This series explores how brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) will change our daily life by the year 2022.


You know far less about your emotional states than you might think.

There are seven emotions that are universal across cultures - happiness, sadness, surprise, contempt, fear, disgust, and anger. These emotions have a distinctive mental feeling and are associated with specific physical changes. In fear, for example, the heart rate rises and your facial expression reflects your alarm.

The look of fear. Source.

These strong emotions are fairly distinctive and you learn to identify them at an early age. As you grow up, your vocabulary of emotions expands dramatically and you begin to notice the differences between similar emotions.

Range of emotions with names. Source.

This larger vocabulary likely encompasses most of your emotional states, but there are moments where you might be unsure about exactly what you're feeling. Often times, these subtle emotions may be associated with mental or physical sensations that you don't have words to describe.

It shouldn't be a surprise that there aren't words to describe all your emotional states. Think about how words are coined - an experience has to be common enough that people decide to name it. By definition, we all have emotional states that are specific to us (and maybe 1,000 other people on the planet) due to our unique set of traits and personality. Unfortunately, these atypical experiences will probably never get named unless they become more common over time.

So what if we don't have words to describe certain emotional states? Well, language actually plays an important role in our perception and thoughts.

We're often not consciously aware of the things we don't have words for. Think back to the time before the word "anxious" was popularized - you likely knew that you were feeling uneasy, but couldn't quite put your finger on what exactly was wrong. This ultimately makes the feeling harder to deal with.

How might technology help us be more aware of and better regulate our emotions in 2022?

BCIs for emotional recognition

What if you could effortlessly monitor your emotional state on a moment-by-moment basis?

Recent advances in brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) have made this a real possibility. Consumer EEG headsets can measure your brainwaves non-invasively, from outside your brain (more on brainwaves).

Emotiv Insight headset. Source.

By measuring EEG signals related to emotional states, we can roughly estimate your emotional state at any given moment.

For the first time, you'd have access to an objective readout of your emotions throughout the day. You would be able to see the fluctuations in your mood, reflect on moments where your mood shifted suddenly, and possibly even access the intensity of your emotional states.

Although initial models will be fairly primitive in what they can detect, over time the BCI will certainly help you learn things about your patterns of emotions that you've never been aware of before.

Let's explore some of the possibilities this technology opens up.

Decoding personal emotions

As we mentioned earlier, people's individual differences give rise to subtle feelings that might only be familiar to about 1,000 people in the world. This is often not enough for a word to be coined, meaning that you might have trouble with noticing the emotional state, much less regulating it.

Luckily, algorithms don't speak in words. All emotional states are equally interpretable to a BCI device that directly measures brainwaves. It's not subject to the bias stemming from the language we use to describe our emotional world.

BCIs will allow us to build awareness around our personal emotions, or the set of highly individualized emotional states that aren't common enough to be recognized by language.

In moments where you feel uncertain about how you're feeling, you might indicate this to your BCI-enabled emotional recognition app. To help you understand the emotional state, it might show you past instances where you likely felt the same way. Alternatively, it might notify you in the future when your brainwave data looks similar to the current moment.

As you start to notice the feeling more, it will be easier to localize the triggers that bring it about as well as effective means of regulating it.

Meditation 2.0

The rise in popularity of meditation apps like Headspace and Calm can be partially attributed to people's desire to better understand and anticipate their emotional states (like anxiety).

With the help of a BCI-enabled VR headset, emotional states can be readily visualized in the virtual environment. Imagine being able to see how you're feeling as you're going through a guided meditation.

This experience will almost certainly elevate the effectiveness of meditation for emotional awareness.

Sharing your mood

For many people, the prospect of giving others access to your emotional state seems dystopian. However, you can imagine a few specific cases where it might be really useful.

If you're in therapy, sharing this information might allow your therapist to better assist you. We're already seeing this happen with sleep data from fitness trackers, allowing doctors to make more informed judgements about their patient problems.

Alternatively, you might want to give your partner access to your mood so that they can anticipate when you're grumpy and be more understanding.

Who's leading the charge

Most of the progress needs to be made in the research domain before practical applications of BCI for emotional recognition are possible.

Rosalind Picard's Affective Computing group at the MIT Media Lab is at the forefront of the effort, with the goal of bridging the gap between human emotions and computational technology.