Understanding the Cannon-Bard Theory of Emotion

woman looking scared in parking garage
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The Cannon-Bard theory of emotion, also known as the Thalamic theory of emotion, is a physiological explanation of emotion developed by Walter Cannon and Philip Bard. Cannon-Bard theory states that we feel emotions and experience physiological reactions such as sweating, trembling, and muscle tension simultaneously.

How the Cannon-Bard Theory Works

More specifically, it is suggested that emotions result when the thalamus sends a message to the brain in response to a stimulus, resulting in a physiological reaction.

For example: I see a snake --> I am afraid, and I begin to tremble.

According to the Cannon-Bard theory of emotion, we react to a stimulus and experience the associated emotion at the same time.

For example, imagine that you are walking to your car through a darkened parking garage. You hear the sounds of footsteps trailing behind you, and spot a shadowy figure slowly following you as you make your way to your car. According to the Cannon-Bard theory of emotion, you will experience feelings of fear and physical reaction at the same time. You will begin to feel fearful, and your heart will begin to race. You rush to your car, lock the doors behind you and rush out of the parking garage to head home.

The Cannon-Bard theory differs from other theories of emotion such as the James-Lange theory of emotion, which argues that physiological responses occur first and result and are the cause of emotions.

How the Cannon-Bard Theory Differs From Other Theories of Emotion

The James-Lange theory was the dominant theory of emotion at the time, but Harvard physiologist Walter Cannon and his doctoral student Philip Bard felt that the theory did not accurately reflect how emotional experiences take place.

William James’s theory suggested that people first experience a physiological reaction in response to a stimulus in the environment. People then experience some sort of physiological reaction to this stimulus which is then labeled as an emotion. For example, if you encounter a growling dog, you might begin to breathe rapidly and tremble. James-Lange theory would then suggest that you would label those feelings as fear.

Cannon's work instead suggested that emotions could be experienced even when the body does not reveal a physiological reaction. In other cases, he noted, physiological reactions to different emotions can be extremely similar. People experience sweating, a racing heartbeat and increased respiration in response to fear, excitement, ​and anger. These emotions are very different, but the physiological responses are the same.

Cannon and Bard instead suggested that the experience of emotion was not dependent upon interpreting the body's physiological reactions. Instead, they believed that the emotion and the physical response occur simultaneously and that one was not dependent upon the other.

Cannon-Bard theory was formulated as a reaction to the James-Lange theory of emotion. Where James-Lange theory represented a physiological explanation for emotions, the Cannon-Bard theory represents and neurobiological approach. Another more recent theory is the Schacter-Singer theory of emotion (also known as two-factor) theory, which takes a cognitive approach to explaining emotion.

The Schacter-Singer theory draws on elements of both James-Lange theory and Cannon-Bard theory, proposing that physiological arousal occurs first but that such reactions are often similar for different emotions. The theory suggests that the physiological reactions must be cognitively labeled and interpreted as a particular emotion. The theory emphasizes the role that cognition and elements of the situation play in the experience of emotion.