MCAT Content / Emotion / Theories Of Emotion

Theories of Emotion

Topic: Emotion

Researchers have developed several theories of how human emotions arise and are represented in the brain, including the James-Lange theory, Cannon-Bard theory, and the Schacter-Singer theory.

Researchers have developed several theories of how human emotions arise and are represented in the brain. The mechanisms behind our experience of emotions and our cognitive processing of them remains a central topic of research and debate.

According to the James–Lange theory of emotion, emotions arise from physiological arousal. The James–Lange theory of emotion asserts that emotions arise from physiological arousal: in essence, that the self-perception of changes in the body produce emotional experiences. According to this theory, we laugh (a physiological response to a stimulus), and consequently we feel happy (an emotion); we cry, and consequently we feel sad. For example, if you were to encounter a venomous snake in your backyard, your sympathetic nervous system (responsible for activating your fight-or-flight response) would initiate physiological arousal, making your heart race and increasing your breathing rate. According to the James–Lange theory of emotion, you would experience a feeling of fear only after this physiological arousal had taken place. Different arousal patterns would be associated with different feelings.

One limitation of this theory is that it is not known exactly what causes the changes in the body, so it is unclear whether those changes should be considered part of the emotion itself. Critics of the James–Lange theory also doubt that there is sufficient variation in physiological arousal to lead to the wide variety of emotions that we experience. To address these limitations, other theories—such as the Cannon–Bard theory—have been developed.

The Cannon–Bard theory of emotion argues that physiological arousal and emotional experience occur simultaneously but independently.

This theory posits that when you see a venomous snake in your backyard, you feel fear at exactly the same time that your body initiates its physiological fight-or-flight response. Even though they occur at the same time, your emotional reaction and your physiological reaction would be separate and independent.

According to the Cannon–Bard theory, emotional expression results from activation of the subcortical centers of the brain. The optic thalamus, in particular, is a region that contains the neural organizations for different emotional expressions. An individual’s sensory organs take in an emotional stimulus, and then information about that stimulus is relayed to the cerebral cortex. It is in the cortex where such information is associated with conditioned processes, which in turn determine the direction of the response and stimulate the thalamic processes.

The Schachter–Singer theory views emotion as the result of the interaction between two factors: physiological arousal and cognition. According to the Schacter–Singer theory, emotion results from the interaction between two factors: physiological arousal and cognition. More specifically, this theory claims that physiological arousal is cognitively interpreted within the context of each situation, which ultimately produces the emotional experience. These cognitive interpretations, how a person labels and understands what they are experiencing, are formed based on the person’s past experiences.

For example, if you were to see a venomous snake in your backyard, the Schachter–Singer theory argues that the snake would elicit sympathetic nervous system activation (physiological arousal) that would be cognitively labeled as fear (cognition) based on the context. What you would actually experience, then, would be the feeling of fear.


Practice Questions


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Key Points

• The James–Lange theory of emotion asserts that emotions arise as a result of physiological arousal —i.e., that the self-perception of changes in the body produces an emotional experience.

• The Cannon–Bard theory of emotion was developed in response to the James-Lange theory, which proposes that emotions arise from physical arousal.

• In contrast, the Cannon–Bard theory argues that physiological arousal and emotional experience occur simultaneously, yet independently.

• According to the Cannon–Bard theory, when you see a venomous snake, you feel fear at exactly the same time that your autonomic nervous system responds.

• According to the Schachter–Singer theory of emotion (also known as two-factor theory), emotions are the result of the interaction between two factors: physiological arousal and cognition.

• According to the Schacter–Singer theory, physiological arousal is cognitively interpreted based on environmental context; this process culminates in emotional experience.

• For example, if you were to see a venomous snake in your backyard, the Schachter–Singer theory argues that the snake would elicit a physiological response that would be cognitively labeled as fear based on the context.


Key Terms

subcortical: of or pertaining to the portion of the brain located below the cerebral cortex

thalamus: either of two large, ovoid structures of grey matter within the forebrain that relay sensory impulses to the cerebral cortex

emotion: a natural instinctive state of mind deriving from one’s circumstances, mood, or relationships with others

cognitive: the process of knowing; the mental process

physiological: relating to the branch of biology that deals with the normal functions of living organisms and their parts



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