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Home » Brain Activity Revealed Through Your Skin: Stress, Sleep, & Seizures: Rosalind Picard (Transcript)

Brain Activity Revealed Through Your Skin: Stress, Sleep, & Seizures: Rosalind Picard (Transcript)

Here is the full text of AI researcher Rosalind Picard’s talk titled “Brain Activity Revealed Through Your Skin: Stress, Sleep, & Seizures” at TEDxNatick conference.

Rosalind Picard is an American scholar who is Professor of Media Arts and Sciences at MIT, founder and director of the Affective Computing Research Group at the MIT Media Lab, and co-founder of the startups Affectiva and Empatica. 


This story begins when my students at MIT and I were building new technology to help people understand the emotions of others. We were working with people on the autism spectrum like this little boy here, and we created technology to read facial expressions, which you can get in your phone today thanks to the work of Affectiva.

But while we were creating this, and I was talking with one of my friends with autism, who actually talked by typing, she said to me, “Roz, you’ve got it wrong. Our biggest problem is not understanding other people’s emotions, it’s you understanding our emotions.”

And at first I thought, “Oh dear, it’s me.” And indeed, I have room to improve. But it turns out we all have room to improve.

And as I asked her, “Well, what are the emotions that we’re missing, that you most wish we could understand?”

She said, “There’s huge anxiety and stress that we’re experiencing. Many times, the environment, the lights, the sounds, the smells are driving us crazy, and we’re about to explode, and yet on the outside we may look just like we’re shutting down. So we’re being misread.”

And I realized we had built technology in our lab years before that measures something called electrodermal activity. That’s a big word that is referring to a general phenomenon whereby your skin becomes more conductive when you get more nervous, when your sympathetic nervous system, your autonomic – sounds like automatic, but it’s autonomic nervous system – that controls your heart beating, your lungs breathing, all of these parts of your body automatically.

When the sympathetic branch of that goes high in fight or flight or with general excitement, it can make your hands sweaty. And even when you don’t feel sweaty, it can make electrical changes that we can sense on the surface of the skin.

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