The James/Lange theory

In the late 1880s William James, then at Harvard, and Danish physiologist Carl Lange independently suggested the same theory of emotion. Both suggested that emotion is due to perceiving changes in the body. This became known as the James-Lange theory. As James (1890, pp. 449-450) wrote,

What is the James-Lange theory?

My theory...is that the bodily changes follow directly the perception of existing fact, and that our feeling of the same changes as they occur is the emotion...that we feel sorry because we cry, angry because we strike, afraid because we tremble...

Emotion is commonly associated with bodily reactions, specifically autonomic nervous system activation such as shaking or sweating. As James put it, our feeling of change is the emotion. This implies that the emotion can be simultaneous with the body reaction: they are, in a sense, the same thing.

Some psychologists interpret this as meaning that the body reaction comes first, and the emotion comes quickly afterward. Schwartz offers an example of the latter pattern, in which there is a slight delay between the two:

Think about what happens when you narrowly miss hitting someone who has darted out in front of your moving car. Chances are your first act is to slam on the brakes and screech to a halt. After the car is safely stopped you notice that your heart is beating rapidly and your face is flushed with sweat; and then you begin to feel fear. As the James-Lange theory predicts, only after the car is stopped and the accident averted does the emotion occur. (Schwartz, 1986, p.90)

Some scholars distinguish between weak and strong versions of the James-Lange hypothesis. (A "weak" theory does not claim anything very controversial, while a "strong" theory may claim a lot but is less likely to be true.)

1. The weak version of the James-Lange theory is that a person's awareness of emotion, and experience of its aftereffects (shock, numbness, horror, elation, love) may follow a bodily reaction. One may be surprised by love, by horror, by pride, by remorse. We refer to "gut reaction" when "the heart sinks" or "the heart skips a beat" or something "turns your stomach.""

What are the weak and strong versions of the James-Lange theory?

2. The strong version of the James-Lange theory, which researchers are usually talking about when they refer to the James-Lange theory, is that emotions occur only after visceral reactions. This implies that if you prevent a bodily response, there should be no emotion.

Walter Cannon (1929) did a series of experiments designed to test the second, strong version of the James-Lange theory. Cannon cut the spinal cord of dogs so that no sensations from the viscera could reach the dog's brain. If emotion followed directly from perception of visceral responses (he argued) the dogs should no longer show emotion. However, the dogs with severed spinal cords still showed emotions of anger, fear, and pleasure. This contradicted the James/Lange theory. Modern psychologists agree that the strong version is false; emotions arise in the brain. Emotion is not a response to changes in the body.


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