Brief notes on the Theories of Emotion


The field of emotion has received some theoretical approaches from researchers. These theories are based on experiments. They all involve both physiological and cognitive elements. For introductory knowledge, we have discussed two important theories of emotion, i.e., James-Lange theory and Cannon-Bard theory.

There are also other theories of emotion, such as (a) Activation Theory, (b) Behaviorist theory and (c) Cognitive-appraisal theory (d) MacLean’s theory of emotion (e) Papez’s theory of emotion and (f) Singer’s two factor theory of emotion.

James-Lange Theory


C.G. Lange was a Danish physiologist. He outlined a theory of emotion. This theory was very similar to William James (1890). Thus both are given credit for the theory. James wrote in his book entitled, “Principles of Psychology”,

“Our natural way of thinking about these coarser emotions, e.g., grief, fear rage, love is that the mental perception of some facts excites the men affection called the emotion, and that this latter state of mind gives rise to the bodily expression. My theory on the contrary is that the bodily changes foil directly the perception of the existing fact and that our feeling of the same changes as they occur is the emotion”.

James again stated, “common sense says we loose our fortune, are so and weep; we meet a bear, get frightened and run; we are insulted by rival, are angry and strike. The hypothesis here to be defended says that this order of sequence is incorrect, that the one mental state is not immediately induced by the other; that the bodily manifestations must first be interposed between, and that the most rational statement is that we feel sorry because we cry, angry because we strike, afraid because we tremble, and not that we cry, strike, or tremble because we are sorry, angry, or fearful, as the case may be.

Without the bodily states following as the perception, the latter would be purely cognitive in form, pale, colorless, destitute of emotional warmth. We might then see the bear and judge it best to run, receive the insult and deem it right to strike, but we should not actually feel afraid or angry” (1892).


Lange proposed a similar view and concluded that the vasomotor (bodily) changes were the emotion. Lange’s theory held that a stimulus object or situation gives rise immediately to vasomotor changes wherever blood vessels are found. The secondary changes occurring in the tissues were believed to give rise to the sensations that constitute the emotion.

Cannon schematized the above neural basis for the James-Lange theory of emotion (see Figure 7.9). The diagram may be described as follows: an object stimulates one or more receptors (R). Afferent impulses proceed to the cortex through path No.1 and the object is perceived. Then efferent impulses -immediately activate muscles, i.e., motor, organs and viscera through path No. 2. The activities of these organs cause the afferent impulses to reach the cortex via path Nos. 3 and 4. The perception of these changes in muscles and viscera, which follow the original perception of the external stimulus object, transforms the object simply apprehended into the object emotionally-felt, -according to James, “the feeling of the bodily changes as they occur is the emotion”. Thus James-Lange theory identifies the emotions with the perception of the organic changes. This can be stated as follows:

Perception of the stimulus object —-  Motor reaction —–  Visceral arousal   —– Emotion

This theory was criticized by Cannon showing its limitations. James and Lange did not portray the several mechanisms of emotion because advance knowledge about neuroanatomy and neurophysiology were largely unknown during those years.


Cannon-Bard Theory

This theory of emotion is the contribution of American physiologist Walter B. Cannon. It is often referred to as the “Thalamic theory of emotion” This theory proposes that the integration of emotional expression is controlled by the thalamus sending relevant excitation pattern to the cortex, and at the same time the hypothalamus controls the behaviour. Much of the support for the theory came later from the work of Bard. His theory is otherwise known as Thalamic theory ‘of emotion.

This theory states that strong emotions make the individual alert and ready for emergency reactions. Thus, this theory is called “Emergency Theory of Emotion.” In essence, the theory postulates that the sympathetic division of the autonomic nervous system is dominant during emotion. Owing to the activities of the sympathetic division, the heart is palpitated, digestion is inhibited, respiration is deeper and more rapid, blood is chanalised to motor organ from viscera, and adrenal is poured in to the blood stream.

Cannon and Bard identified the hypothalamus as the main integrating center in the brain for the control of behavioral reactions in emotion. It was experimentally observed that when the hypothalamus of the animal is removed, emotional responses become fragmentary and disintegrated. They also demonstrated that electrical stimulation of the hypothalamus leads to the full rage and attack reaction. This rage pattern is called the “sham rage”. Removal of the cerebral cortex lowers the threshold for rage responses in animals. This shows that cortex normally exercises inhibiting responses over hypothalamus; it is also experimentally found that rage responses in decorticated animals are short lived and disappear when the stimulus is withdrawn.


When the emotion-provoking stimulus excites the receptor, the afferent impulses move towards the thalamus through path No.1. After reaching thalamus, they may activate thalamic processes or may go to the cortex through path 1. Here they invoke the conditioned response in the cortex after which, cortical excitation may excite thalamic process through release of inhibition in path No. 3. Because of thin afferent impulses flow in path No. 2 either through direct activation of the thalamus over path 1 or impulses have passed to cortex on path 1, where they inactivate inhibition over path 3. This leads to patterned motor responses in the thalamus to be expressed in motor organs and gland via path No. 2. At the same time an upward discharge in path 4 goes the cortex carrying the pattern just released.

Thus the original sensory experience along with perceptual cortical activities through path No. 4 transform the object simply apprehended to the object emotionally felt. When the thalamic processes are aroused emotion is materialized from a simple sensation. Bard’s experiments supported Cannon’s view that emotion involves the reactivation of the cortex via path 4.

Cannon and Bard held that emotional experiences and the expressive responses both occur at the same time because of thalamic and hypothalamic activities, which can be stated as follows:

Perception of stimulus — halamic & Hypothalmic arousal — Emotion / Visceral arousal.


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