The Swiss Center for Affective Sciences

Emotion has long been considered a central aspect of human functioning but its importance as a research subject has only recently been recognized by the scientific community. The modern study of emotion can be said to have started with the seminal writings of Darwin (1872) and James (1884). After a black out period, which occurred in parallel to the boom of Behaviorism and later on the Cognitive Sciences, the study of emotion and affect was revived and has been growing rapidly ever since. This impetus was pushed by the modernization of research methods, by new conceptual developments, but also by the increased awareness of the role played by emotion in all spheres of human activity.

Klaus Scherer

A few years ago, the Swiss National Science Foundation decided to advance the movement further by creating an interdisciplinary research center, led by Professor Klaus Scherer at the University of Geneva, and entirely dedicated to the study of affect.

The Swiss Center for Affective Sciences, hosted by the University of Geneva, was created in 2005 and is one of the National Centers of Competence in Research (NCCR) financed by the Swiss National Science Foundation. The NCCR Affective Sciences is dedicated to the study of emotion from an interdisciplinary perspective, and is the home of researchers in computer science, economics, history, law, linguistics, literature, medicine, neuroscience, philosophy, and psychology. Although the host institution is the University of Geneva, the NCCR Affective Sciences has members at the universities of Bern, Fribourg, Neuchâtel, and Zurich.


The NCCR Affective Sciences has 3 major research axes. The first research axis is concerned with how emotions are triggered. In particular, this axis investigates the role of brain structures, individual predispositions, cognitive evaluations and contextual factors in the generation of emotion. This axis also examines emotional responses and action tendencies, as well as emotional communication. The second research axis is about emotion regulation and looks at how bodily reactions and feelings are controlled by social norms and interpersonal relations. Of importance to this axis are people’s capacity to manage emotions in order to avoid stress or psychological distress and the risk factors in the development of affective disorders such as anxiety and depression. The third research axis investigates the influence of emotion on interpersonal relations and social interactions by looking at emotions in professional relations, in the family, in social groups and society in general. This axis also covers the role of social norms and values in emotional processes, the role of religion and myths in ethnic conflicts, the role of shame in socialization, and the impact of political and economic changes on affective experience and well-being.

Along these 3 major research axes, the NCCR Affective Sciences conducts a number of specific research projects led by single-discipline teams at the various affiliated institutions. Specific projects investigate appraisal-driven patterning of emotional responses, affective relevance, neural mechanisms of emotional responses, the neurobiology of individual differences in emotion perception and regulation, work and emotion, self-regulation, pro-social behavior and norm compliance, moral values, emotional expression through myths and rites, aesthetic emotions, the relations between emotion and gender, computer mediated interactions, social appraisal, emotions in the antiquity, and the relations between emotional relevance and sleep. These research projects constitute the scientific backbone of the NCCR Affective Sciences and often involve international collaborations in other European countries, the USA, Canada, and Australia.

One of the missions of the NCCR Affective Sciences is to conduct inter-disciplinary work on emotion. To this end, Research Foci have been developed to allow interactions between researchers working on different projects. The focus “Applied Affective Sciences” creates a connection between researchers whose work can lead to concrete applications in the fields of organizational psychology, clinical psychology, and consumer behavior. This focus also gathers researchers whose work has the potential for technological innovations (for example in the emerging field of Affective Computing). The research focus “Empathy” combines methods from neuroscience, psychology, and behavioural economics to understand how emotional states and social norms influence decision-making. The research focus “Gender” gathers all researchers who have an interest in gender differences in emotional expression, experience, and physiology. The focus “Language and Culture” conducts inter-disciplinary research on the linguistic expression of emotion across languages and cultures by studying, among other themes: emotion term semantics, universal and cultural aspects in emotion representation, and the role of metaphor in the conceptualization and expression of affect. The research focus “Music and Emotions” brings together philosophers, psychologists, musicologists, and therapists to better understand the causal basis and experiential nature of the expressive powers of music and its implications for emotion regulation. The main themes approached in this focus are: emotional expression in the voice, the nature of emotions produced by music, and the roles of the performer, listener, and context in the production and perception of emotion during musical experience. The focus “Computational Modeling” works towards developing emotionally intelligent computers, interfaces and softwares that are capable, like humans, to adapt to the emotional states of users and to react accordingly. This focus uses methods derived from computer science (e.g. machine learning), emotion psychology, and psychophysiology in order to develop innovative tools that are socially flexible and that can be applied to a variety of situations like cooperative learning or problem solving. The focus “Moral Emotions” combines the expertise of psychologists and philosophers whose interest lies in understanding the interaction between moral judgments and the elicitation of particular emotions. This focus also looks at the role played by emotion in the resolution of moral dilemmas. Finally, the project “EmOdor” investigates how odors can influence mood and emotional experiences. The EmOdor project combines techniques used in psychology, psychophysiology, neuroscience, and computer science to investigate emotional reactions to odors as well as the influence of odors on cognitive performances.

In addition to the specific research projects and research foci, the NCCR Affective Sciences supports bottom-up projects initiated by members of the doctoral school and the post-doctoral program. An example of such projects is the NEMO study, which investigates the relationships between emotions and dyadic negotiation. Using a standard interactive procedure, the NEMO research team gathered data at multiple levels of analysis (hormonal, physiological, psychological, and behavioural) to achieve a more comprehensive view on the role of emotional expression in social interactions. The NEMO study also looks at individual differences in hormonal, physiological, behavioural, and psychological markers and how these markers can help predict success in a dyadic interaction. The inter-disciplinary structure of the NCCR Affective Sciences as well as its research facilities are essential for the emergence of such projects.

One of the highlights in the development of the Swiss Center for Affective Sciences is the creation of the Brain and Behaviour Laboratory (BBL) in 2009. Interdisciplinary research indeed requires lab facilities where a variety of data can be collected and analyzed. The BBL offers a unique environment that combines state-of-the-art equipment for neuroscientific, psychophysiological, and behavioural research. It is one of the first laboratories that concentrate a large range of research methodologies to measure human mental functions (and dysfunctions), emotion, and behaviour. The laboratory includes rooms for behavioural observations, a virtual reality system, brain-imaging equipment (fMRI, EEG, DTI, TMS, etc.), a suite of tools for the recording of peripheral physiological activity, and equipment for psychological experiments. The BBL is central to the life of the Center because it allows researchers of all disciplines to gather high quality data on affective phenomena.

Training and Communication

The NCCR Affective Sciences is also dedicated to training the next generations of “affective scientists” with an ambitious education program focusing on research skills and interdisciplinarity. The Center maintains a graduate school and a postdoctoral program both aimed at providing young researchers with the competences needed to lead pluridisciplinary research projects on affective phenomena. Training activities include seminars, interactive workshops (thematic and/or methodological), university lectures, outreach activities such as science festivals and exhibitions, the Annual Research Forum in Affective Sciences, and the International Summer School in Affective Sciences (ISSAS). The ISSAS is one of the most important training activities organized by the Center, as it invites students and lecturers from all over the world, creating a unique opportunity for interdisciplinary collaboration between young scientists working on emotion and world-renown scholars. The first edition of ISSAS provided an overview on the field of affective science, whereas the last events covered specific themes such as emotion regulation (2010), emotional communication (2011), and aesthetic emotions (2012). The next edition of ISSAS will be devoted to emotion and morality.

Researchers at the NCCR Affective Sciences are also engaged in dissemination activities. Contacts have been established with museums, scientific events for the public, and music festivals. Punctual events are good opportunities for researchers to communicate their findings to the public and to foster public understanding of the affective sciences. Emotions are so pervasive in our lives that such events are always welcomed with great interest. Contacts created during these events have also led to larger research projects conducted in collaboration with private or public partners. More recently the NCCR Affective Sciences has initiated four research projects aimed at the transfer of knowledge developed in the first years of its existence. These projects associate the NCCR Affective Sciences with private and public partners (e.g. Firmenich, Phillips, Nantis, and the Museum of Neuchâtel) with the aim of developing applied solutions based on empirical research in the affective sciences and to disseminate the knowledge about emotion in society at large.

The NCCR Affective Sciences has been active for 7 years and is now formally integrated within the University of Geneva as an inter-disciplinary and inter-faculty research center on emotion. This intensive research on emotion has had and will continue to have, no doubt, considerable impact within the scientific community and the society at large.

More information about the Center can be found at

Marc Mehu

Marc Mehu (Ph.D. in Evolutionary Psychology, University of Liverpool) is a senior researcher at the Swiss Centre for Affective Sciences, University of Geneva. Marc Mehu’s research interests lie in the evolution of social behaviour and its role in the regulation of social relationships. More precisely, he is interested in the adaptive value of emotional communication in the facial and vocal domains. Marc Mehu is a certified coder of the Facial Action Coding System (FACS) developed by Ekman and Friesen (1979). During his Ph.D., he looked at the social function of smiling and laughter from an evolutionary perspective. His research applies a variety of methods including ethological observations in natural settings as well as experiments on person perception and social interactions. Marc is currently working on several research projects that involve the integration of cognitive, emotional, and social factors in communication, using evolutionary theory as a framework. Examples of projects look at the role of emotional expression in dyadic negotiation, nonverbal expression of agreement and disagreement, verbal interruptions in political discussions, perceived authenticity in emotional facial communication, and theoretical development on the concept of social signal, and concrete applications of emotional communication research in the assessment of social potential. Marc is currently active in the field of Social Signal Processing as a member of the European Network of Excellence SSPNet, which is dedicated to the development of automatic analysis of human communicative behaviour.
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1 Comment

  1. Fascinating pluridiciplinary approach to affect by your centre I work as an educator and researcher wthin the clinical sciences and my own work falls within the social science ad humanities spectrum. I ask questions not about what affect is or how it works but rather about what our ideas about affect and emoton produce and reproduce in everyday practice.

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