Does vivid emotional imagery depend on body signals?

Int J Psychophysiol. 2009 Apr;72(1):46-50. doi: 10.1016/j.ijpsycho.2008.01.013. Epub 2008 Sep 13.


The recall and re-experiencing of a personal emotional event (emotional imagery) are thought to evoke neural activity in the central nervous system that can affect the physiology of bodily states. It has been proposed that the more active the neural systems previously engaged in the emotional experience, and the more active the bodily state associated with that experience, the more vivid the emotional imagery is. The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the gastrointestinal system (GI) are engaged in emotional reactions. On this basis, we hypothesized that vivid emotional imagery would be accompanied by strong increases in gastrointestinal and sympathetic nervous system activity. To test this hypothesis, 17 healthy participants performed emotional imagery of strong autobiographical memories involving various emotional states (happy, fear, disgust, sadness, anger). SNS and GI changes, measured by skin conductance and electrogastrogram, respectively, correlated positively with subjective ratings of arousal during the imagery. However, the SNS changes did not correlate with ratings of emotional imagery vividness, and even more intriguingly, the GI changes correlated strongly and negatively with vividness ratings. To account for these findings, we propose that in highly vivid imagery experience, the central nervous system is simulating the whole emotional experience strongly, and bodily information plays a lesser role. In low vivid imagery experience, the central nervous system is not simulating very strongly the emotional experience, and information coming from the body (including the GI system) plays a greater role. This interpretation is set forth in the context of Damasio's [Damasio, A., (1999) The feeling of what happens: body and emotion in the making of consciousness, Orlando, Fl, Harcourt.] theoretical framework, which predicts such a dissociation between a "body loop" and an "as if body loop" for the experiencing and re-experiencing of emotions and feelings.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural

MeSH terms

  • Arousal / physiology*
  • Electromyography / methods
  • Emotions / physiology*
  • Female
  • Galvanic Skin Response / physiology*
  • Gastrointestinal Tract / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Imagination / physiology*
  • Male
  • Statistics as Topic