What is this?

The Cannon-Bard theory of emotion states that stimulating events trigger feelings and physical reactions that occur at the same time.

For example, seeing a snake might prompt both the feeling of fear (an emotional response) and a racing heartbeat (a physical reaction). Cannon-Bard suggests that both of these reactions occur simultaneously and independently. In other words, the physical reaction isn’t dependent on the emotional reaction, and vice versa.

Cannon-Bard proposes that both of these reactions originate simultaneously in the thalamus. This is a small brain structure responsible for receiving sensory information. It relays it to the appropriate area of the brain for processing.

When a triggering event occurs, the thalamus might send signals to the amygdala. The amygdala is responsible for processing strong emotions, such as fear, pleasure, or anger. It might also send signals to the cerebral cortex, which controls conscious thought. Signals sent from the thalamus to the autonomic nervous system and skeletal muscles control physical reactions. These include sweating, shaking, or tense muscles. Sometimes the Cannon-Bard theory is referred to as the thalamic theory of emotion.

The theory was developed in 1927 by Walter B. Cannon and his graduate student, Philip Bard. It was established as an alternative to the James-Lange theory of emotion. This theory states that feelings are the result of physical reactions to a stimulating event.

Read on to find out more about how the Cannon-Bard theory applies to everyday situations.

Examples of Cannon-Bard

Cannon-Bard can be applied to any event or experience that causes an emotional reaction. The emotion can be positive or negative. The scenarios described below show how this theory is applied to real-life situations. In all these scenarios, the Cannon-Bard theory states the physical and emotional reactions happen simultaneously, rather than one causing the other.

A job interview

Many people find job interviews stressful. Imagine you have a job interview tomorrow morning for a position you really want. Thinking about the interview might leave you feeling nervous or worried. You might also feel physical sensations such as tremors, tense muscles, or a rapid heartbeat, especially as the interview approaches.

Moving into a new home

For many people, moving into a new home is a source of happiness and excitement. Imagine you’ve just moved into a new home with your partner or spouse. Your new home is larger than the apartment you lived in before. It has enough space for the children you hope to have together. As you unpack boxes, you feel happy. Tears well in your eyes. Your chest is tight, and it’s almost difficult to breathe.

Divorce of parents

Children also experience physical and emotional effects in response to significant events. An example is the separation or divorce of their parents. Imagine you’re 8 years old. Your parents just told you that they’re separating and will probably get a divorce. You feel sad and angry. Your stomach is upset. You think you might be sick.

Other theories of emotion

James-Lange

Cannon-Bard was developed in response to the James-Lange theory. It was introduced at the turn of the 19th century and has remained popular since then.

The James-Lange theory states that stimulating events trigger a physical reaction. The physical reaction is then labeled with a corresponding emotion. For example, if you run into a snake, your heart rate increases. James-Lange theory suggests that the increase in heart rate is what makes us realize we’re afraid.

Cannon and Bard introduced some important criticisms of the James-Lange theory. Firstly, physical sensations and emotions aren’t always connected. We can experience physical sensations without feeling a particular emotion, and vice versa.

Indeed, studies have found that exercise and injections of common stress hormones, such as adrenaline, cause physiological sensations that aren’t connected to a particular emotion.

Another criticism of the James-Lange theory is that physical reactions don’t have a single corresponding emotion. For instance, heart palpitations could suggest fear, excitement, or even anger. The emotions are different, but the physical response is the same.

Schachter-Singer

A more recent theory of emotion incorporates elements of both the James-Lange and Cannon-Bard theories.

The Schachter-Singer theory of emotion suggests that physical reactions occur first, but can be similar for different feelings. This is also called the two-factor theory. Like James-Lange, this theory suggest that physical sensations must be experienced before they can be identified as a particular emotion.

Criticisms of the Schachter-Singer theory suggest that we can experience emotions before we recognize that we’re thinking about them. For instance, upon seeing a snake, you might run without thinking that the emotion you’re experiencing is fear.

Criticisms of the theory

One of the predominant criticisms of the Cannon-Bard theory is that it assumes that physical reactions don’t influence emotions. However, a large body of research on facial expressions and emotion suggests otherwise. Numerous studies have shown that participants who are asked to make a particular facial expression are likely to experience the emotional response connected to that expression.

Another significant criticism states that Cannon and Bard overemphasized the thalamus’ role in emotional processes and underemphasized the role of other brain structures.

The takeaway

The Cannon-Bard theory of emotion suggests that physical and emotional reactions to stimuli are experienced independently and at the same time.

Research into emotional processes in the brain is ongoing, and theories continue to evolve. This was one of the first theories of emotion to take a neurobiological approach.

Now that you know the Cannon-Bard theory, you can use it to understand both your own and others’ emotional reactions.