The James–Lange theory refers to a hypothesis on the origin and nature of emotions and is one of the earliest theories of emotion within modern psychology. It was developed independently by two 19th-century scholars, William James and Carl Lange. The basic premise of the theory is that physiological arousal instigates the experience of emotion. Instead of feeling an emotion and subsequent physiological (bodily) response, the theory proposes that the physiological change is primary, and emotion is then experienced when the brain reacts to the information received via the body's nervous system.
The theory has been criticised and modified over the course of time, as one of several competing theories of emotion. Modern theorists have built on its ideas by proposing that the experience of emotion is modulated by both physiological feedback and other information, rather than consisting solely of bodily changes, as James suggested. Psychologist Tim Dalgleish states that most modern affective neuroscientists would support such a viewpoint. In 2002, a research paper on the autonomic nervous system stated that the theory has been "hard to disprove".
Emotions are often assumed to be judgments about a situation that cause feelings and physiological changes. In 1884, psychologsist and philosopher William James proposed that physiological changes actually precede emotions, which are equivalent to our subjective experience of physiological changes, and are experienced as feelings. In his words, "our feeling of the same changes as they occur is the emotion." James argued:
If we fancy some strong emotion, and then try to abstract from our consciousness of it all the feelings of its characteristic bodily symptoms, we find we have nothing left behind, no "mind-stuff" out of which the emotion can be constituted, and that a cold and neutral state of intellectual perception is all that remains. … What kind of an emotion of fear would be left, if the feelings neither of quickened heart-beats nor of shallow breathing, neither of trembling lips nor of weakened limbs, neither of goose-flesh nor of visceral stirrings, were present, it is quite impossible to think. Can one fancy the state of rage and picture no ebullition of it in the chest, no flushing of the face, no dilatation of the nostrils, no clenching of the teeth, no impulse to vigorous action, but in their stead limp muscles, calm breathing, and a placid face? The present writer, for one, certainly cannot. The rage is as completely evaporated as the sensation of its so-called manifestations.
Physician Carl Lange developed similar ideas independently in 1885. Both theorists defined emotion as a feeling of physiological changes due to a stimulus, but the theorists focused on different aspects of emotion. Although James did talk about the physiology associated with an emotion, he was more focused on conscious emotion and the conscious experience of emotion. For example, a person who is crying reasons that he must be sad. Lange reinterpreted James's theory by operationalizing it. He made James's theory more testable and applicable to real life examples. However, both agreed that if physiological sensations could be removed, there would be no emotional experience. In other words, physiological arousal causes emotion.
The specific pathway involved in the experience of emotion was also described by James. He stated that an object has an effect on a sense organ, which relays the information it is receiving to the cortex. The brain then sends this information to the muscles and viscera, which causes them to respond. Finally, impulses from the muscles and viscera are sent back to the cortex, transforming the object from an "object-simply apprehended" to an "object-emotionally felt."
James explained that his theory went against common sense. For example, while most would think the order of emotional experience would be that a person sees a bear, becomes afraid, and runs away, James thought that first the person has a physiological response to the bear, such as trembling, and then becomes afraid and runs. According to James, the physiological response comes first, and it is perceived as an emotion and followed by a reaction.
Since the theory's inception, scientists have found evidence that not all aspects of the theory are relevant or true. The theory was challenged in the 1920s by psychologists such as Walter Cannon and Philip Bard, who developed an alternative theory of emotion known as Cannon–Bard theory, in which physiological changes follow emotions. A third theory of emotion is Schachter and Singer's two factor theory of emotion. This theory states that cognitions are used to interpret the meaning of physiological reactions to outside events.
Cannon emphasized that the viscera had been separated from the central nervous system with no impact on emotional behavior in experiments on animals. He said this contradicted the James–Lange theory because James believed that the viscera were the center of emotion. Cannon examined research on dogs performed by Sherrington, who separated the spinal cord and vagus nerves from all connections in the rest of the body, and found that the expression of emotion did not change, suggesting that the viscera do not have an observable impact on certain emotional behavior in dogs.
Cannon also emphasized that visceral responses occur when experiencing many different emotions, and in the absence of emotion. For example, the same visceral responses such as increased heart rate, sweating, widening of the pupils, and the discharge of adrenaline can be associated with the experience of fear or anger. However, they are also connected to conditions such as fever, feeling cold, and having difficulty breathing. Therefore, the physical emotional responses that had so far been documented are too general to be linked to a specific emotion.
Cannon argued that visceral responses are slow and not sensitive enough to elicit emotional responses. J.N. Langley had shown that there was a period of two to four seconds between when the chorda tympani nerve was stimulated and when the salivary gland associated with this nerve responded. Thus, Cannon argued that there was too much of a delay between the stimulation of the viscera and the physiological response for it to precede the emotion.
Stimulating the viscera to produce a specific emotion was found to be ineffective by physician Gregorio Marañón. In one of his studies, participants had adrenalin injected into their veins, which produced physiological changes expected to be linked with an emotion. However, the emotion was never produced. The only noticeable changes in the participants were physical, such as activation of the sympathetic nerve impulse, which creates constriction of the blood vessels and dilation of the bronchioles. Cannon stated that this study disproved the idea that physiological responses are the sole reason for the experience of emotion.
The James–Lange theory was much discussed amongst the intelligentsia in America and Britain at the end of the nineteenth century. In ‘The Little White Bird’ (1902) J. M. Barrie discusses the psychological abilities of fairies with his young companion, David. He comments, “David tells me that fairies never say, ‘We feel happy’: what they say is, ‘We feel dancey’. ” This, and related texts, suggest that J. M. Barrie was familiar with the James-Lange theory. Barrie, who wrote the Peter Pan stories, was a good friend of Henry James, William’s brother and had met William James.
Lisa Feldman Barrett points out that when testing this theory with electrical stimulation, there is not a one-to-one response between a behavior and emotion category. In other words, "stimulation of the same site produces different mental states across instances, depending on the prior state of the individual and also the immediate context." She concludes that this means there is more going on when a person feels an emotion than just a physiological response: some kind of processing must happen between the physiological response and the perception of the emotion.
Barrett also says that the experience of emotion is subjective. There is no way to decipher whether a person is feeling sad, angry, or otherwise without relying on the person's perception of emotion. Also, humans do not always exhibit emotions using the same behaviors; humans may withdraw when angry, or fight out of fear. She says that emotion is more complex than a mere physical sensation. According to Barrett's conceptual act model of emotion, a person must make meaning of the physical response based on context, prior experience, and social cues, before they know what emotion is attached to the situation. Barrett and James Gross have reviewed a variety of alternative models to James's theory of emotion.
A study in 2009 found that patients who had lesions to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex had impaired emotional experiences, but unaffected autonomic responses while patients with lesions to the right somatosensory cortex had impaired autonomic responses without affected emotional experiences. This argued that autonomic responses were dissociated with emotional experiences.
The researchers argued that this dissociation between autonomic responses and emotional experiences clashed with James's assertion that physiological responses are required to experience emotions.
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