Visualizing Emotions — For What?

[Diagrams] reveal to us an enticing glance into the rear view mirror of our consciousness, of the possible mental spaces between recognizing and naming.

The research process of how emotion data should be visualized began with users tracking in an analog fashion. I asked 10 people to record their emotions for three weeks and visualize them using different visual systems. It became clear that an emotion tracking tool, which takes into consideration how a user would want to record personal data, should be digital and interactive.

Fig 23 & Fig. 24 Visualization representing four dimensions individually as squares and circles with variations in size and color.

When exploring further how the representations could look like, the initial iterations of visualizations tended to follow traditional patterns. These were quite recognizable as mainstream data visualization (Figure 23, 24 & 25). In two ways, I found that these explorations weren’t expressive enough for emotion data. First, they lacked the inclusion of the contextual data in an emotion experience. The who, what, when, where and whys of the circumstances which triggered our emotions. The second way is their neutral, dull representation of a concept that is expressive by nature. In the Group Recording experiment, I found that users thought bar charts were most useful for detecting patterns. In spite of this, I think emotion visualization, because of its essence, should be more reflective of its topic. The aspect of including the contextual information became a large focal point in visual explorations and directly reflects the need for flexible visualization methods discussed earlier in the visualization chapter.

Fig. 25 Visualization representing all dimensions with variations of color, size sharpness, opacity, and pulse frequency.

One of the goals of visualization is to give the viewer the ability to process a lot of information in a short amount of time. This allows its viewers to find patterns and draw comparisons quickly in a dataset. Because of this characteristic, visualization can also be used as a basis upon which broad assumptions are formed without much consideration. Often, as we discussed in the chapter on visualization, circumstantial but relevant information is omitted from the design because we are unable to quantify it or display it beautifully. Fine. aims to provide opportunity for reflection on our behaviors and potentially support for adaptive decisions to be made based on our emotion data. The representation of emotion data is a balance between the ability to make quick comparisons and built-in barriers against decision making without proper reflection. Therefore, in an effort to reduce the probability that a false or premature use of the application occurs, a visualization that takes more time to process is an asset. Because the data being recorded is not objective and verifiable truth, the level of readability could be dangerous. Take for example the situation where a user discovers that they are tracking multiple experiences of anxiety or frustration and every time it is related to a specific friend or their job. Should the user stop being friends with that person or quit their job? Not necessarily, but knowing that these things could be catalysts for their emotions and moods might put things into perspective for them. Tools for emotion recording shouldn’t be repair shop for our emotions, but rather an assessment test, which we use to see the bigger picture of our cumulative experiences.

The Iceberg

The visualization of emotion is meant to be an attempt to make visible a process that is in large part invisible and only partially perceived by the one experiencing it. It must reflect the narrative quality of our personal histories, even if only as a visual metaphor. In order to do that, the visualization must be engaging. What we make of our emotion experiences helps us create our identity. If we are able to express our emotionality through a visualization, we able to connect with, engage with and reflect upon it.

Fig. 26 Freud‘s metaphor for the conscious is illustrated. How the metaphor is adapted for the visualization is illustrated on the right.

In 1915, Sigmund Freud wrote about his topographical model of the mind.55 An iceberg is used as a visual model representing his three-level interpretation of how our minds work (Figure 26). The conscious mind (everything we are aware of) is the visible part of the iceberg. The preconscious mind (thoughts and feelings we could be aware of, but are initially not) is the part of the iceberg just below and just above the water line. The unconscious level of the mind (what is inaccessible to the conscious, but influences judgements, feelings or behavior) lies deep below the surface. The deepest part of the mind, which you cannot see, is the most important part. Though today, scientists disagree with Freud‘s assertions on how the the unconscious functions, the existence of the unconscious‘ mental processes remain relevant in the field of psychoanalysis today.

I used Freud’s iceberg metaphor to start experimenting with more detailed visualizations that took into consideration visual metaphors that we recognize because we see them in reality. We are familiar with the sleek, rigid structure of an iceberg. We understand its multi-dimensionality. It has a base which both stabilizes it and has the power to shift its weight. We know how it reaction to the warming and cooling of the environment. Not only does such a form fit Freud’s description of our consciousness, but it also reflects the process of emotion. I will break down the anatomy of the emotion experience using the iceberg (Figure 28).

Fig. 27 A simplified illustration of the emotion process.

As we discussed in the chapter on emotion, the process of emotion (Figure 27) begins with a stimulus, to which our brain and body processes, and then gives us an impulse to react. Let’s start with the middle of the process, after our brain and body have already experienced the trigger. This is the part of the process where we experience the dimensions of the emotion (explained on the next page). These dimensions, when recorded, build the form of the iceberg in the visualization. The form represents the middle and top levels of the consciousness. We are, or can be, aware of the dimensions of emotion, when we have the tools to express it. Shifting back to the first part of the process, the stimulus. The things that trigger emotions in us can be both conditioned or unconditioned. Even if it is conditioned, we often don’t address it consciously or verbally unless we are in therapeutic settings. In the visualization, triggers are represented as the base of the iceberg form. Sometimes they are difficult to definitively identify but they have the power to move us. Our reaction to the stimulus, mental and physiological changes is the third phase of an emotion experiences. As I‘ve pointed out before, it is sometimes the only observable part of the process. This part of the visualization only loosely reflects Freud’s topography in that it is placed above the water. I adapted the third level as the space around and above the form by representing our reactions as auras.

Fig. 28 How to read an emotion.

There are several layers of abstraction in this depiction of emotion. When writing in a diary, one transcribes the events or feelings as they occurred. With this representation, the narrator is a character in the visualization, whose form and surroundings change daily. The experience of recording emotion, explained in the next section, allows the visualization to encompass what is typically recorded while journaling. This process encourages internal and external mindfulness, yielding a distilled visual output of what caused our emotions and how they made us feel holistically. The abstraction of real world events allows the user to focus on the entirety of one experience at a glance as well as how that experience compares in a users‘ emotion history.

The Dimensions

The form of the iceberg is created by the recording of five dimensions. As we learned in the section on emotion, the dimensional approach to emotion began with Wilhelm Wundt. These five dimensions included in the visualization were chosen because of their current or suggested use in present emotion research. Their definitions can be found here and visual manifestations can be seen in Figure 28 (above). Their metaphorical references and how they are visually represented are as follows:

Intensity: Height of the form

The representation of intensity as height is based on the conduit metaphor: More of Form is More of Content56.Lakoff and Johnson assert that when we see things that are actually small, we assume their contents to be small. Therefore, if the form of the iceberg in the visualization is small, then how intense the emotion experience would also be low — and vice versa.

Valence: Form color 
Conduciveness: Sky color

Valence often aligns with conduciveness because usually we do things that feel good and are good for us. However, in some cases, we do things that not good for us but feel good or we have to do the things that feel bad because they are good for us. An unpleasant but conducive emotion, or vice versa, is much more interesting to analyze and ask why our behavioral response opposed our salient needs or desires. In light of this interesting juxtaposition, these two dimensions use similar red to blue scales for representation. They are similar for two reasons. The first reason is for the sake of simplicity, so the user does not have to memorize two differing color scales to read the visualization. Secondly, these are the experiences that either exemplify our evolutionary instincts or negate them. If an experience has opposing extremes of valence and conduciveness, it is easily and instantly noticeable. Not only are they in contrast to each other, they are in contrast to what we know about the color of icebergs and their environment.

Control: Fractures in the form

The control dimension is based on the metaphor: Attempt at Emotional Control is Trying to Keep a Complete Object Together and Lack of Emotional Control is a Divided Self 57. We think of being whole and well-formed as being good and having things under control. In contrast, the fractured facade of a iceberg represents instability and lack of control.

Arousal: Turbulence in the waves

Arousal is also based off of the same metaphors as the control dimension. It is a direct representation of what we experience when we are floating in the ocean or riding in a boat. The choppier the waves are, the more difficult it is to control the boat and the more our balance is thrown off. Still waters typically represent calmness and serenity, whereas waves represent storms brewing and unrest.

Fig. 29 & Fig. 30

A Mutual Language

The iceberg metaphor can serve as a powerful narrative visualization technique for the users. It allows a user to see their experiences as mini-stories of an external world affecting an abstract character. These mini-stories act as mini-identities that make up a user‘s full emotionality. This portrayal distances us from our own subjective experience and encourages the rational deliberation we do when recounting the things that happen to us. These are the same rational deliberations that are so difficult to do in the moment of an emotion experience, but can be trained through objective observation and reflection.

During counseling or psychoanalysis, the client must articulate his or her feelings and thoughts to a trained professional. Inevitably in this process slippage occurs between the intended or understood meaning of the speaker and the supposedly shared, perceived, or imputed meaning inferred by the listener. This tool only offers one thematic visual output, which allows individual events to be widely comparable. However, the scales for each dimension are individually defined by the user. One user’s “very intense” might more or less intense compared to another user’s scale. They are using their own private language of experience. No one can know the true meaning of the visualizations outsides of the user, who both experienced and then expressed the experience using the visual system. Therefore, within the visualization’s comparability, there is nuance. If shared, these nuances would need to be interpreted. The exercise of a patient expressing their own scales demonstrates an improved understanding of their emotion experiences. Similar to psychoanalysis, both parties need to make an active effort to achieve negotiated understanding of the patient’s unique representation of their thoughts and feelings.



An overview of this project and a link to the log book of my process can be found online here.