Understanding the Cannon–Bard Theory of Emotion: 3 Examples

Cannon-Bard Theory of EmotionsWe describe ourselves as seeing red when angry, turning green with disgust, or feeling flustered when excited.

But how do we define emotions, comprehend their cognitive and physiological components, and understand the reasons behind our emotional experiences?

The challenge in comprehending emotions lies in understanding the link between their physiological and cognitive components.

This article explores one theory that seeks to explain this connection: the Cannon–Bard theory of emotion.

We will begin with a concise definition, provide a few examples, explore critical concepts and applications, and subsequently compare the Cannon–Bard emotion theory with another prominent viewpoint: the James–Lange theory.

Given your interest in emotions, we will also briefly introduce our Emotional Intelligence Masterclass and other pertinent resources available from PositivePsychology.com.

Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Emotional Intelligence Exercises for free. These science-based exercises will enhance your ability to understand and work with your emotions and give you the tools to foster the emotional intelligence of your clients, students, or employees.

Cannon–Bard Emotion Theory Explained

The Cannon–Bard theory of emotion, formulated by doctors Walter Cannon and Philip Bard, emerged as one of the earliest theories of emotion (Baumeister & Bushman, 2020).

At that time, between 1880 and 1930, prominent theories explained the existence of emotions through physiological symptoms (Baumeister & Bushman, 2020).

The earliest theory, the James–Lange theory of emotion, was developed in the late 1800s and posited that physiological responses always preceded the experience of emotion. This means that we first manifest physiological responses (such as crying) and then experience the emotion’s cognitive experience (such as sadness).

The fundamental premise of this theory was that emotion had to be preceded by physical symptoms; without the experience of physical symptoms, emotions were not possible (Baumeister & Bushman, 2020).

Walter Cannon proposed an alternative explanation to the James–Lange theory of emotion and the general understanding of emotion. As a physiologist, he based his theory on scientific experiments conducted on animals and human anatomy.

Cannon’s experiments

Based on his own experiments and other researchers’ at the time, Cannon presented a different perspective of emotion (see Robinson, 2018). He discovered that animals could still display specific emotions even when certain connections with the brain were severed, thus preventing the brain from receiving information about physiological changes.

He showed this in two ways:

  • Cats could still behave aggressively toward barking dogs even when the neural connection between the cerebral cortex and the thalamus was severed.
  • Cats injected with cortisone and experiencing the associated physiological changes of a racing heart still did not show any emotional changes.

Together, his findings challenged the fundamental premises of the James–Lange theory, specifically that the experience of emotion was always preceded by and solely reliant on physiological behaviors (Cannon, 1927, 1929, 1931; Robinson, 2018).

The role of the thalamus

Pivotal to the Cannon–Bard theory of emotion is the brain structure known as the thalamus.

The thalamus, epithalamus, subthalamus, and hypothalamus make up part of the diencephalon within the forebrain (Crossman & Neary, 2018).

According to the Cannon–Bard theory, the thalamus plays a pivotal role in the processing and experience of emotions.

  • Sensory information initially travels to the thalamus.
  • The thalamus relays this information to the cerebral cortex for further processing.
  • This results in the cognitive experience of emotion.
  • Simultaneously, other information is relayed to the hypothalamus and the autonomic nervous system, resulting in physiological arousal.

The thalamus also facilitates motor coordination through the cerebellum and basal ganglia (Darby & Walsh, 2005). These streams of information occur concurrently and independently.

Although the Cannon–Bard theory of emotion made essential contributions to the field of emotion, it is not without criticism. Criticisms include that the theory largely ignores the complexities of emotions and how emotions provide feedback and influence the cognitive appraisal of a situation (Levenson, 2014).

In conclusion, Cannon and Bard’s experiments led them to propose that the different components of emotions were processed independently of one another because of the functioning of the thalamus.

They saw the thalamus acting as a relay station, enabling the simultaneous transmission and processing of information without the necessity of one type preceding another. For this reason, the Cannon–Bard theory is also sometimes known as the thalamic theory of emotion (Thanapattheerakul et al., 2018).

3 Examples of the Cannon–Bard Emotion Theory

Cannon-Bard Theory of EmotionsThe Cannon–Bard theory of emotion emphasizes the parallel streams of physiological changes and cognitive components of emotional experiences.

Here are three examples that illustrate the key concepts.

1. Alone in the dark

Imagine you are walking back to your car after dinner with friends. As you enter the parking lot, you realize it is dark and you are alone.

You receive sensory information about your environment (dark, alone), which you interpret as dangerous. You simultaneously feel fear (the cognitive component), and your heart rate increases (physiological response).

2. Stage fright

While at work, you prepare for a presentation in front of the executive committee. In anticipation of the meeting, you rehearse your speech. While rehearsing, you realize that you still need to make some changes.

You simultaneously feel the cognitive component of anxiety and the physiological responses of increased heart rate and increased sweating.

3. First date jitters

On your first date, you go to the movies with your new partner. During the film, you feel a warm hand on your knee, and you excitedly place yours on top.

The cognitive component, excitement, concurrently occurs alongside the physiological response of elevated heart rate and sweating.

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James–Lange vs. Cannon–Bard Theories

The James–Lange theory of emotion, developed by William James (1884) and Carl Lange, predates the Cannon–Bard theory by approximately 50 years (Baumeister & Bushman, 2020).

The theories share certain similarities and differences in their explanations of emotions.

Physiological changes are important

Both theories are grouped as physiological theories of emotion (Sreeja & Mahalakshmi, 2017) because both highlight the significance of physiological changes in the experience of emotions (Baumeister & Bushman, 2020).

Despite this similarity, they differ according to how they interpret the role of physiological changes.

But not important in the same way

The James–Lange Theory suggests that physiological changes precede the cognitive experience of emotions (Baumeister & Bushman, 2020).

The implication is that emotions cannot exist without accompanying physiological changes.

  • For example, individuals first exhibit a physiological state, such as crying, and subsequently interpret and assign meaning to that physiological state.

On the other hand, the Cannon–Bard theory proposes that different streams of information, including cognitive appraisal and physiological changes, occur simultaneously and independently (Thanapattheerakul et al., 2018).

Emotions arise through the cognitive appraisal of a specific event, while physiological changes occur independently through the autonomic nervous system (Thanapattheerakul et al., 2018).

  • For example, one can experience sadness without crying and also cry without experiencing sadness.

Differentiating emotions based on physiological changes

Another difference lies in the role of specific physiological changes in differentiating emotions.

The James–Lange theory posits that distinct physiological states precede different emotions. However, some emotions are associated with similar physiology. For example, agitation and excitement are associated with high arousal, whereas disgust and mourning are associated with low arousal (Ménard et al., 2015).

In summary, the critical distinctions between the two theories are as follows:

  • The James–Lange theory emphasizes that physiological changes must precede the experience of emotions. It considers them the origin of emotions.
  • The Cannon–Bard theory de-emphasizes the importance of order and argues instead that physiological and emotional experiences can occur in parallel (Baumeister & Bushman, 2020).

4 Key Concepts and Applications

Physiological responsesThe fundamental concepts of the Cannon–Bard theory include the following (Thanapattheerakul et al., 2018).

  1. Parallel cognitive activation
    The theory emphasizes that cognitive and physiological processes occur simultaneously and independently during emotional experiences. It suggests that emotions are not solely dependent on preceding behavioral changes.
  2. Role of the thalamus
    The theory highlights the significance of the thalamus in relaying sensory information to the relevant structures within the cerebral cortex. The thalamus plays a crucial role in facilitating simultaneous cognitive activation. As such, the importance of the thalamus as a relay station is recognized in research on various cognitive disorders (Moustafa et al., 2017).
  3. Cognitive assessment
    The Cannon–Bard theory recognizes the importance of cognitive assessment or appraisal in the experience of emotions. Our interpretation and evaluation of a situation contribute to the emotional response. Consequently, this led to several other theories about emotion that emphasized cognitive appraisal and whether an emotion is always a conscious experience (Thanapattheerakul et al., 2018).
  4. Separation of physiological responses and emotions
    The theory emphasizes that psychological states and physiological responses are separate. Cannon and Bard’s research showed that psychological experiences can occur independently of physiological changes. This is especially important for research critiquing the lie detector test (Nortje & Tredoux, 2019).

In addition to these applications, Cannon continued his research and contributed to the well-known theory of the fight-or-flight response (Robinson, 2018).

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In total, the masterclass comprises six modules. The modules are theoretical and practical in nature. The topics covered will help you:

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  4. Be better able to express your emotions
  5. Define and improve your emotional intelligence

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Resources From PositivePsychology.com

In addition to our excellent masterclasses, we have an extensive library of resources for readers. We have highlighted a few that we think are relevant.

Emotion worksheets

We have listed two practical worksheets that are appropriate for personal and professional use.

1. Emotional Wellness Quiz

The Emotional Wellness Quiz comprises 16 questions, and each question asks how frequently a particular emotion occurs. The response is given on a five-point scale.

The results of this quiz can be used to determine which types of feelings — positive and negative — are experienced most frequently and provides an overview of emotional wellness.

For example, after answering the quiz, it might be clear that clients have been feeling overwhelmingly negative for a while. With this insight, you can work with your client to develop a plan of action to help them understand what is happening in their life to make them feel like this.

One strength of the quiz is that it can be easily administered in a clinical setting since it should take approximately 10 minutes. Furthermore, this quiz can also help clients identify their feelings and reflect on what they are experiencing and provides an overview of patterns of behavior and emotions.

2. The PERMA Model

The PERMA Model is a practical guide of behaviors and thoughts that can be considered daily to improve emotional wellbeing and happiness. Each letter in the model name stands for a different action, and the worksheet includes examples of how these actions can be satisfied.

  • Positive emotion
  • Engagement
  • (Social) relationships
  • Meaning
  • Accomplishments

By using the model as a reminder, more concrete actions and thoughts can be developed in line with each letter in the PERMA model.

Recommended reading

Interested readers are spoiled for choice when looking for more posts on emotions.

The first recommended post is a theoretical exploration of negative emotions. In it, readers will learn more about the definition, causes, and effects of negative emotions.

We chose this post since it is not only theoretical; there is also a practical section with suggestions about controlling negative emotions.

The second recommended post is more practical and outlines guidelines for developing emotional awareness. The author starts with a theoretical definition of emotional intelligence, before describing a large list of practical ways to measure and develop emotional intelligence.

With these resources, readers will be well equipped to improve emotional intelligence in one-on-one settings, group sessions, and workshops. This post is a good starting point for someone interested in applying research on emotions to a clinical setting and personal development.

17 Emotional Intelligence Tools

If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others develop emotional intelligence, check out this collection of 17 validated EI tools for practitioners. Use them to help others understand and use their emotions to their advantage.

A Take-Home Message

Although conceptualized decades ago, the Cannon–Bard theory introduced a groundbreaking concept: Emotions and physiological changes occur simultaneously and independently of one another.

The implication is that our physiological state does not solely determine our emotional experiences; our cognitive interpretation of a situation also influences them.

This aspect of the Cannon–Bard theory highlights the profound impact of cognitive processes on our emotional experiences. It suggests that by altering how we perceive and assess a situation, we can change our emotional response. This understanding opens up new possibilities for emotional regulation and highlights the role of cognitive interventions in managing and transforming our emotions.

The Cannon–Bard theory provides a valuable framework for comprehending the complex interplay between cognition, physiology, and emotions. It underscores the significance of cognitive appraisal in shaping our emotional experiences and invites exploration into strategies that can empower individuals to exert greater control over their emotional responses.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Emotional Intelligence Exercises for free.

Frequently Asked Questions

The Cannon–Bard theory is also sometimes known as the thalamic theory of emotion (Thanapattheerakul et al., 2018). This is because the functioning of the thalamus affects how emotions are processed, according to Cannon and Bard’s experiments.

The thalamus acts as a relay station, enabling the simultaneous transmission and processing of information without the necessity of one type preceding another.

Emotions comprise three components (Brown et al., 2020):

  • Physical changes in the body, such as a racing heart, increased blood pressure, blushing, and sweating
  • Cognitive aspects, like being aware of the emotion, interpreting the emotion, and assigning a label to the emotion
  • Behavioral components, such as facial expressions, gestures, and movements

Some critics argue that the relationship between physiological responses and emotions is more complex than initially proposed by the Cannon–Bard theory. Evidence suggests that physiological responses can actually influence our emotions. For example, research has shown that people who take beta-blockers, which reduce physiological arousal, report feeling less anxious.

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