Theory of Emotions

In the last post we discussed about the evolutionary traits of emotions that gives the evolutional perspectives of emotions. As discussed there are several other models that are formulated in the literature. We will take three of them in this post and discuss them in a more informal way. Consider these three statements:

  1. We cry and (so) we are sad
  2. We are sad because we cry
  3. We are sad because we cry and understand that something has gone wrong totally against our expectation

We can explain the three theories using the above three statements.

James-Lang theory relates to the second one. It says that because of our physiological reactions to certain events we get emotions/feelings. Some models like Damasio’s even differentiate between emotions and feelings. But for our understanding we take both as same. To say more clearly this theory states that due to experience of some event we get into some physiological reactions like shivering, trembling, rise in heart rate, dryness of mouth and so on and because of this we get into various emotions. Although this theory does not hold good with the present researchers in the field there is some truth about this theory in some specific situations. For example, the drug addicts experience various physiological reactions then get into various moods/feelings/emotions. The main criticism of this theory is that viscera react slowly — people experience emotion then feel the effect in the viscera.

Cannon-Bard theory relates to the first statement, i.e., we cry and (so) we feel sad. Cannon opposed the view of James-Lang theory and showed by experiments that thalamus is the key for all of our emotional reactions and when that occurs almost at the same time physiological reactions are also produced. But he did not mention clearly if the physiological reactions is only because of emotions. To confirm the importance of thalamus he showed that when we remove the thalamus the body ceases to produce emotions.

The two-factor theory formulated by Schachter & Singer relates to the third statement above. It says that emotional reactions are generated by both the physiological reactions (arousal) and cognition. External events causes physiological reactions in us and some understanding of the events like how relevant it is to us — painful or pleasure; how important; and other contexts like social implications and so on. Because of cognition there might be inhibition and exaggeration. We as an individual experience these physiological changes and try to interpret these changes. Likewise, when we understand the events we infer it in many dimensions (also called as appraisal) like relevancy, how important, social context and so on and this creates a kind of feeling in us. These two factors lead us to some feeling which we call it as emotions. Schachter & Singer in 1962 showed this using a very nice experiment described here.

There are many other theories for emotions built over the years that we will take up in the next series of blogs. But coming back to the three models described above obviously the last model carries more weight in the sense that it is more appropriate to the reality in this modern era. It is also interesting to see the evolution in the understanding of emotions — James-Lang theory was formulated in the 19th century (this theory is not generally accepted these days), Cannon-Bard theory in the early part of 20th century (not so accepted although for some specific situations it works) and the two-factor theory in the later part of 20th century (the most agreed upon theory out of these three).

2 thoughts on “Theory of Emotions”

  1. Some differentiation has to be there between mood and emotion, i do not know of any references.
    A advanced neuronal basis for generation of emotions is not under question as of now. There are distinct disease entitites which show emotional disturbances, one which comes to mind is psuedobulbar palsy. Also frontal lobar diseases are known to cause emotional disturbances(these are the ones i see). Of course on the psychiatry side more varied localisations are possible.

    1. Definitely, there has to be some difference between moods and emotion. For the purpose of this post I assumed they are the same. Damasio’s says they both are different. Thanks Vikas for your additional comments on the neuro front. Would like to know more about it!

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