My scientific approach

My scientific approach

Studying emotion is about understanding why a person’s heart may race before a blind date and sink when they get rejected, why someone can get goosebumps while looking over a sweeping canyon and laugh maliciously when someone falls in. These experiences clearly vary in many ways. But scientists usually only investigate a few (2-6) emotional states or prototypical facial expressions at a time. This is a major reason why findings in emotion science have been ambiguous — by way of analogy, imagine trying to draw conclusions about the effect of brain size on intelligence by comparing a parrot, a dog, and an octopus.

To better understand emotion, we first document how it varies. We can then study how different dimensions of emotion correspond to variability in the situations we encounter, in the patterns of brain activity they evoke, in physiological responses like goosebumps, heart palpitations, panting, and sweating, and in expressions of the face, body, and voice — and apply machine learning to recognize emotions automatically.

Understanding the diversity of emotion isn’t simple. We’ve introduced new statistical methods to explore how many different dimensions of emotion are evoked by video and music, conveyed via facial and vocal expression, and described using words and emoji. Among the many products of this work are maps that visualize the taxonomy of emotion. These visualizations capture complexities in emotional response that are otherwise difficult to grasp.

State spaces of emotion are defined by their conceptualization, dimensionality, and distribution.

My work has been featured in CNN, Forbes, Discover Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, Huffington Post, Teen Vogue, Psychology Today, Wired, USA Today, Vice, and more.


I developed this approach to emotion with Dacher Keltner at UC Berkeley. Much of this work would also not have been possible without the help of my collaborators from around the world: at UC Berkeley (Bob Knight, Sonia Bishop, Samy Abdel Ghaffar, Joseph Ocampo, Maria Monroy), the University of Washington in St. Louis (Hillary Anger Elfenbein), the University of Amsterdam (Disa Sauter, Xia Fang), Stockholm University (Petri Laukka), ATR in Japan (Yukiyasu Kamitani, Tomoyasu Horikawa), Columbia (Kevin Ochsner, Monica Thieu), the D’Or Institute in Brazil (Jorge Moll), UCSF (Valentina Borghesani, Marilu Gorno Tempini), Stanford (Jamil Zaki), Google, and Facebook/Instagram.

Interested in collaborating?