The Affect Lab

The History and Limits of Measuring Emotion

by Grant Bollmer

Since the late nineteenth century, psychologists have used technological forms of media to measure and analyze emotion. In The Affect Lab, Grant Bollmer examines the use of measurement tools such as electrical shocks, photography, video, and the electroencephalograph to argue that research on emotions has confused the physiology of emotion with the tools that define its inscription.

Bollmer shows that the psychological definitions of emotion have long been directly shaped by the physical qualities of the devices used in laboratory research. To investigate these devices, The Affect Lab examines four technologies related to the history of psychology in North America: spiritualist toys at Harvard University, serial photography in early American psychological laboratories, experiments on “psychopaths” performed with an instrument called an Offner Dynograph, and the development of the “electropsychometer,” or “E-Meter,” by Volney Mathison and L. Ron Hubbard.

Challenging the large body of humanities research surrounding affect theory, The Affect Lab identifies an understudied problem in formulations of affect: how affect is a construction inseparable from the techniques and devices used to identify and measure it. Ultimately, Bollmer offers a new critique of affect and affect theory, demonstrating how deferrals to psychology and neuroscience in contemporary theory and philosophy neglect the material of experimental, scientific research.

Cover design by Adrianna Sutton. Cover images: Hulin and Katz’s “The Frois-Wittmann Pictures of Facial Expression,” 1935. Background image from Theodor Piderit’s Mimik und Physiognomik (1886)


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    Open access edition funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities

    Portions of the Introduction and chapter 2 were originally published in a different form in “Books of Faces: Cultural Techniques of Basic Emotions,” NECSUS: European Journal of Media Studies 8, no. 1 (2019): 125–50; the original article was published under a CC-BY-4.0 Creative Commons license.

    Copyright 2023 by the Regents of the University of Minnesota

    The Affect Lab: The History and Limits of Measuring Emotion is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0).
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    University of Minnesota Press
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    Minneapolis, MN
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    Please see the Creative Commons website for details about the restrictions associated with the CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 license.
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    Regents of the University of Minnesota
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