Tag Archives: emotions

Obscuring the bottom half of our faces makes it harder for our brains to notice and mirror certain emotions

Although they keep us safe and were invaluable during the pandemic, masks may nevertheless influence how we socially interact with one another, new research suggests.

Image credits Marcos Cola.

Obstructing the bottom halves of our face can impact others’ ability to understand and empathize with some of our emotions or pick up on certain social cues, a new study reveals. Although not all emotions are affected by this — those that are primarily conveyed through the eyes are a notable exception — the authors explain that it is still important to understand these effects on our collective social interactions.

Something hidden

“Our study suggests that when the movements of the lower part of the face are disrupted or hidden, this can be problematic, particularly for positive social interactions and the ability to share emotions,” explains lead author Dr. Ross Vanderwert, from Cardiff University’s School of Psychology. “People tend to automatically imitate others’ facial expressions of emotion when looking at them, whether that be a smile, a frown, or a smirk. This facial mimicry — where the brain recreates and mirrors the emotional experience of the other person — affects how we empathize with others and interact socially.”

“Wearing a face mask continues to be vital to protect ourselves and others during the COVID-19 pandemic, but our research suggests this may have important implications for the way we communicate and interact.”

For the study, the team recorded the brain activity levels of 38 individuals using electroencephalography while they watched video recordings of people showing fearful, happy, or angry expressions. A collection of video footage of inanimate, everyday objects was used as a control. Participants were asked to watch half of these videos while holding a pen between their teeth, and the other half without the pen.

The aim of the study was to analyze what effect face masks have on neural mirroring. This is a process that our brain undergoes automatically in reaction to actions observed in another person. It is meant to help us better coordinate with others during simple tasks, and to facilitate social bonding by giving us insight into the emotions of those around us.

According to the findings, participants who could move their face freely (i.e. when they were not holding the pen between their teeth) showed significantly higher levels of neural mirroring when observing emotional expressions. They showed no mirroring when viewing everyday objects, as was to be expected.

However, when they were holding the pen between their teeth, they exhibited mirroring at neither happy nor angry expressions — but did so when looking at fearful ones.

“For emotions that are more heavily expressed by the eyes, for example fear, blocking the information provided by the mouth doesn’t seem to affect our brain’s response to those emotions. But for expressions that depend on the mouth, like a friendly smile, the blocking had more of an effect,” said second author Dr. Magdalena Rychlowska, from Queen’s University Belfast’s School of Psychology.

“Our findings suggest that processing faces is a very challenging task and that the brain may need more support from, and rely more heavily on, our own faces to support the visual system for understanding others’ emotions. This mirroring or simulation of another person’s emotions may enable empathy; however, up until now the neural mechanisms that underline this kind of emotion communication have been unclear.”

The findings don’t dramatically change anything in our lives, but they can benefit us on a personal level to understand how certain elements impact how we interact with others and how they, in turn, interact with us. It’s also useful to know exactly what that effect is, so we can do our best to counteract it or, alternatively, find ways to make it benefit us. The authors note that face masks can produce this effect as well, by obscuring the bottom half of our faces.

Beyond those direct implications, the study also helps us better understand some of the nuances of human interaction, the automated mechanisms in our brains that make us human.

The paper “Altering Facial Movements Abolishes Neural Mirroring of Facial Expressions” has been published in the journal Cognitive, Affective, & Behavioral Neuroscience

Drones can elicit emotions from people, which could help integrate them into society more easily

Could we learn to love a robot? Maybe. New research suggests that drones, at least, could elicit an emotional response in people if we put cute little faces on them.

A set of rendered faces representing six basic emotions in three different intensity levels that were used in the study. Image credits Viviane Herdel.

Researchers at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) have examined how people react to a wide range of facial expressions depicted on a drone. The study aims to deepen our understanding of how flying drones might one day integrate into society, and how human-robot interactions, in general, can be made to feel more natural — an area of research that hasn’t been explored very much until today.

Electronic emotions

“There is a lack of research on how drones are perceived and understood by humans, which is vastly different than ground robots,” says Prof. Jessica Cauchard, lead author of the paper.

“For the first time, we showed that people can recognize different emotions and discriminate between different emotion intensities.”

The research included two experiments, both using drones that could display stylized facial expressions to convey basic emotions to the participants. The object of these studies was to find out how people would react to these drone-borne expressions.

Four core features were used to compose each of the facial expressions used in the study: eyes, eyebrows, pupils, and mouth. Out of the possible emotions these drones could convey, five were recognized ‘with high accuracy’ from static images (joy, sadness, fear, anger, surprise), and four more (joy, surprise, sadness, anger) were recognized most easily in dynamic expressions conveyed through video. However, people had a hard time recognizing disgust no matter how it was conveyed to them by the drone.

What the team did find particularly surprising, however, is how involved the participants themselves were with understanding these emotions.

“Participants were further affected by the drone and presented different responses, including empathy, depending on the drone’s emotion,” Prof. Cauchard says. “Surprisingly, participants created narratives around the drone’s emotional states and included themselves in these scenarios.”

Based on the findings, the authors list a number of recommendations that they believe will make drones more easily acceptable in social situations or for use in emotional support. The main recommendations include adding anthropomorphic features to the drones, using the five basic emotions for the most part (as these are easily understood), and using empathetic responses in health and behavior change applications, as they make people more likely to listen to instructions from the drone.

The paper “Drone in Love: Emotional Perception of Facial Expressions on Flying Robots” has been published in the journal Association for Computing Machinery and has been presented at the CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (2021).

Human facial expressions may be universal across cultures, AI study found

Credit: Pixabay.

There are more than 7,000 languages spoken in the world today, but sometimes facial expressions communicate much more than words, regardless of your mother tongue. Whether facial expressions and the emotions that underlie them are preserved across cultures has been a subject of great debate for years.

Studies that have attempted to document the universality of facial expressions have typically relied on experiments in which participants had to label photos of posed expressions. If there’s a consensus among participants from different cultural backgrounds about what behaviors reflect “joy”, “anger” or some other affective state, then this would be evidence of universal patterns of behavior.

However, these setups are limited and biased by language, as well as cultural norms and values.

Scientists at the University of California Berkeley and Google Research took a more objective approach, looking to assess human facial expressions and social situations in a more natural context. The team led by Alan Cowen, an emotion scientist at the University of California, Berkeley and a Visiting Faculty Researcher at Google, trained a deep neural network to evaluate whether different social contexts were associated with specific facial expressions across different cultures.

The deep neural network, which is a type of machine learning that attempts to draw similar conclusions as humans would by continually analyzing data with a given logical structure, was initially trained with data from English-speaking people from India, who tagged 16 patterns of facial movement associated with distinct English-language emotions.

Credit: Nature, Cowen et al.

The algorithm was then fed 6 million YouTube videos from 144 countries — a staggering trove of data that is much larger and diverse than the sample sizes of any similar studies before it. The assessment showed that similar expressions occurred in similar contexts around the world.

“There’s a lot of debate about whether facial expressions mean the same things in different cultures. For decades scientists have relied on survey data to address this question. But we don’t know how accurate those surveys are, because there are language differences, because it depends on how you ask the question, and because facial expressions can have multiple meanings. What we haven’t been able to do, until now, is look at how facial expressions are used in the real world. This is the first worldwide analysis of how facial expressions are used in everyday life, and we found that universal human emotional expressions are a lot richer and more complex than many scientists have assumed based on survey data,” Cowen told ZME Science.

The study, which was published in the journal Nature, took four years of hard work to complete and required the development of novel machine learning tools. “When we first got our algorithm working, that was a big moment for me,” Cowen recounts.

In their study, the authors mention how expressions such as “awe”, “contentment”, and “triumph” were associated with wedding and sporting events irrespective of the country where they took place. But each type of expression had distinct associations with specific contexts that were 70% preserved, on average, across 12 global regions.

“The expression of triumph during sports emerges as one of the most universal across cultures, at least in terms of what’s captured in videos online,” Cowen said.

“We found that there was some degree of universality for all 16 of the facial expressions we analyzed,” he added.

These findings point to a universality of facial expressions, which may be biologically hardwired. However, this isn’t the final say on the matter. Since all the cultures included in the study have access to the internet, it is possible that the findings reflect culturally-transmitted facial expressions through globalization.

Nevertheless, the researchers also have strong evidence that facial expressions are mainly driven by biology.

“We recently even found evidence that context-expression associations depicted in ancient Mayan sculptures reflect Western intuitions about emotion, and those predate cultural contact with Western Europe,” Cowen said.

The researchers also found that context-expression associations in Indonesia and the Philippines were closest to the world average, rather than in the U.S. or Western Europe as one would assume.

“We do see some evidence for more dispersed geographic diffusion of facial expressions, and it seems to suggest that they’re a little bit cultural. But overall, a strong case is emerging that some facial expressions are biologically prepared,” Cowen said.

After scanning canine brains: “Dogs are people, too,” says neuroscientist

Credit: Pixabay.

Most dog owners will tell you that their pets are awesome. They love their dogs, and their dogs seem to love them back. But do dogs genuinely feel love or any kind of positive emotion similar to how a human does for that matter? This is a question that has eluded scientists for a long time.

It’s easy to put a dog’s tremendous enthusiasm whenever their owner comes home as just as a form of attachment, viewing the human as a walking, breathing food dispenser and nothing more.

But a breakthrough research might change the way people view dogs forever. According to neuroscientist Gregory Berns,  “dogs are people, too.”

He reached this conclusion after performing MRI scans on over a dozen dogs, finding the same brain region responsible for positive emotions in humans is activated in dogs as well.

[Also Read: Do dogs dream?]

To infer animal sentience and other neurological traits, scientists rely on animal behaviorism. You can’t ask a dog how it feels, or what it’s thinking. As such, it’s been considered an extremely challenging area of research. By using brain scans, however, one can bypass having to directly ‘speak’ to an animal. Instead, you let the brain do all the talking.

But this doesn’t mean performing MRI on animals is straightforward. The machines are racketing, claustrophobic, and generally unpleasant even for humans. For them to work you have to stay completely still. You can imagine how difficult it is to get a hyper labrador to stay put while all kinds of machinery are diverting its attention. Typically, veterinarians perform anesthesia on dogs whose brain scans they need to perform, but this renders any kind of emotion monitoring useless.

Dog emotions, not too different from ours

Berns tackled this issue by training dogs using painstaking reward exercises to stay still when inside the operating MRI, and in doing so he has performed the first wake dog MRIs, as reported in PLOS ONE. Inside the scanner, the dogs’ brain activity was measured for a two-hand signal (which they learned to associate with food), as well as for scents of familiar and unfamiliar dogs and humans.

Both the human and dog brains are strikingly similar in function and structure in one key region: the caudate nucleus. Located between the brainstem and the cortex, the dopamine-rich caudate plays a key role in the anticipation of things we enjoy, like food, love, and money — things that are associated with positive emotions.

“Many of the same things that activate the human caudate [part of the brain], which are associated with positive emotions, also activate the dog caudate. Neuroscientists call this a functional homology, and it may be an indication of canine emotions,” Berns wrote in an article for the NY Times.

Berns with one of the dogs from his research. Credit: Gregory Berns.

In response to hand signals indicating food, as well as smells of familiar humans, the canine caudate activity increased. And in preliminary tests, it activated to the return of an owner who had momentarily stepped out of view. Neuroscientists call this a functional homology, and it may be an indication of canine emotions.

“The ability to experience positive emotions, like love and attachment, would mean that dogs have a level of sentience comparable to that of a human child. And this ability suggests a rethinking of how we treat dogs,” Berns said.

“DOGS have long been considered property. Though the Animal Welfare Act of 1966 and state laws raised the bar for the treatment of animals, they solidified the view that animals are things — objects that can be disposed of as long as reasonable care is taken to minimize their suffering.”

“But now, by using the M.R.I. to push away the limitations of behaviorism, we can no longer hide from the evidence. Dogs, and probably many other animals (especially our closest primate relatives), seem to have emotions just like us. And this means we must reconsider their treatment as property.”

So, do dogs truly love us? We can’t be sure, but next time you see your dog wag his tail you can be sure he’s happy, scientific proof included.

[NOW READ] Study proves humans can read a dog’s emotions just by looking at its face

Gregory Berns is a professor of neuroeconomics at Emory University and the author of “How Dogs Love Us: A Neuroscientist and His Adopted Dog Decode the Canine Brain.”

Mice have different facial expression depending on how they feel — a doorway to the origin of emotions

The facial expressions of mice reflect their internal emotional state, similarly to humans. The findings offer a possible neural mechanism of emotions. Credit: MPI of Neurobiology / Kuhl.

There are over 7,000 languages spoken in the world today. And while there is a lot of common ground in how people express body language in different cultures, one thing seems to be ubiquitous to humans: facial expressions as reactions to prime emotions, such as fear, joy, or disgust.

According to new research, mice also have facial expressions that they cannot readily control and which appear predictably under certain stimuli. This important work might help unravel the evolutionary origin of emotions.

The universality of emotional facial expressions

Charles Darwin was the first to suggest that the facial expressions of emotions are universal. In fact, this was one of the centerpieces of his theory of natural selection, proposing that emotions and their expressions were biologically innate and evolutionarily adaptive, and that similarities in them could be seen phylogenetically.

This particular idea was not validated until the 1970s, when studies showed high cross-cultural agreement in judgments of emotions in faces by people in both literate and preliterate cultures.

Over 100 modern studies published since then — which have been carried out by different researchers from different institutions using different methodologies with participants from different cultures — have converged towards the same set of results, pointing towards the universal facial expressions of at least seven emotions: anger, contempt, disgust, fear, joy, sadness, and surprise.

Of mice and facial expressions

In a new study, researchers at Max Planck Institute of Neurobiology in Germany used machine vision to study the facial expressions of mice in relation to the emotions that they experienced.

Their work showed that the facial expressions of mice were not just a reaction to the environment, but rather a reflection of their internal emotional state. The researchers were able to reliably link five emotional states to the facial expressions of mice: pleasure, disgust, nausea, pain, and fear, all of which were clearly distinguishable for the computer algorithms. 

“Mice that licked a sugar solution when they were thirsty showed a much more joyful facial expression than satiated mice,” explains Nadine Gogolla, who led the study. 

When they were offered a slightly salty solution to quench their thirst, the mice exhibited a “satisfied” facial expression, while a very salty solution produced a “disgusted” face as a response.

The researchers also scanned the brains of the mice in order to investigate how neural activity in different brain regions drives facial expressions.

When they activated certain neurons with light shined on specific brain areas known to play a role in emotional processing, the mice exhibited predictable facial expressions.

One such brain area is the insular cortex, where the emotionally-related behavior and perception of emotions are processed in both humans and animals. Neurons in the insular cortex reacted with the same strength and at exactly the same time as the mouse changed facial expression.

This is actually tremendously important research. Emotions are an incredibly important aspect of human life, but research so far has not been able to precisely identify the mechanisms responsible for all the complex feelings that we have.

“We humans may notice a subtle facial change in the mice, but we can only recognize the emotion behind it with a great deal of experience and can hardly ever determine its intensity,” says Nejc Dolensek, the study’s lead author. “With our automated face recognition system, we can now measure the intensity and nature of an emotion on a timescale of milliseconds and compare it to the neuronal activity in relevant brain areas.” 

All of these results suggest that there may be “emotion neurons”, which are dedicated to processing and expressing emotion in the body, with each sensation being controlled by a different type of neuron.

“By recording facial expressions, we can now investigate the fundamental neuronal mechanisms behind emotions in the mouse animal model,” explains Nadine Gogolla. “This is an important prerequisite for the investigation of emotions and possible disorders in their processing, such as in anxiety disorders or depression.”

The findings appeared in the journal Science.

People with anxiety disorders worry about not being worried

In an ironic twist, researchers at Penn State University found that anxious people may have anxiety about maybe feeling anxiety in the future — making them more anxious.

Image credits Gino Crescoli.

People with anxiety may actively resist relaxation to avoid large jumps in anxiety if something bad does happen, the new study reports. According to the findings, people who were more sensitive to shifts in negative emotion — quickly moving from a relaxed state to one of fear, for example — were more likely to feel anxious while being led through relaxation exercises.

But what if?!

“People may be staying anxious to prevent a large shift in anxiety, but it’s actually healthier to let yourself experience those shifts,” said Michelle Newman, Professor of Psychology at Penn State and the study’s second author.

“The more you do it, the more you realize you can do it and it’s better to allow yourself to be relaxed at times. Mindfulness training and other interventions can help people let go and live in the moment.”

The results can benefit those who experience “relaxation-induced anxiety,” she adds, who become anxious during relaxation training. They also help show why relaxation treatments can potentially backfire, causing more anxiety.

People who struggle to relax and let go of anxiety are exactly the ones who need to be able to do it “more than others” as they’re likely battling an anxiety disorder, according to Hanjoo Kim, a graduate student in psychology and the paper’s first author.

Relaxation-induced anxiety has been documented since the 1980s, but its cause has remained unknown. The present study builds on Newman’s past work, especially the “contrast avoidance theory”. She explains that it works as a self-reinforcing loop.

“The Contrast Avoidance model proposes that individuals with generalized anxiety disorder are excessively sensitive to negative emotional shifts in response to unpleasant events, and thus recruit a state of sustained […] worry as a defensive stance against such shifting states,” Newman explains in a 2014 paper.

“Because most of the things we worry about don’t end up happening, what’s reinforced in the brain is, ‘I worried and it didn’t happen so I should continue worrying.'”

The team worked with 96 college students: 32 people with generalized anxiety disorder, 34 people with major depressive disorder and 30 controls with neither. The participants were led through relaxation exercises in the lab, then shown videos that could provoke fear or sadness. They then answered a survey meant to gauge how sensitive they were to the changes in their emotional state. For example, some participants would have a harder time dealing with the emotions after relaxing, while others would find that the exercises helped them.

In the second step of the experiment, the participants were led through the same process. By comparing their answers on the surveys, the team had a rough indication of how anxious they were to go through the experience the second time.

The authors report that people with generalized anxiety disorders were more likely to be sensitive to changes in emotional states (like that involved in the experiment). They note these participants were also more anxious during the relaxation exercises. People with major depressive disorder showed similar results, but not as strong.

The paper “The paradox of relaxation training: Relaxation induced anxiety and mediation effects of negative contrast sensitivity in generalized anxiety disorder and major depressive disorder” has been published in the Journal of Affective Disorders.


Sugar rushes just aren’t a thing, researchers say

Sugar won’t get you in a rush, but it can definitely sour your mood.


Image via Pixabay.

We don’t get a mood boost from sugar — it doesn’t even make us more alert. Rather, it tires us after consumption. These are the findings of a new study from the University of Warwick, Humboldt University of Berlin, and Lancaster University which tried to determine if there is such a thing as a ‘sugar rush’.

There isn’t

“We hope that our findings will go a long way to dispel the myth of the ‘sugar rush’ and inform public health policies to decrease sugar consumption,” said lead author Dr. Konstantinos Mantantzis, from the Humboldt University of Berlin.

“The idea that sugar can improve mood has been widely influential in popular culture, so much so that people all over the world consume sugary drinks to become more alert or combat fatigue.”

“Our findings very clearly indicate that such claims are not substantiated — if anything, sugar will probably make you feel worse.”

The team analyzed data from 31 published studies, involving roughly 1300 adults to investigate the effects of sugar on our mood, including anger, alertness, depression, and fatigue. They also looked at how factors such as the quantity and type of sugar consumed can affect mood, and whether or not engaging in demanding activities made any difference in this outcome.

In broad lines, the team reports that:

  • The consumption of sugar has virtually no effect on mood. This was consistent across multiple quantities and varieties of sugar, or whether participants engaged in demanding activities after consuming sugar.
  • Participants who consumed sugar felt more tired and less alert than those who hadn’t.
  • ‘Sugar rushes’ are a myth, the team finding no evidence in favor of their existence.

The team says that the results rather suggest that consuming sugar will make you feel worse, not better. They hope that the study will help nudge people into rethinking how sugar fits into their diets and lifestyles.

“The rise in obesity, diabetes and metabolic syndrome in recent years highlights the need for evidence-based dietary strategies to promote healthy lifestyle across the lifespan,” says co-author Elizabeth Maylor, a Professor at the University of Warwick.

“Our findings indicate that sugary drinks or snacks do not provide a quick ‘fuel refill’ to make us feel more alert.”

The paper “Sugar Rush or Sugar Crash? A Meta-Analysis of Carbohydrate Effects on Mood” has been published in the journal Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews.


In pain after a breakup? These three strategies can help you ease the suffering, study shows

Breakups are the worst — but science, comes to the rescue, identifying how to best minimize emotional fallout.


Image credits Tumisu / Pixabay.

The higher you rise, the harder you fall. With love being one of the most powerful emotions we feel, its end can bring some of the most heartwrenching moments we ever experience. After a particularly painful breakup, it’s hard to believe you’ll ever recover. Persistent and pervasive feelings of depression, anxiety, exhaustion, insomnia, and loss of appetite are all common in the recently-brokenhearted. Perhaps most infuriating — in my experience, at least — is when people tell you that it will get better in time. It just feels like a hollow pat on the back that doesn’t actually fix anything.

Taking the edge off

But what does work, then? New research from the University of Missouri-St. Louis suggests that there are some acts of mental gymnastics you can try post-breakup to help you get over your ex.

The study included 24 participants aged between 20 and 37 who had recently ended long-term relationships (average length 2.5 years) and who were — quite understandably — quite distressed. They were asked to try out several cognitive strategies to help them recover:

  • Thinking negatively about their ex.
  • Accepting their feelings of love towards their former partners without judgment — a strategy called “reappraisal of love feelings”.
  • Good old-fashioned distraction — participants were encouraged to think about positive things that didn’t involve their ex in any way.
  • Not thinking of anything in particular.

Each strategy was tried out separately from the others in controlled situations, so the results of each could be assessed independently. After trying out these strategies, the team showed participants photographs of their exes while recording their emotional response using an electroencephalogram. Participants were also asked to fill in a questionnaire describing their feelings.

All three strategies managed to decrease participants’ emotional response to the photos of their exes, the team reports.

The first strategy (negative reappraisal) decreased participants’ feelings of love but also degraded their overall mood. The second strategy (love reappraisal) didn’t change participants’ state in any way — it didn’t affect either how in love they felt, nor their overall well-being.

Distraction didn’t change feelings of love but did make participants feel happier. While that may sound like the perfect salve, the team says it probably won’t work in the long run — it’s more of a short-term coping mechanism, not a cure.

“Distraction is a form of avoidance, which has been shown to reduce the recovery from a breakup,” said lead author Sandra Langeslag for TIME.

“Negative reappraisal is an effective love down-regulation strategy, whereas distraction is an effective positive emotion up-regulation strategy” the team concludes about these methods.

Love regulation, which the team defines as “the use of behavioural or cognitive strategies to change the intensity of current feelings of romantic love,” is a promising phenomenon — but it’s “not an on/off switch,” the team notes.

“To make a lasting change, you’ll probably have to regulate your love feelings regularly,” Langeslag added.

However, there is good news: all three strategies could help us deal with those painful real-life encounters with our exes, the team notes.

The paper “Down-regulation of love feelings after a romantic break-up: Self-report and electrophysiological data” has been published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General.

Do fish have feelings? Intriguing new study suggests so

Emotional states in animals are still a matter of debate for biologists. Now, for the first time, Portuguese researchers have demonstrated that fish have emotional states triggered by their environment.

Fish (depicted here: Sparus aurata) turned out to be more complex than we thought. Image credits: Werner – Histoire naturelle des poissons.

Evaluating emotional states is not easy in humans, and we have the ability to verbalize it. In animals, it’s an incredibly challenging task. There’s no straightforward way to check if an animal is feeling an emotion — so scientists had to turn to an indirect approach. They know that emotions are accompanied by behavioural, physiologic, neurologic and genetic changes, so if they can see these changes, they can infer an emotion.

Using this approach, previous studies have demonstrated such emotions in primates and other mammals, though it’s not clear if these feelings are conscious or not. Now, researchers wanted to investigate if “simpler” animals like fish go through a similar process.

Whether or not fish have emotions and feel pain used to be a matter of heated debate. Culum Brown, a professor at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, previously showed that not only do fish feel pain, but they can also multitask and have cultural traditions. But how do you demonstrate that they have feelings?

The Portuguese biologists trained fish (sea bream) under both favorable and adverse conditions; these conditions were expected to trigger an emotional state. They then analyzed this emotional response by measuring the levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, and seeing what brain areas become activated. Researchers also tracked fish interaction and overall behavior to assess their response and then backtrace it to emotional states.

“Our data supports the occurrence of emotion-like states in fish that are regulated by the individual’s perception of environmental stimuli, the study reads.”

They showed not only that fish do get feelings, but this study might give us a better understanding of how emotions came to be in the first place. Since fish represent a different evolutionary branch than tetrapods, this might indicate that emotions emerged before the two groups separated. Alternatively, it could be a case of convergent evolution.

“This is the first time that is shown that fish can trigger physiologic and neuromolecular responses in the central nervous system in response to emotional stimuli based on the significance that that stimulus has for the fish”, says study author Rui Oliveira. The researcher explains that “the occurrence of the cognitive assessment of an emotional stimulus in fish means that that this cognitive capacity may have ‘computational’ requirements simpler than what has been considered until now, and may have evolved around 375 million years ago.”

Journal Reference: M. Cerqueira et al. Cognitive appraisal of environmental stimuli induces emotion-like states in fish, Scientific Reports (2017). DOI: 10.1038/s41598-017-13173-x

Bees can feel optimism, possibly other ’emotion-like states’ as well, study finds

A new paper found that bees show behavior associated with optimism, suggesting that the insects have a lot more going on inside than we’ve suspected.

Image credits William Warby / Flickr.

I really like bees. They’re cute, they’re fuzzy, and they make food grow — churning out sweets in the process. But we tend to think the little things live unknowing slaves, toiling away from the queen then dying exhausted and unfulfilled, their devotion sometimes taking them to hellish landscapes. A new paper from the Queen Mary University of London however comes to show that the busy bees are actually a-buzz with excitement. While they probably can’t feel emotions the same way we do, the team found that the insects can experience something we’d describe as a rush of optimism.

“We can’t say they experience life in the same way that we do,” cognitive neuroethologist Clint J. Perry told Popular Science. “But on a basic level, there’s no reason to believe they can’t feel something. It does feel like something to be a bee or an ant or what-have-you.”

Working with researchers Luigi Baciadonna and Lars Chittka, Perry wanted to check if bees can feel positive emotions. Since they can’t smile or tell us about the warm fuzzy feelings they may or may not be experiencing, the team created a test environment to check their theory.

The bees were placed in a chamber with two small doors — one green, one blue, because they can easily distinguish shades of these colors. They placed plain water behind the green door and sugar water behind the blue one, and recorded how long it took the bees to enter a door. For the final stage of the test, they gave half the bees an extra shot of sugar water then presented the whole group with a mystery blue-green door. The insects in the extra-sugar group dashed for the door — the others, not so much.

The team said the bees were quicker to fly to this door and find if there was more sugar hidden behind it, indicative of optimism. They weren’t flying faster in a sugar rush — the team measured and there no speed difference between the groups. They were, however, much quicker to make a decision and act on it. When the trio found they could buzz-kill the bees’ optimism with dopamine-killer fluphenazine, returning them to their original state, they had proof of “emotion-like states” changing the insects’ behavior. Just like we feel better, more confident and more optimistic after downing a few cold pints, the sugar was making these bees fell better about life.

The team then simulated a spider attack on the insects, because why just let them be happy? They found that the bees who received extra sugar flew to the feeder four times faster, suggesting they were able to more easily recover from the scare.

Still, while the findings do show that there’s more happening in a bee’s brain than we thought, they still probably experience any emotion-like state very differently from us. They do seem to tick the marks we use to study emotional expression in infants and nonverbal mammals, however.

“That feeling inside is what’s so close to us and makes emotion present in our lives? Emotions are a lot more than that,” Perry says.

“We’re understanding that insects aren’t these behaviorally rigid machines,” he added. “They’re much more complex than we have often thought.”

I wonder how they feel about the fact that we’re killing them dead. Sigh.

The full paper “Unexpected rewards induce dopamine-dependent positive emotion–like state changes in bumblebees” has been published in the journal Science.


These are the six emotional arcs of storytelling, big data study shows


Tyrone Guthrie’s production of Oedipus Rex landmarked
the beginning of revivals of Greek tragedies in North America.

Researchers put 1,737 stories from Project Gutenberg’s fiction collection under the “big data” lens to spot subtle emotional plot patterns called arcs. Their analysis suggests there are six main emotional arcs that writers have used for the last 2,000 years.

Plotting feelings

Think of an emotional arc as a plot building block that tells a story by eliciting an emotional response. Examples of such arcs include “man falls into hole, man gets out of hole” or “boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl”, as famous author Kurt Vonnegut outlined in a lecture series two decades ago.

Of course, a complex narrative like Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov is more granular and is made of many such arcs, often corresponding to each character.

Some say there are anywhere from three to thirty arcs, but Andrew Reagan and colleagues at the Computational Story Lab at the University of Vermont in Burlington found there are only six.

The first went about selecting over 1,700 complex stories which had more than 150 downloads at the Project Gutenberg website — a project which compiles and distributes public domain works. Then, the researchers used something called “sentiment analysis” and data mining to reveal the most common arcs.

MIT Technology Review explains sentiment analysis as follows:

“The idea behind sentiment analysis is that words have a positive or negative emotional impact. So words can be a measure of the emotional valence of the text and how it changes from moment to moment. So measuring the shape of the story arc is simply a question of assessing the emotional polarity of a story at each instant and how it changes.”

At the end, six core arcs were identified:

  • rags-to-riches like in Alice’s Adventures Underground by Lewis Carroll.
  • steady emotional fall in emotional valences like in Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare.
  • fall and rise like Vonnegut’s  man-in-a-hole story.
  • rise then fall like in the Greek myth of Icarus.
  • rise-fall-rise like in Cinderella.
  • Fall-rise-fall, such as Oedipus.

For instance, here’s what the emotional plot for Romeo and Juliet looks like, complete with “book happiness time series”.

Book happiness timeline for Romeo and Juliet. Credit: Hedonometer.org

Book happiness timeline for Romeo and Juliet. Credit: Hedonometer.org

By correlating the arcs with the number of downloads, the researchers could then understand which angles are the most popular. These seem to be those stories that follow the Icarus and Oedipus arcs, as well as those that combine more arcs in a sequence. Particularly, these were those which have “two sequential man-in-hole arcs and a Cinderella arc followed by a tragedy.”

The study is the first to uncover emotional arcs in storytelling, although the work is far from complete. We’re bound to find more than six core arcs, which is why the researchers are planning to expand their sample size, but also diversify by analyzing texts written in other languages. Perhaps some cultures have their unique emotional arcs.


The ‘neurocam’ records your most precious moments – do we need it though?


(c) neuroware

With Google Glass, the search engine giant wants to bring social networking and personal video editing a step further, by offering the means to record, edit, augment reality and share your point of view in real time. It’s very interesting, and I’m guessing Glass is where Dr. Yasue Mitsukura of Keio University, Japan got the inspiration for her ‘neurocam’.

This contraption is a combination of Mind Wave Mobile and a customized brainwave sensor. Basically, the headset has a built in camera, and the brainwave sensor is designed to read specific emotions – like falling in love, delight at seeing something special, yada, yada. When the particular brain pattern associated with these emotions is detected, the camera switches to record. Can you see the pattern? The device is there to record your most treasured emotions, and of course memories.

We as individuals, as persons, are the sum of our recollections – no doubt about it. The past, riddled with suffering or joy alike, is what makes us who we are. There are bits and pieces that we forget though, especially with old age, and this is why people love to take pictures or record videos during important life celebration events. Watching these digital memoirs later not only triggers the memory of the event, but also elicits an emotional response.

Going back to the Japanese device, the users’ interests are quantified on a range of 0 to 100. The camera automatically records five-second clips of scenes when the interest value exceeds 60, with timestamp and location, and can be replayed later and shared socially on Facebook. It’s a sort of auto-time capsule. With gear like this one can only wonder why the heck do we need a brain in the first place.

Seriously, folks, we’ve all been there – on the digital memoir lane. Be it at a concert, where thousands of flashing mobiles phones are flung in the air to catch that riff, a date, even in the supermarket. People nowadays apparently feel the need to keep a digital record of their most important events – some even the trivial ones. Mitsukura’s invention seems like a logical step, if you’ve been following how technology and social networking have been evolving side by side in the past decade. Will it work and catch to the public? The inventors and investors will most likely be interested in this. Do we actually need it and would such a device enrich our lives or on the contrary? This last question I’d like you all, the ZME readers, to participate with an answer. Share your comments below, in the discussions section.