At its best, science sheds light on what was previously unknown or unappreciated. For example, many of us probably have fantasized about what it would be like to be the first person to identify a new plant or animal or even fungus or insect.
This kind of discovery process also occurs in psychological science.
Recently, an international team published new research that goes a long way toward establishing a little known and unappreciated experience as a universal emotion. They call it “kama muta,” after a Sanskrit term. In several studies across 19 different countries, 5 continents, and 15 languages, this new research shows kama muta is a distinct emotion – different from awe, amusement, and sadness – and generally expressed similarly across cultures.
There isn’t a good way to refer to this emotion simply, which says something about how undeveloped and unappreciated it might be. In English, however, people most commonly refer to this emotion when they say they feel profoundly “moved” or “touched” in a positive manner. When experiencing this emotion, individuals often become tearful or cry; experience “goosebumps,” chills, or shivers; feel “choked up” or a “lump in the throat;” have a difficult time speaking; and often leave inspired to be more devoted or morally committed. People often connect this with a “warm” feeling in the center of the chest, which is probably why so often there are reports of experiences being “heartwarming” or, as we wrote recently, related to something “soulfelt.” Depending on the intensity, situation, and person, some of these elements may be present or absent.
The experience of being moved often seems to be most elicited when individuals increase in closeness or intimacy with what is perceived as sacred (highly meaningful, poignant, or precious). As the international team states:
“Common occasions of intensifications include the birth of a child, engagements and weddings, reunions, the feeling of being one with nature, union with divinity, extraordinary kindnesses received, and sacrifices for others. Nostalgic memories of friendship or love, and unexpected feelings of connection with strangers also evoke kama muta.”
Individuals likely differ greatly in how often they feel moved, what elicits this emotion, and how it affects them. Overall, though, it seems likely that this experience often is a powerful one, with potentially profound consequences. The example of John Wesley feeling his heart “strangely warmed” after listening to one of Luther’s writings is an example, ultimately leading to the founding of the Methodist church.
Although many questions remain, the new research suggests two preliminary ways we can have the experience of being moved. First, in the research, some participants were instructed to describe, in detail, episodes in which they “got MOIST EYES or even shed a TEAR because of a POSITIVE FEELING.” In other scenarios, some participants were told to watch one of several emotionally moving videos. In both cases, individuals expressed the characteristic pattern of kama muta.
Part of what happens when science makes a discovery is we start seeing what was already present in new or different ways. The experience of being emotionally moved or touched, although likely common, has not been subject to significant psychological research, and remains mysterious in many respects. It appears to be an important and meaningful emotion with significant benefits to individuals and society. Learning about the experience of being moved or touched may awaken in us an awareness of how we experience this emotion, and may encourage us to seek it out more intentionally in everyday life.
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Zickfeld, J. H., Schubert, T. W., Seibt, B., Blomster, J. K., Arriaga, P., Basabe, N.,… Fiske, A. P. (2019). Kama Muta: Conceptualizing and measuring the experience often labelled being moved across 19 nations and 15 languages. Emotion, 19, 402-424.
For additional information on the new line of research discussed in this post, check out the website for the kama muta lab.
Notes: This article was adapted from an article at http://www.psychologytoday.com. Myles Johnson contributed to this post.