World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2013

  • The Art and Science of Emotions

    By Amishi Jha

    Saturday 26th January 2013 - 2:00pm - 3:00pm

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  • These insights were written by Dr Amishi P. Jha, Director of Contemplative Neuroscience, Associate Professor, University of Miami.


    True to the title, the art and science of emotion were beautifully weaved together in this session. The audience was packed into the room, and like me, many wondered what would transpire in a conversation between a neuroscientist, a fragrance expert, a world-class pianist and a Buddhist monk. As the session progressed, it became evident that the organizers of this panel knew exactly what they were doing. Common and divergent perspectives emerged over the discussion, beautifully facilitated by the moderator, himself a psychologist and mindfulness expert.

    As a neuroscientist and professor, I would say I learned quite a bit from each of the panellists. But perhaps more, I was inspired by what emerged between them. The synergy and contrast of their points of view gave a richness to the session that would not have come from hearing a panel of experts singularly within any one of these fields.  

    There were many highlights in the session anchored around the opportunities the panellists provided for us to experience emotion, elicited by music, fragrance and meditation. One highlight for me was when the fragrance expert gave the audience and the rest of the panel an opportunity to smell a sample of fragrance in an envelope he had provided each of us. To many, including me, it was the smell of a bakery. The pianist on the other hand, exclaimed, “It smells like D Major”. She then enthralled us with an improvisational piece of music in D Major. Indeed, the emotions that were evoked in me when I smelled the envelope – satiety, comfort and ease – were also evoked by her music.

    From the fragrance expert, I learned that the smells that are most likely to be purchased are those that most powerfully evoke emotions. 

    From the pianist, I learned the power of transforming strong emotions into musical composition. She played an evocative snippet from her piece, ExPatria, which took the concepts of sorrow and anger from her mind and heart, to her music and transferred these to all of us in the room. 

    From the monk, I learned the striking differences in frameworks between the Western and Buddhist psychological perspectives on emotions. 

    From the Western view, emotions are most broadly categorized as negative and positive (or emotions that communicate that something should be avoided vs approached). In contrast from the Buddhist perspective, emotions are categorized by the mind states that they come from, which are wholesome (borne out of compassion) or afflictive (borne out of malevolence). 

    From the neuroscientist, I was intrigued to learn that cutting-edge brain imaging research in his laboratory revealed that happy emotions expand the brains ability to perceive, whereas negative emotions narrowed perception. Thus, aesthetic and scientific perspectives on emotion were richly covered. 

    Key Points

    • Smells may help revive people from comas. 

      The fragrance expert shared his team’s work in a medical clinic on a patient who had suffered from a coma. A specific smell was presented to the unconscious patient, and it triggered the patient to speak, and within a few weeks regain not only consciousness, but his ability to use language. The neuroscientist provided an explanation to this. The sensory cortex of the olfactory system (smell system) resides in the “emotional” brain (limbic system). This brain system is also heavily involved in the creation of long-term memories. Thus, by stimulating the vegetative brain with smells, the long-term memories and emotions were triggered that may have allowed the patients conscious brain to ‘reboot’ and language skills to come back online. 
    • Buddhist and Western views of emotion come from very different frameworks.

      Understanding how these perspectives differ may allow for novel research questions in the field of affective neuroscience.
    • Artists are translators of emotion.

      Music and other forms of art have the power to induce emotions, which may broaden or narrow our perception. The wonderful piano compositions left the audience in a more positive and wholesome mood. 


    The views expressed are those of certain participants in the discussion and do not necessarily reflect the views of all participants or of the World Economic Forum.

Session objectives

"I don't want to be at the mercy of my emotions. I want to use them, to enjoy them, and to dominate them." -- Oscar Wilde How can a better understanding of our emotional make-up help to achieve more balanced, insightful and efficient lifestyles?


  • Amishi Jha Amishi Jha
    Associate Professor, Director of Contemplative Neuroscience, Mindfulness Research and Practice Initiative, University of Miami, USA

    PhD, Univ. of California, Davis; postdoctoral training in brain imaging, Duke Univ. Former faculty m...


  • Nicolas Mirzayantz Nicolas Mirzayantz
    Group President, Fragrances, International Flavors & Fragrances, USA

    International Executive Programme, INSEAD. 1986-87, Deputy Trade Commissioner, French Embassy, Nicar...

  • Gabriela Montero Gabriela Montero

  • Adam Anderson Adam Anderson
    Associate Professor of Psychology, Affect and Cognition Laboratory - ACLAB, University of Toronto, Canada

    Studies, Vassar College, Yale and Stanford. Currently, Assoc. Professor of Psychology, Canada Resear...

  • Matthieu Ricard Matthieu Ricard
    President and Co-Founder, Karuna-Shechen, France

    PhD in Cellular Genetics, France. Buddhist monk studying Buddhism in Himalayas for last 40 years. Fo...

  • Amishi Jha Amishi Jha
    Associate Professor, Director of Contemplative Neuroscience, Mindfulness Research and Practice Initiative, University of Miami, USA

    PhD, Univ. of California, Davis; postdoctoral training in brain imaging, Duke Univ. Former faculty m...

Moderated by

  • Mark Williams Mark Williams
    Professor of Clinical Psychology, University of Oxford, United Kingdom

    Former positions, Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, Cambridge and the University of Wales, Bangor. ...