Newsflashes from Emotion Science

Highlights from the April 2015 Conference of the Society for Affective Science

Posted Apr 13, 2015

Last week the Society for Affective Science (SAS) met for the second time, and this meeting was just as invigorating as the first

wallpaper jpeg
Source: wallpaper jpeg

Below I share what I saw as some of the recurring themes of the conference, as well as some specific examples of each. This is by no means meant to be a comprehensive account of an entire conference; for that experience you’ll have to join us next March in Chicago!

(Note for non-psychologist readers: throughout the below, I largely use the term “affect” instead of emotion, but they are close in meaning).

Affect is Everything

A society for affective science might be a wee bit biased on this issue, but several prominent thinkers in the field proclaimed that to understand almost anything about human nature, you need to consider affect. Kevin Ochsner stated, "You cannot have social without affect", and Rosalind Picard made the same claim for intelligence: "Emotion is core to every aspect of intelligence." Finally, in the Presidential Symposium ending the conference, Bruce Miller shared data suggesting that some of the worst symptoms of frontotemporal dementia (e.g., loss of self and capacity to care for others once loved) involve the deterioration of systems governing affective responding and regulation.

We can't really seem to agree on what exactly affect is or how it works, but we do all seem to agree that it is vitally important to understanding human nature.

Going Digital

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there was a strong theme of implementing new technologies and devices to tap into affective states. For instance, three examples I found particularly compelling:

After reviewing extensive data linking both city dwelling and urban migration to poorer mental health, Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg discussed some new research in which he and his team are trying to unpack the why using an approach he labeled Neurogeography. (You can read a bit more about the technique here in this Nature news feature.)

Nature News
Source: Nature News

Essentially he and his team are tagging the smartphones of urban dwellers and when they enter certain regions of interest in the city (e.g., green spaces, public transportation), the phone queries them about their current emotions and stress levels. Following some of this naturalistic sampling, he pulls them into the lab to have their brains scanned. More than that, he makes the participants feel stressed first and then examines reactivity of a small brain region known to be implicated in the detection and processing of threat (the amygdala). He hopes to explore the patterns between which parts of the city people are spending time in, their emotions, and their brain's reactivity to stress to understand what it is about urban dwelling seems to be so detrimental for people's mental health.

With thousands of participants and an extremely rich dataset, they are still investigating, but early analyses point to the protective benefits of spending time in green spaces. 

Another talk consistent with this theme was Rosalind Picard’s of the MIT Media Lab. Her talk was compelling on several levels - theoretically, empirically, and in that always-wonderful "let’s change people’s lives for the better " way. 

Picard shared a moving story about her research assistant, the research assistant's nonverbal brother on the autism spectrum, and an unexpected scientific discovery.

Essentially, Picard and others were working in the lab with wristbands which measured the degree of a person’s skin sweating. This is a common physiological measure which reflects the amount of activation one part of your nervous system is experiencing. Picard’s student asked if she could borrow the devices because she wanted insight into the emotional experiences of her brother, as he wasn't verbal and couldn't tell her about his experiences himself. 

In a fortuitious accident, the assistant had her little brother wear the bands on both wrists rather than just one, the latter of which is much more commonly done. To make a longer story short, when looking at the data Picard observed extremely unusual activity in one wrist only, and using her research assistant's diary of her brother’s days was able to detect that the dramatic lateralized spike in activity occurred right before a seizure. 

Embrace Indiegogo
Source: Embrace Indiegogo

After subsequent controlled study, Picard and collaborators have developed a watch that taps into this same technology in order to track potential seizures in patients with epilepsy, but which also tracks a number of other variables like activity and balance. It is easy to imagine that these will be useful for consumers but also affective researchers interested in tracking people's experiences outside of the lab. 

However, the experience with the young boy with the seizure also led Picard and her team to begin thinking about how we measure electrodermal activity in the laboratory – namely, that we tend to measure it on the non-dominant hand only. They conducted some research studies of emotion, measuring the response on both sides, and found that while many participants demonstrated roughly equal responses on both sides, a significant proportion of participants showed lateralized electrodermal responses – a much greater response on one side, very little response on the other. This suggests that it is possible that one could miss important relationships between electrodermal activity and one’s manipulations if you measure EDA on just one side.

Robert R. Morris
Source: Robert R. Morris

Finally, Kevin Ochsner presented some fascinating data on online forms of social regulation of emotion. He teamed with Robert R. Morris and Rosalind Picard, using their online environment Panoply. In their study, subjects participated in this online environment in which they could share their own stressful experiences and receive feedback on them, or they could read about others’ experiences and offer help to them by validating their feelings, debugging their negative thoughts, or helping them to reconsider the meaning or interpretation of the negative events in their lives. Fascinatingly, it was helping that predicted decreases in depression over time, and this effect was partially explained by an additional association between helping others and using reappraisal in your own daily life. That is, offering help to others in terms of thinking differently about their experiences led to an unexpected benefit of increasing your ability to do so in your own daily life, which then contributed to decreases in your depressive symptomatology.    

Affective Experiences are Often Blended and Context-Sensitive

A final theme that cropped up across many flash talks in particular is the idea that our emotional states are very often a blend of positive and negative valence, and that a simple approach/avoidance model of emotions that doesn’t take into account emotional diversity and context is problematic.

Here are just three representative examples:

In Hillel Aviezer’s talk subtitled Millionaires in Misery, he analyzed the recorded audio responses of people in Israel hearing the news that they had won a lottery. For low amounts of winnings, the audible responses were largely as positive as one would expect. However, when the winnings were quite high and thus presumably so was arousal, many of the winners exclaimed things that actually sounded quite negative.

 Chris Madden for the Guardian
Source: Illustration: Photograph: Chris Madden for the Guardian

In another example, Suzanne Oosterwijk targeted what she called morbid curiosity, and showed data suggesting that if you give people the option of looking at neutral images or negative images, quite often they will actually choose the negative images – approaching them, rather than withdrawing from them.

Hilariously (at least to me), you can also see this blended, context-dependent effects all the way down to the facial expressions of macaques. Eliza Bliss-Moreau showed her simian participants the equivalent of monkey IAPS pictures – snakes, spiders, etc. - and recorded their facial expressions. They expected to see teeth baring (which moneys do when in frightening situations). But what they saw in the greatest frequencies was lip smacking, which is usually thought to be an affiliative facial expression. So, for monkeys too, the emotional information portrayed in the face is dependent on context.

There was, as you might expect, so much more great science over the three days of the conference.

Hope to see you in Chicago next March!