A network to study emotions

Research center will add areas of knowledge to evaluate and promote well-being

Natura_Dupla 231Illustration Gary Waters/Getty ImagesFAPESP and the Brazilian firm Natura have approved the proposal to establish an applied research center for well-being and human behavior. The center will be based at the Institute of Psychology of the University of São Paulo (USP). The project is being led by Emma Otta, a professor at the Institute’s Department of Experimental Psychology, and includes more than 40 scientists and their teams who work in complementary fields at universities such as USP, the federal universities of São Paulo (Unifesp) and Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS) and Mackenzie Presbyterian University. Institutions in the United States are participating as well, including New York University, the University of Florida and Washington State University.

The main goal is to create a knowledge base capable of evaluating and promoting well-being, incorporating fields of knowledge such as neuroscience, ethology, social psychology and positive psychology, which studies emotions such as happiness and pleasure, in addition to applied health and human and social sciences. “The center is interdisciplinary and brings together researchers who share an interest in studying emotions and increasing the value of emotional education interventions,” Otta says. “Historically, both psychology and neuroscience have focused on the study of non-emotional processes, such as attention, problem-solving and memory. Today, emotion is considered a legitimate subject of study that can be researched using meticulous scientific methods.”

According to Gerson Pinto, vice president of innovation at Natura, this is an innovative model for an integrated center involving a Brazilian firm in order to research a topic that has yet to be explored in academia. “Natura began performing scientific research on well-being eight years ago, and the center will play a pivotal role in expanding our vision of the topic, building a robust network of knowledge, mainly in the fields of psychology and the neurosciences, allowing us to increasingly incorporate relevant innovation on individuals and their relationships,” Pinto explains. “The initiative will create the opportunity to recognize more assertive ways to promote well-being through our products and services, for both individuals and groups.” According to Pinto, also expected is widespread dissemination of the topic of well-being in society as well as in the education sector, and this will create business opportunities for entrepreneurs.

The investment in implementing and running the center will be R$20 million over 10 years, divided evenly between Natura and FAPESP. The initiative was approved as part of the FAPESP Research Partnership for Technological Innovation (PITE), which supports projects that are jointly developed and co-financed by businesses in research institutions. But it also encompasses the practices of another Foundation program: the Research, Innovation and Dissemination Centers (RIDC), which provided long-term support to multidisciplinary teams that work on subjects at the cutting edge of knowledge, and they attempt to connect scientific research with innovation, education and technology transfer.

The center’s work will be organized into four major lines of research. The first is an evaluation of well-being, and there are plans to conduct epidemiological and cohort studies (in which a specific group is monitored over the long term) and to develop new indicators capable of evaluating the well-being of the people of Brazil. One of the greatest challenges is to establish criteria to evaluate the subjective sensations that are associated with well-being as objective indicators. “There are ways of doing this; for example, you connect the relationship of individuals and positive or negative emotions to their brain activity and heartbeats,” Otta says.

The second line focuses on emotional expression and the recognition of emotions. Studies will attempt to identify emotional expressions through protocols for observing behavior and responses as visual reactions or the activation of emotions by odors. “Smells can evoke emotional reactions and we want to understand how well-being will be positively affected by the sense of smell,” Otta explains.

In the third line, identified as neurophysiological measures of affection, there will be clinical and experimental studies on the self-regulation of emotions, which combines processes that create impulses and emotions. Physiological responses to odors will also be researched as part of this topic. The fourth line of research focuses on interventions to stimulate the self-regulation of emotions and proposes studies in the field of positive psychology, public health and behavioral psychology that can stimulate the self-regulation of emotions, subjective well-being, social skills in children and adults, and resiliency (a psychological concept borrowed from physics that determines the ability to cope with problems and withstand pressure during adverse situations).

The center has a rich history of research projects with the thematic project entitled Mother-infant interaction: postpartum depression as a risk factor for development. This project, completed in 2012, monitored postpartum depression in mothers in São Paulo. Led by Otta, the co-principal investigators were Vera Silvia Raad Bussab, from the Experimental Psychology Department at the Institute of Psychology/USP, and Maria de Lima Salum e Morais, from the Institute of Health, who are also working with the new center. “The different teams are preparing the details of the work plan and they are very motivated to start immediately,” Otta says. The researchers will interact with professionals from the office of the vice president for innovation at Natura, and in particular with the professionals in the field of well-being sciences. Natura will appoint the deputy director of the center.

Positive psychology and neuroscience translational research to promote well-being and emotional regulation (No. 2014/50282-5); Grant mechanism Research grant – Research Partnership for Technological Innovation (PITE); Principal investigator Emma Otta (Institute of Psychology/USP); Investment R$10 million (FAPESP), R$10 million (Natura), over 10 years.