment can reveal how they relate to bodily sensations — for example, if one causes the other, said Northeastern University professor of psychology Lisa Barrett Feldman.

2 line, colorful drawing of human beings left and right

Attendees were asked to express how they felt through drawing, color and words at the moment for Pulse of the People, a spinoff project of Emotionally Vague.

Still, O’Brien said, “It blew my mind how one piece of research would be interesting to so many people from different areas.” As others reach out to her, she no longer feels isolated, and most of all she has a new way of reading her emotions.

“It’s amazing to go from me being a solitary student in a graduate course to opening up and having questions and seeing what would happen when I ask people,” she told her PopTech audience. “You don’t need to be a scientist to ask questions.” You just need to ask.

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Meet The Author Melissa Pandika

Melissa Pandika is a lab rat-turned-journalist with eye to all things science, medicine and more. Like? Distance running, snails, late-night Korean BBQ + R&B slow jams.

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