Emotions I

The relationship between our bodies and our minds has fascinated me since I started my education in Psychology. Unsurprisingly, the mind-body relationship is incredibly complex, and one of the most profound examples of this mysterious interaction is the phenomenon of emotions; specifically where they come from.

In this ultra-short two-part blog series I want to delve a little into some theories around how our emotions come to be. It’s not really a subject exclusively related to our digital lives, but since we do experience plenty of emotions on digital platforms I figured I could get away with it. (; Emotions are such a ubiquitous part of our lives that I couldn’t help but wonder; how is something so real and yet so intangible as emotions connected to a bunch of human body cells?

Although the definition of ’emotion’ is still very much debated, emotions are generally thought of as complex feelings of which one is usually conscious, and which are related to psychological and physical changes in the mind and body, respectively. Although they don’t always influence behaviour (but very well might), emotions will almost always influence a person’s thoughts, and are thus a very powerful phenomenon of human psychology.

However, how do emotions arise? And how are these complex psychological states related to our body? It turns out, that – as with the definition itself – the generation of emotions is a topic of controversy as well. In fact, with regard to the question of how emotions arise, there are two starkly opposing camps.

19th Century scientists William James and Carl Lange simultaneously yet independently from each other proposed an account of emotions that is now known as the James-Lange theory of emotion. According to this theory, emotions arise in the following way: imagine that you are walking down a dark and empty street, and suddenly you hear someone trailing behind you. James and Lange would say that you have perceived a certain stimulus, in this case the sound of footsteps, and that your body shows a physiological response to this stimulus: your heart starts to race. According to James and Lange, you then interpret this physiological reaction in a certain way, namely as fear, which results in you feeling afraid. In other words, this theory proposes that people have a physiological response to events in their environment, and that their interpretation of this physical reaction results in the experience of an emotion.

However, that’s only one side to the story. In the second and final part of this little series about emotions I’ll go into a completely different view on the matter, so stay tuned. In the meantime, let me know what you think of the James-Lange theory — would you agree that the emotion you feel is just a matter of how you interpret your body?

An earlier version of this blog post can be found on the GEMH Lab website. Here, I have updated that post slightly.

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