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Theories of Emotion

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Although stressful emotions can sometimes have a damaging effect on the body, the ability to experience emotions is one of the characteristics of a normal human being. Defective emotional experience or behavior is central to virtually every mental illness. #Schizophrenia#, depression, mania and homicide all have a striking emotional component.

It is quite clear, however, that these all involve different types of emotion, each with its own psychology and physiology. This leads to the suggestion that perhaps emotions should be studied individually rather than as a unified dimension of #human behaviour#.

The first comprehensive theory of emotion was developed in the late 19th century by the American philosopher William James and the Danish neurologist Carl Lange. It states that emotion is the perception of physiological changes caused by the body's reaction to an 'exciting fact'.

The James-Lange theory can be illustrated by describing a typical emotional situation in common-sense terms: Being badly frightened by a near-miss automobile accident causes one's heart to beat faster, one's breathing to quicken, and a variety of other physiological changes to take place. On the surface, it appears that these physiological changes are caused by the fear.

James and Lange, however, claimed the reverse. They believed that the physiological changes caused the emotions, rather than that the emotions caused the changes. To James and Lange, an emotion is nothing more than the perception of the body overreacting.

A simple prediction from this theory is that if the perception of these physical disturbances were disrupted, then the subject would not experience emotions. Since these perceptions are largely dependent on nerves which course through the spinal cord, it would be expected that breaking the spinal cord should reduce emotional experiences.

Critics of the James-Lange theory were quick to point out that humans who have suffered spinal-cord breaks (quadriplegics and paraplegics) do not appear to show any marked reduction of emotional experience. For decades this has stood as the principle argument against the James-Lange theory. However, some recent research has indicated that this criticism is not entirely valid.

Research has shown that the James-Lange theory is neither completely right nor completely wrong. At the very least it has performed an important service by calling attention to the fact that the way the body responds influences the way we feel.

Another influential theory of emotions focuses on the interaction between two parts of the brain, the cortex and the thalamus. This is the Cannon-Bard theory, which is considered to be the forerunner of contemporary neurologically-oriented approaches to emotion.

When events in the environment are detected by the body's peripheral receptors - eyes, ears, nose and so on - signals are transmitted to the brain. These signals pass through the thalamus on their way to the cortex. All sensory information is processed in approximately this way. Cannon and Bard saw the thalamus as being chronically inhibited by the cortex, and speculated that what distinguishes an emotional signal from other sensory signals is its ability to break the inhibition that the cortex exerts on the thalamus. They maintained that it is feedback from the disinhibited thalamus that constitutes an emotion.

Both these theories of emotion have made a contribution to our understanding of the problem. The James-Lange theory called attention to the importance of peripheral physiological events, and the Cannon-Bard theory stressed the importance of the brain.

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