The Emotion Atlas Launches in the New York Times

ROCHESTER, Minn. — The Dalai Lama, who tirelessly preaches inner peace while chiding people for their selfish, materialistic ways, has commissioned scientists for a lofty mission: to help turn secular audiences into more self-aware, compassionate humans.

30186825A (02/22/16) - NAT - His Holiness the Dalai Lama speaks with Eve Ekman about the Atlas of Emotions study at the Wilson House on the Sisters of St. Francis, Asissi Heights campus in Rochester, Minnesota, on Monday, Feb. 22, 2016.  (Photo by Tim Gruber for The New York Times)
– His Holiness the Dalai Lama speaks with Eve Ekman about the Atlas of Emotions study at the Wilson House on the Sisters of St. Francis, Asissi Heights campus in Rochester, Minnesota, on Monday, Feb. 22, 2016.
(Photo by Tim Gruber for The New York Times)

That is, of course, no easy task. So the Dalai Lama ordered up something with a grand name to go with his grand ambitions: a comprehensive Atlas of Emotions to help the more than seven billion people on the planet navigate the morass of their feelings to attain peace and happiness.

“It is my duty to publish such work,” the Dalai Lama said.

To create this “map of the mind,” as he called it, the Dalai Lama reached out to a source Hollywood had used to plumb the workings of the human psyche.

Specifically, he commissioned his good friend Paul Ekman — a psychologist who helped advise the creators of Pixar’s “Inside Out,” an animated film set inside a girl’s head — to map out the range of human sentiments. Dr. Ekman later distilled them into the five basic emotions depicted in the movie, from anger to enjoyment.

Dr. Ekman’s daughter, Eve, a post-doctoral fellow in integrative medicine research, worked on the project as well, with the goal of producing a guide to human emotions that anyone with an Internet connection could study in a quest for self-understanding, calm and constructive action.

“We have, by nature or biologically, this destructive emotion, also constructive emotion,” the Dalai Lama said. “This innerness, people should pay more attention to, from kindergarten level up to university level. This is not just for knowledge, but in order to create a happy human being. Happy family, happy community and, finally, happy humanity.”

The Dalai Lama paid Dr. Ekman at least $750,000 to develop the project, which began with a request several years ago.

Dr. Ekman recalled the Dalai Lama telling him: “When we wanted to get to the New World, we needed a map. So make a map of emotions so we can get to a calm state.”

As a first step, Dr. Ekman conducted a survey of 149 scientists (emotion scientists, neuroscientists and psychologists who are published leaders in their fields) to see where there was consensus about the nature of emotions, the moods or states they produce, and related areas.

Based on the survey, Dr. Ekman concluded that there were five broad categories of emotions — anger, fear, disgust, sadness and enjoyment — and that each had an elaborate subset of emotional states, triggers, actions and moods. He took these findings to a cartography and data visualization firm, Stamen, to depict them in a visual and, he hoped, useful way.

“If it isn’t fun, it’s a failure,” Dr. Ekman said. “It’s got to be fun for people to use.”


A diagram from the Atlas of Emotions. Credit Paul Ekman

Stamen’s founder, Eric Rodenbeck, has created data visualizations for Google, Facebook and MTV, as well as maps showing climate change and rising oceans. But he said the Atlas was the most challenging project he had worked on because it was “built around knowledge and wisdom rather than data.”

Not surprisingly, getting scientists to reach a unified understanding of human emotions was difficult.

Dacher Keltner, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, also counseled Pixar on establishing and depicting the emotional characters for “Inside Out.” He has even advised Facebook on emoticons.

Although Dr. Keltner took part in Dr. Ekman’s survey, the two are not in complete agreement on the number of core emotions. Still, Dr. Keltner said he saw the project as a good step.

“The survey questions could have allowed for more gray areas,” he said. “But it’s important to take stock of what the scientific consensus is in the field.”

Dr. Ekman emphasized that the Atlas was not a scientific work intended for peer review.

“It is a visualization for what we think has been learned from scientific studies,” he said. “It’s a transformative process, a work of explanation.”

The Dalai Lama wants to keep religion out of it.

“If we see this research work as relying on religious belief or tradition, then it automatically becomes limited,” he said. “Even if you pray to God, pray to Buddha, emotionally, very nice, very good. But every problem, we have created. So I think even God or Buddha cannot do much.”

The Dalai Lama said he hoped the Atlas could be a tool for cultivating good in the world by defeating the bad within us.

“Ultimately, our emotion is the real troublemaker,” he said. “We have to know the nature of that enemy.”

The Dalai Lama said he had been encouraged by President Obama’s reaction to the project when he told him about it in India.

“Obama seems, I think, to show more interest about our inner value,” he said. “In the past, compassion was something of a sign of weakness, or anger a sign of power, sign of strength. Basic human nature is more compassionate. That’s the real basis of our hope.”

While excited about the Atlas, however, the 80-year-old Dalai Lama will probably not be clicking around the interactive site. He is much more comfortable turning the printed pages of a version that was custom-made for him.

“Technology is for my next body,” he once quipped to the researchers.

Empathy Gets a Bad Rap, Bring on Compassion!

Screen Shot 2016-03-21 at 3.51.30 PMThis clever and short video presents an idea about empathy I find to be recklessly unspecific. The author, a well known psychologist from Yale University, Paul Bloom,  over simplifies empathy as that feeling or tug of wanting to help others. This tug of caring is an important first step towards an informed compassionate response. We need to first appreciate, empathize, with the struggle and suffering of another before we can truly understand the scope and need of a situation. Indeed we can become foolhardy in our belief or urgency to help, however we can use the skill of observation and then insight about why we are ‘feeling’ the pull to help. In this video blog Professor Bloom completely misses the opportunity which empathy provides in learning how to tolerate difficult emotions, practice observation, insight and then respond. Response can mean actual action, or can simply mean a compassionate stance and response to suffering.

He may benefit from watching this inspiring video from Joan Halifax on the necessity of compassion. Halifax describes our radical act of caring, despite the overwhelming feeling that caring is too hard, too unfathomable in an interconnected world where we see suffering from all sides. Halifax points out that our compassion is a tool, a skill which can be honed, and a way to respond the suffering with strength. This is the opposite of Paul Bloom’s message of warning against tuning in to the suffering of others for a fear it will distort our ability to understand how to actually help. Halifax clarifies the steps and process of truly acting with compassion- it is a welcome perspective to counter from Bloom’s disparaging view of our ability to know how to transform our urge to care in to meaningful help.


Update on the Atlas of Emotions

From the Office of the Dalia Lama Website

February 23rd 2016

Rochester, Minnesota, USA, 22 February 2016 – Dr Eve Ekman visited His Holiness the Dalai Lama in Rochester today to report on progress that has been made on the Atlas of Emotions project begun by her father Paul Ekman. She explained that although the main way for the public to access the Atlas will be online, she had brought a printed copy for His Holiness’s convenience. She told him that the aim of the project continues to be helping people and advancing science.

Leafing through the Atlas Dr Ekman and His Holiness discussed different emotions such as fear, which she said is the emotion most associated with stress, sadness and anger. His Holiness remarked:


“Anger is something negative, but it can bring a source of energy to bear on a particular situation. That energy can be transformed into something positive, but I don’t know if anger itself can ever be positive.”

Dr Ekman replied that we can ask whether, when anger arises, there are any constructive choices to be made.

In the context of emotions, His Holiness also mentioned the difference between sensory and cognitive experience.

Dr Ekman asked His Holiness, “What’s the next step? How can we help people?” He told her that just as cold is dispelled by heat, its opposite, anger and loving-kindness counter one another. “What people need to do is to learn how to counter their various emotions. Distraction is just a temporary measure. The longer standing remedy is, for example, to be able to see positive qualities in something or someone you otherwise see as negative. Since there is rarely any justification for destructive emotions, people need to become more aware of the causes of their emotions and how to apply antidotes to them.”

His Holiness suggested that the work that has been done so far on the ‘Atlas of Emotions’ be considered as a draft of a work in progress. He recommended that it be made available to interested and concerned persons whose comments and input could be sought, collated and taken into account. Dr Ekman agreed that this could be done through the internet, where it is soon to be launched.

What Emotion Scientists Agree On- A Blue Print for the Emotion Atlas

Screen Shot 2016-01-30 at 1.18.44 PMThis article just published in the Journal Perspectives in Psychological Science, covers the results of a survey of established emotion researchers which I helped my Dad administer in 2014. The survey is the scientific basis for the Atlas of Emotion,  a project funded by the Dalia Lama to help individuals develop their emotional awareness. My Dad and I have been working in collaboration with the cartographic mapping design company Stamen Design for almost two years. Our desire to help people navigate and understand their emotions requires that we create visual representations, maps, of how emotions feel, how they relate to each other and how they unfold over time.

Continue reading “What Emotion Scientists Agree On- A Blue Print for the Emotion Atlas”

Martin Luther King Jr.’s Love, Compassion and Patience


We must meet hate with love.  We must meet physical force with soul force. There is still a voice crying out through the vista of time, saying: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, pray for them that despitefully use you.” Then, and only then, can you matriculate into the university of eternal life. That same voice cries out in terms lifted to cosmic proportions: “He who lives by the sword will perish by the sword.”  And history is replete with the bleached bones of nations  that failed to follow this command.  We must follow nonviolence and love. Continue reading “Martin Luther King Jr.’s Love, Compassion and Patience”