Emotions: At the crossroads of mind and body

19-04-2018

The relationship between our bodies and our minds is incredibly complex, and one of the most profound examples of this interaction may very well be the phenomenon of emotions. In keeping with this month's theme - Listen to Your Body - we will take a short trip down Emotion Lane and shed a little bit of light on what emotions are and how they may arise.

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 emotion.

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. Imagine that you are walking down the same 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 criticized, 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.

Although emotions remain a highly elusive and complex phenomenon, one thing is clear: whether physiological reactions generate emotions or just accompany them - understanding what your body is trying to tell you will help you understand yourself and your environment. 

Author

Nastasia Griffioen

Nerd, loves the brain even more than your average zombie, into etymology and reading, wants to explore information sampling in depression using neuro and computational methods.

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