Ontology of the Emotions


Project leader: J.Hastings

Researchers across the life sciences today face the need to integrate vast quantities of data and information deriving from heterogeneous sources, each of which is proliferating at exponential growth rates. Modern computational facilities are designed to assist in this task with ever-larger Internet-based databases supported by integrated searching and filtering utilities. However, the separation of raw data across different research and application domains makes inter-domain searching and integration intractable without the assistance of a computational representation for the semantics of the domains. Ontologies are standardized representations of the types of entities found in different domains, constructed in such a way as to allow computerised logical reasoning within and across the associated domains of data [1]. The application of such ontologies to research and application data and literature provides the semantics necessary for accurate and unambiguous integration of data from disparate sources, an example of which might be the integration of data about the behavior of patients with neuroscientific and biochemical data as required for research into mental diseases. Examples of successful life science ontologies include the Gene Ontology [2] for functional annotation of gene products, the ChEBI ontology [3] for structure and function-based classes of chemical entities and the Foundational Model of Anatomy [4].

The Swiss Centre for Affective Sciences is an interdisciplinary research centre which brings together scientists from neuroscience and psychology, together with economists, historians, philosophers as well as scholars in the humanities, in a multi-disciplinary effort to understand how affective phenomena, such as motives, attitudes, moods, and emotions, affect the individual and society. In what has been dubbed an "affective revolution", social, behavioural, and brain scientists are exploring the profound role played by emotions in the behaviour and decision-making of individuals and societies. Interdisciplinary research is inherently plagued by the difficulties of integration and standardisation of terminology, knowledge and disparate theoretical frameworks in order to compare results across disciplines which historically have evolved separately. In the context of this multi-disciplinary research environment, to assist the integration and computational processing of results in the affective sciences, we are developing an ontology of the emotions.

Our ontology will represent all relevant aspects of affective phenomena including their bearers (persons rather than other animals); the different types of emotions, moods, etc.; their different parts and dimensions of variation; their facial and vocal expressions; and the role of emotions and affective phenomena in general in influencing human behavior. The initial phase of the project will delineate and outline the necessary upper levels (i.e. foundational distinctions) required to support these elements in an ontology. Proper delineation of the upper levels is essential to ensure the unambiguous interpretation of the entities in the ontology which contributes to the usability and interoperability of the fully populated ontology. To achieve this, we will draw on the Basic Formal Ontology [5], the domain-independent upper ontology advocated by the OBO Foundry [6]. Subsequent phases of the project will identify, define and place all relevant affective phenomena within the ontology, and link this ontology to neighbouring efforts in the domains of neural and social informatics, such as the Neuroscience Informatics Framework [7]. Finally, we will develop software applications which make use of the ontology to directly support the work of Affective Science researchers both in Switzerland and globally.


  1. Smith B, “Ontology”,  chapter in L. Floridi (ed.), Blackwell Guide to the Philosophy of Computing and Information, Oxford: Blackwell, 2003, 155–166.
  2. The Gene Ontology Consortium. “Gene ontology: tool for the unification of biology”. Nature Genetics. May 2000; 25(1):25–9.
  3. Degtyarenko, K., de Matos, P., Ennis, M. et al. “ChEBI: a database and ontology for chemical entities of biological interest”. Nucleic Acids Res. 2010; 36, D344–D350.
  4. Rosse C, Mejino JL. “A reference ontology for biomedical informatics: the Foundational Model of Anatomy.” Journal of biomedical informatics, December 2003; 36(6):478–500.
  5. Smith B, Grenon P, Basic Formal Ontology.
  6. Smith B, Ashburner M, Rosse C et al. “The OBO Foundry: coordinated evolution of ontologies to support biomedical data integration”.  Nature Biotechnology 2007; 25, 1251 - 1255.
  7. Gupta A, Bug W, Marenco L et al. “Federated Access to Heterogeneous Information Resources in the Neuroscience Information Framework (NIF)”. Neuroinformatics. 2008 Sep;6(3):205-17