Emotional Theory

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Suppose you are walking in the woods and come upon a mean-looking bear. The encounter scares the daylights out of you, and you begin to run for dear life. Do you run because you are afraid, or are you afraid because you run? The example and the question come from the work of William James, one of the first psychologists to propose a formal answer to questions about how autonomic responses are related to the experience of emotion. James argued that you are afraid because you run. Your running and other physiological responses, he said, follow directly from the perception of the bear. Without some form of these responses, you would feel no fear.

Presented like this, in its simplest form, James's theory may sound preposterous. It goes against common sense, which says that it would be silly to run from something unless you are already afraid of it. How did James come to conclude otherwise? James's main method was to scrutinize his own mental processes. He decided that after stripping away all physiological responses, there was nothing left of the experience of an emotion (James, 1890). A similar view was proposed by Carl Lange, a Danish physician; as a result, James's formulation is usually called the James-Lange theory.

First, a perception affects the cerebral cortex, said James, then "quick as a flash, reflex currents pass down through their pre-ordained channels, alter the condition of muscle, skin, and viscus; and these alterations, perceived, like the original object, in as many portions of the cortex, combine with it in consciousness and transform it from an object-simply-apprehended into an object-emotionally-felt." (James, 1890, p. 759) In other words, the brain interprets a situation in such a way that physiological res...

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.... However, these studies ignore the importance of facial expressions as bodily responses. James included facial expressions as peripheral responses, and facial expressions can occur despite spinal cord damage. Thus, the James-Lange formulation is somewhat weakened but retains its credibility. A variation on James's theory emphasizes facial expressions as the responses that are interpreted as emotions. According to this facial feedback hypothesis, movements of the face provide information about what emotion is being felt (Izard, 1971, 1990; Laird, 1984). Thus, if you find yourself frowning, you must be unhappy. The facial movement is involuntary, and the feedback from that movement directs further emotional responses. If you can control your facial muscles to reproduce the movements associated with specific emotions, you should to some extent experience those emotions.
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