The James-Lange Theory of Emotions: How Our Body Shapes Our Feelings

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June 5, 2019
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William James, known as the father of American Psychology, developed  along with his 19th Century fellow psychologist Carl Lange the James-Lange theory which considers that environmental events lead to the apparition of muscular and visceral responses, and that these responses eventually determine emotions. Instead of feeling an emotion and subsequent physiological (bodily) response, the theory proposes that the physiological change is primary, and emotion is after that experienced, as the brain reacts to the information received via the body’s nervous system. 

The emotion follows the behaviour, and does not determine it.

The James-Lange Theory

For example, if we encounter a bear in the forrest we experience physiological changes associate with the danger, such as trembling, paleness or sweating. The emotion is becoming aware of these changes. Thus, the emotion is felt after the behaviour already exists. William James (buy his books from Amazon) considers this point of view as being the correct one because there are behaviours that manifests so fast that there is no time to feel an emotion before acting. 

Carl Lange (buy his books from Amazon) follows the same train of thought and arguments that emotions appear following certain visceral and muscular responses. 

The Traditional explanation of Emotion

Stimulus Event

Encountering the bear





The James-Lange explanation

Stimulus Event

Encountering the bear

Visceral and muscular reactions depending on the event


Evaluating the emotions determined by the reactions

Sensation of fear determined by running

The James-Lange theory highlighted the importance of the physiological changes, especially in the case of shock emotions, which have been previously neglected.

Moreover, this theory attracts attention to the fact that in certain cases the emotion can be asssociated with an instinct.

The limit of this theory consists in not affirming a direct proportional relation between affective experiences and bodily external manifestations.

Criticisims of the James-Lange Theory

The Cannon-Bard theory of emotion, proposed in the 1920s by Walter Cannon and Philip Bard, directly challenges the James-Lange theory. Cannon and Bard’s theory suggest that instead of our emotions being caused by physiological reactions, such as trembling and crying, the opposite is true.

Contemporary evidence in support of the theory

PET can studies have demonstrated some aspects of the James-Lange theory of emotion:
  • it has been revealed that the basic emotions elicit distinct patterns of activity in the brain.
  • it has been shown that the brain’s somatosensory cortex, an area of the brain associated with processing sensory information from the muscles, skin, and organs, became active during emotional responses.
  • it has been stated that the perception of internal physical states plays a role in how people experience emotions. One study, for example, found that participants who were more sensitive to their body’s physical signals also experienced more negative emotions such as anxiety.
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