Interoceptive Technologies: Inducing emotions from the body up
There’s a feeling that comes tingling down the spine in certain moments, when a favorite moment of a favorite song comes on, or when a turn of phrase in a powerful speech moves us. This experience resonates with us so much that it elicits an intense bodily reaction, a physical feeling of shivers down your spine and tingling on the nape of your neck and the back of your arms. That feeling is called aesthetic chills, or frisson. Our body and our mind feel this feeling in unison, challenging our models of mind-body dualism, and meaning that we can physically engage with emotional states by actuating the body.
Frisson is a physically felt signature of an emotion, a somatic marker. Like nausea and disgust, or a rapid heartbeat and anxiety, this feeling in the body coincides with an emotion in the mind (and thus makes the body-mind distinction much more blurry). The specific somatic marker of frisson is experimentally tied to peak emotional experiences and the most meaningful moments during exposure to different stimuli, such as songs or speeches or art pieces. And amazingly, aesthetic chills seem to be an almost universal marker of peak emotional experiences across a wide range of cultures and continents. This universality is really rare—usually, expressions of emotion are quite different across cultural contexts—and this means that we can potentially use chills as a way to study emotion in the body in diverse peoples and places. We have a remarkable embodied feeling (a somatic marker) which is tied to this abstract emotion (meaningful moments), as if we could reach out and directly touch 'meaning-making'.
The field of embodied cognition, in addition to finding body-based correlates of emotional experience, has also illuminated many links between our physical and psychological experiences. Studies on misattribution of arousal show us we can drive cognition by driving physical sensation, for instance increasing people's heart rate to increase their likelihood of romantic attraction (people feel a fast heart rate and think they must be attracted to someone, reasoning from the body upwards). This points to opportunities, because if we can artificially induce frisson perhaps we can also drive the downstream cognitive effects of frisson: These include pleasure, inspiration, openness to experience, relief in stress, increase in empathy, and experience of meaning .
Engineering and Experimentation
This project unites embodied cognition and on-body device design to ask questions about the origin of emotions and the potential to hack our brains and behavior by hacking the body. At once transcendent and physiological, the sublime literally cascades across skin. So we built a device meant to trigger frisson. Alongside Félix Schoeller, a scientist who specializes in researching chills at the Paris CRI, we have shown that our device can 1) reliably induce chills in participants at experimenter-chosen moments and 2) can recreate the downstream cognitive effects of chills, including increases in pleasure and empathy. This is a working, tested device, and we've already published results from studies including:
Nature Scientific Reports, describing our experiment using the Frisson device to generate synthetic chills and improve pleasure and empathy during viewing of a film.
Physics of Life Review outlining our vision for affective and interoceptive neuroscience that uses devices to change affect by intervening on interoception.
ACM IMWUT focused on designing a new model for wearable interfaces which centers on interactions beyond conscious control.
Frontiers in Psychology writing on possible combinations of sensor-actuator systems to direct social emotion.
Our vision is psychophysiology driving thought from the spine upwards. Emotion prosthetics and somatosensory interfaces like the Frisson device offer new possibilities for affective neuroscience inducing human emotions from the bottom-up, modulating their associated feelings and downstream effects through wearable technology. Surprisingly little research has been devoted to the topic of how technology may be used to enhance or generate emotion from modulating and somatic markers (i.e., somatosensory interfaces). Our results suggest that in the long term, emotion prosthetics and somatosensory interfaces may provide novel, non-invasive tools for intervention on higher cognitive functioning through controlled stimulation of body signals, for instance in mood disorders. Further, these tools let us understand links between our interoception (our sense of our body's internal state) and the interoception-related disorders like addiction, somatic sensation disorders, and anxiety. We're also hopeful that these devices are relevant for opportunities in arts and entertainment, as tools to guide the emotional arc experienced by audiences, where composers could imagine writing a score for the body alongside the ears or filmmakers could enhance empathy for characters by creating shared physical experience between actor and audience.