Emotions are psycho-physiological reactions that we all experience in our daily lives: joy, sadness, anger… In large part, they govern our decisions and lead us to choose paths and discard others. They also influence our behavior and thoughts.

The genesis of emotions has been explained from many points of view: biological, physiological, psychological… Here we will know the Cannon-Bard’s theory , a psychophysiological theory that proposes that the emotion prepares the individual to act and adapt to the environment.

Bradford Cannon and Philip Bard

In early 1900, Walter Bradford Cannon (1871-1945), a physiologist and scientist at Harvard University, proposed a theory that explained the origin of emotions. In addition, he made a series of criticisms of the preceding and dominant theory of the moment, the peripheral theory of James-Lange .

On the other hand, Philip Bard (1898 – 1977), an American physiologist, also joined the Cannon theory, and together they formulated the Cannon-Bard theory.

Cannon-Bard Theory: Features

Cannon’s (1927) and Bard’s (1938) theory is based on a psychophysiological approach. According to the authors, emotion precedes behaviour and prepares the organism to make a fight or flight response to environmental emergency situations. For example, “we cry because we feel sad”.

In other words, emotion comes before physiological responses. After the emotion and from there, an alarm reaction is triggered to such borderline situations.

On the other hand, Cannon and Bard state that the subject will always tend to seek balance and to adapt to the environment to the situations .

Cannon and Bard, through their experiments, emphasized the role of the brain in producing physiological responses and feelings. These experiments substantially supported their theory of emotion.

In addition, they considered emotion as a cognitive event. They argued that all physical reactions are the same for different emotions, and therefore, on the basis of physiological signals (only) we could not distinguish one emotion from another.

Background: James-Lange’s Peripheral Theory

Before Cannon-Bard’s theory, James-Lange’s prevailed. This is the peripheral James-Lange theory. According to this, the perception of body changes generates the emotional experience (that is, following the previous example, it would be “to be sad because we cry”.

According to James-Lange, the sequence would be as follows: we observe a stimulus (for example, a sad face), this information is sent to the cortex, then the visceral and motor physiological responses appear (we cry). Then the cortex perceives the sensations of crying and generates the feeling (in this case, sadness).

Cannon-Bard Experiments

Through their experiments, Cannon and Bard determined that the perception of emotion aroused by stimuli originates two phenomena : the conscious experience of emotion and general physiological changes. All this originates because the thalamus sends its impulses to the cerebral cortex and the hypothalamus.

Effects of emotions

On the other hand, Cannon-Bard’s theory states that conscious emotional experiences, physiological reactions and behavior are relatively independent events.

Thus, according to the authors, emotional stimuli have two independent excitatory effects: on the one hand they provoke the feeling of emotion in the brain, and on the other, the expression of emotion in the autonomic and somatic nervous systems .

Cannon and Bard reviews of James-Lange

Cannon-Bard’s theory makes a number of criticisms of James-Lange’s theory. These are as follows:

1. Body changes are not essential for perceiving emotion

In addition, Cannon and Bard argue that cutting the afferent pathways does not produce changes in emotional responses .

2. There are no specific patterns of emotions

According to Cannon and Bard, what actually happens is that certain body changes are similar for different emotions.

3. Sometimes body sensations occur after the emotion

This means that the body’s sensations, being slower, often manifest themselves after experiencing the emotion (which may be immediate).

4. Voluntary activation of the organism

When the organism is voluntarily activated , no real emotion appears.

5. Fuzzy and general activation

Cannon-Bard’s theory proposes a diffuse and general autonomous activation (it is therefore a central theory with a substrate in the thalamus); on the other hand, James-Lange’s theory, which is peripheral, and argues that each emotional state causes specific physiological changes.

Bibliographic references:

  • Aguado, L. (2005). Emotion, affection and motivation. Chapter 1: Introduction to the study of emotion (17-48). Alliance: Madrid.
  • Díaz, A. (2010). Theories of emotions. Innovation and educational experiences, 29.
  • Fernández, E.G.; García, B.; Jiménez, M.P.; Martín, M.D. and Domínguez, F.J. (2010). Psychology of emotion. Editorial Universitaria Ramón Areces: Madrid.
  • The Psychology Notes, HQ. (2013). Cannon-Bard Theory of Emotion. Online Resources for Psychology Students.