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Blood, Sweat, and Fears

The Autonomic Architecture of Emotion


Address for correspondence: Robert W. Levenson, Institute of Personality and Social Research, 4143 Tolman Hall #5050, University of California, Berkeley, Berkeley, California 94720-5050. Voice: 510-642-5050; fax: 510-643-9334.


Abstract: The autonomic nervous system (ANS) plays a critical role in emotion, providing metabolic support for adaptive action, generating appearance changes with high signal value for conspecifics, and producing visceral sensations that shape subjective emotional experience. In this chapter, I consider several of the most important ways that the ANS is involved in emotion, including: (a) peripheral activation of emotion; (b) autonomic influences on emotional language and the labeling of subjective emotional experience; (c) positive emotion and autonomic soothing; (d) expressive signs of autonomic origin; (e) autonomic substrates of emotional contagion and empathy; and (f) autonomic consequences of emotion regulation. For each, I describe relevant research from our laboratory and discuss implications for an evolutionary account of emotion. In these and many other ways the autonomic architecture of human emotion has evolved not only to move blood and tears in the service of fears, but also to provide us with a rich set of tools that help us communicate and signal the nature of our internal emotional experiences, understand the emotions of others, calm ourselves and others, and give us some modicum of control over harmful and unproductive emotions.