In my previous blog, I gave a short intro to some of the thoughts psychologists and neuroscientists had in the 19th century around the emergence of emotions. However, with a new century came new ideas, and the 1920s saw Walter Cannon and Philip Bard directly challenge the James-Lange theory. Instead of emotions following from physical reactions, they proposed that our physiological responses, such as trembling or breathing rapidly, are in fact independent from emotions and simply occur simultaneously.
To translate this to our earlier example, imagine that you are walking down a new dark and empty street when again you suddenly hear someone trailing behind you. According to the Cannon-Bard theory of emotion, you start feeling afraid and at the same time your heart starts to race, largely independently from each other. They asserted that emotions can be experienced without the presence of physiological responses, and that a theory of emotion should reflect this.
Both theories have been heavily criticised, but as always there seem to be bits of truth hidden in both. In an attempt to integrate the two approaches, more recent theories of emotion (such as the two-factor theory proposed by Stanley Schachter and Jerome Singer in the 1960s) attempt to highlight the role physiology plays in the formation and experience of emotions while still accounting for the fact that physiological reactions such as trembling are not specific to one particular emotion but instead are similar for multiple different emotions.
There are many more theories around emotions, such as James Gross’ emotion regulation theory, which I may write a blog about some time in the future.. One thing is for sure: whether physiological reactions generate emotions or just accompany them – emotions usually serve a certain function. Understanding what your body is trying to tell you will help you understand yourself and your environment, making life just a little bit easier. (:
An earlier version of this blog post can be found on the GEMH Lab website. Here, I have updated that post slightly.