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Neuro-Tools: Emotion Detection January 16, 2017

Posted by eyetrackrob in Biometric, Captiv, neuromarketing, Tips And Tricks, Uncategorized.
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Much of the research that requires biofeedback involves emotions and the detection or classification of those. But as you surely noticed emotions are a very complex topic with many different aspects and challenges. Measuring when and how strong these events occur is relatively easy using electrodermal sensors, cardiovascular sensors or respiratory sensors and a software in which to process the raw data (and maybe even applies emotion detection algorithms – as TEA Captiv does). Things that I covered in my previous posts.

But immediately after knowing when and how strong an emotion occurred, the inevitable question comes up: “was it a positive or negative emotion?” (Valence) with the usual follow up question: “which emotion was it?” (Classification).

We have seen that each tool has its merits when it comes to finding emotions, but most biofeedback sensors on their own have the limitation that they can’t really give us answers regarding those rather interesting questions about valence or classification.

However countless studies exist, that cover specific emotions or sets of emotions and that use different sensors to measure the bodily reactions to those emotions. If we could just review all those studies, we could surely come up with a map showing which emotions could best be captured with which sensors and how the measurements might differ from one emotion to another so that we could identify specific emotions (i.e. fear, happiness, anger etc.) from those measurements.

emotion-detectionIdentifying emotions just by looking at the different biometric measurements. Is it possible?

Sylvia D. Kreibig probably had the same idea and reviewed 134 publications that report research of emotional effects so that you don’t have to. Her review “Autonomic nervous system activity in emotion” was published in 2010 in Biological Psychology holds some interesting findings as well as food for thought.

Before getting to the eye opening results, there are a few take-aways from her research that might be interesting.

  1. Generally most research is done on negative emotions. And in general negative emotions have been associated with stronger autonomic reactions. However in her review she did not report on magnitude of changes partly for reasons described in #3).
  2. Heart rate was the most used measurement in those 134 studies, followed by GSR and much more than HRV or Respiration.
  3. Baselining! Do it! Some of the studies she reviewed did it, others didn’t. There are a number of ways to do a baseline: neutral or benchmarking/variable. While there is no definitive way to do it (making it more complicated to compare between studies), the important thing is that you use some kind of baseline to compare your results to.
  4. A rose is a rose is a rose. But in emotions the same term describing an emotion can mean different things. Disgust can be induced due to contamination (dirty toilets, fowl food) or due to injury (mutilations, blood). Sadness can provoke crying or not and there are many other ambiguities: although anger for example is always a negative emotion it can drive people either away (withdrawal/avoidance motivation) or pull them closer in an aggressive move (approach motivation). Emotions that are semantically close such as fear and anxiety or amusement and happiness might still be based on distinct behavioural systems!
  5. Artifacts may influence the measured response. Watch out for the effects of posture and movements, ambient temperature and cognitive demands! Start with sensors that give you good signal quality to start with. If you then use TEA Captiv you can process the data, apply artifact detection algorithms and filters to smoothen the data and eliminate unwanted effects.

There are a few more things that need to be considered when comparing data from different studies but these are my personal top 5 take-aways. Apart from the results of course.

In the table below you can see already my summary of her results. In her review, she reports that HR was increased in most emotions and surprise. However in her review she comes to the conclusion that the HR decreased in emotions that involve an element of passivity such as non-crying sadness, contentment, visual anticipatory pleasure and suspense.

GSR was increased in most emotions probably reflecting motor preparation and increased action tendency and of the more commonly induced emotions in (commercial) research just non-crying sadness lowers GSR. All other emotions tend to increase the reaction.

HRV has been shown in quite a few studies to be useful as an indicator for cognitive workload. Low HRV usually correlate with means high stress levels. Since her review was mainly focused on emotions, cognitive workload was not considered and the use of HRV was not too helpful.

The table shows different emotions and how they influence measurements, which can increase (+), decrease (-), depend on different factors (D) or are indecisive (I)

So, what does this table tell us? Is there a specific fingerprint of biometric activities unique to each emotion?
Under very controlled conditions and also taking into account other types of measurements there might be potential to discover a unique signature to some emotions.

Unfortunately for many researchers, very distinct emotions such as Anger and Happiness or Joy and Disgust have very similar bodily reactions – if we look only at HR, GSR and Respiration Rate. Different types of sadness can cause a variety of reactions, making it actually a very interesting research subject in my opinion, but this doesn’t make it easier for your everyday research and especially when it comes to commercial research you might not be able to control for every possible factor and to use too many sensors.

My personal conclusion is that while tools such as GSR, HR, Respiration or Heart Rate Variability can help us detect emotions, in most research projects they don’t allow to uncover which emotion it is and not even if it is a positive or negative emotion.
But on the positive side, we still have a few other tools in our Neuro-Toolbox that can help us along the way: Facial Expression Analysis for example, Implicit Association Tests or even EEG can help us to understand emotions, associations and motivations and thus help us to detect valence or even to classify emotions.

With this in mind, I’ll be covering Facial Expression Analysis in my next post as it is probably the easiest to use out of the three.



If you want to dig deeper into the original report, you can find it here: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0301051110000827
Sylvia D. Kreibig has since then been involved in some interesting research projects following up on the results. Take a look at her work on Research Gate.


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