Why do we express emotions? How does our brain process these incoming signals from others and connect them with our own feelings? Are the same processes at stake in other animals, and can we simulate them with artificial intelligence or evoke them through games? On July 5th 2016 the Netherlands Society for Behavioral Biology and the EPOS Graduate Network for Experimental psychology organized a workshop entitled ‘Connecting minds and sharing emotions through wires and neurons in man and animal’.
During one day, 25 PhD students, postdocs and other researchers took functional and evolutionary based approaches to better understand emotion expression as an adaptation to social living. During the intimate workshop participants connected with experts in the fields of primatology, psychology, robotics and social neuroscience.
As researchers, especially during their Ph.D. trajectory, sometimes have a tendency to zoom in on one very specific topic and become expert on it, but at the same time, sometimes hide in their little niche and miss out on opportunities, the ultimate goal of this day was to view their specific topic in the bigger picture and connect with researchers from different scientific fields who often struggle with similar questions, but take a completely different perspective. I am more than happy to say that this goal was achieved!
After providing an overview of the scientific fields at the heart of NVG and EPOS, the day started with an insightful presentation by Simone Shamay-Tsoory from the University of Haifa, Israel. In her research, she aims to understand the neural mechanisms underlying social cognition and emotional experiences. She focuses on the cognitive and emotional consequences of brain pathologies whether psychiatric, acquired or developmental. In this workshop, she talked about how humans synchronize and connect with each other and how oxytocin can, depending on the context, either help or harm that process.
Then Bridget Waller, together with her PhD student Eglantine Julle-Daniere from the University of Portsmouth, UK talked about FACS. Bridget is a Reader in Evolutionary Psychology and the overarching focus of her work is the evolution of facial expression, which she studies by designing species-specific modifications of FACS (Facial Action Coding System) to make anatomically based, systematic comparisons between species. She demonstrated that FACS systems have been developed for use with a range of primate species, plus domestic dogs, cats and horses. Apart from giving us theoretical background, she also let us practice with it by analyzing facial action units in chimpanzees. This interactive session showed that the system is a very useful tool, but also, that some practice is needed in order to fully profit from it!
Lola Canamero, Reader at the University of Hertfordshire, UK talked about her research on adaptive intelligent behavior, which she explores with artificial autonomous creatures. She focuses on motivated behavior and social interactions, with particular emphasis on the role(s) that emotional phenomena play in them. The videos she showed of her robots clearly demonstrated how useful robots can be for various applications including clinical applications (i.e. how children with diabetis through taking care of a diabetic robot can learn about their own disease) but also provide important theoretical insight into the understanding of expressions. Basically, if we claim to understand emotions, then theoretically, we should be able to program them!
The last talk of the day was by Maarten Lamers, who works as an assistant professor at the Institute of Advanced Computer Science Unit of Leiden University. He is very active in teaching and in the Media Technology MSc program in particular. His research interests include bio-digital hybrid systems, animal-computer interaction, scientific playfulness and creativity. In his hilarious talk he showed the many games he designed for different species of animals ranging from bacteria to dogs and humans and also, importantly, showed that the field of computer science has a lot to offer to both biology and psychology.
The day was ended with a discussion that continued during and beyond the drinks. The fact that we did not find the ultimate answer on the questions we focused on (see below), shows we have a lot of work to do and hopefully further stimulates interdisciplinary approaches to studying them!
What we discussed:
What is emotion, and can we ever really know whether other animals have it?
1.What can we learn from studying emotions in animals?
2.Can a multi-method and interdisciplinary approach be helpful and how?
3.Which other questions should we ask and how can we get the answers (now and in the future)?