Culture and the Arts

Emotions are the products of evolution and also depend heavily on culture, which strongly influences what we feel and how we express it. The way we talk about our feelings reveals crucial details about the way emotions are conceptualized and how these conceptions have crystallized in different emotion theories throughout history. For example, our researchers analyze the writers of the past, whose reflections on emotional life are informative for contemporary theories of emotion.

The researchers at the Center study all types of language: everyday and literary, literal and figurative, living and dead, even pictorial and iconographic. These studies help us define the nature of emotion, identify differences across languages and cultures, and examine their variation across the centuries.

Our researchers also investigate why and how art moves us. For example, research has confirmed that fiction in film, theatre, and literature elicits emotions similar to those inspired by real-life events. Thus, we study the apparently paradoxical fact that people still feel compelled to engage with art forms (such as horror movies and sad music) that elicit emotions they would normally try to avoid in real life.

Another line of research at the Center looks at the languages of music and dance. Motion capture technologies, brain imaging, music analysis, and behavioral experiments are used in an interdisciplinary effort to determine how music and body movement express and induce emotion and the extent to which these emotions are comparable around the world.

For example, responses to musical rhythms have been studied at the brain and physiological levels, showing how cerebral electrical activity has the tendency to synchronize with music rhythms in deep brain regions involved in the processing of emotion.

In our study of music, we have also developed the Geneva Emotion Music Scale (GEMS), a scientific tool for the description of emotional experience developed on the basis of the emotional responses to music of more than a thousand people. The scale includes 9 descriptive dimensions of music-induced emotion, such as Tension and Wonder, and is used worldwide to investigate the emotional power of music. Our researchers have also mapped the brain circuits mediating the experience of these emotions