Before the elucidation of the James-Lange theory of emotion, significance must be paid to Charles Darwin, the naturalist who formulated that the metamorphosis of emotion is a result of its adaptive nature which allows both humans and animals to reproduce and survive. By this, what we feel makes us human and it makes us survive. Just as love gives rise to human connection with another human for the experience of love and reproduction purposes.
The James-Lange theory of emotion is one of the evolutionary theories that has been given to the mysteries of humans’ first response to emotion. The authors who publish separately express similar thought on emotions, a thought which defined the first reaction, the physiological reaction as the manifestation of the feeling of an emotion.
Emotion is expressed in psychology as a complicated state of feeling that yields to both physical and psychological changes of thought and behavior. By this, emotion is made up of psychological arousal, explicit demeanors and postures, and a person’s awareness of experience.
In other words, emotion encompasses a series of cognitive, physiological and behavioral reactions to a stimulus. Psychologists, however, bother on what response occurs first in emotion. What physiological activity is experienced as an expression to the surge of a particular emotion? What comes first: the emotion or the expression and consciousness of the emotion. This is why there are different theories to emotions; the James-Lange theory of emotion is the focus of this essay.
An American psychologist, William James, and a Danish psychologist, Carl Lange, published their theoretical formulations on emotion in the same period with only a few years interval. James published in 1884 while Lange independently published in 1885 (which some beliefs to be 1887). Regardless, both psychologists contributed a similar explanation for the response of emotion which eventually lead to the combination of their works.
Hence, the James-Lange theory of emotion proposes that emotions are a result of incidents that humans experience. At this, James’ demonstrated emotion as an outcome of physiological change while Lange’s research expresses that emotions are a demonstration of a physiological change.
This theory of emotion holds that there are physiological changes that are aroused after the perception of emotion. However, it is the perception of the occurrence, the consciousness of the activities and the transition in the human physiological state that propel the feeling of these emotions.
James, in his The Principles of Psychology writes that “…we feel sorry because we cry, angry because we strike, afraid because we tremble, and not that we cry, strike, or tremble, because we are sorry, angry or fearful, as the case may be.”
This means that our reaction to emotion isn't in the passion (as the philosopher Aristotle expresses passion to mean fear, love, happiness and other emotions). On the contrary, our physical changes which are the first response is the expression of the emotion itself. That is, the experience of emotion is necessitated by man’s physiologic responses to such emotion.
For example, when a woman suffers heartbreak, and she cries how eyes out, she screams her lungs out till she can’t speak well again. She doesn’t feel hurt because she suffers heartbreak, rather, she feels hurt because she cries and screams her lungs out. These physiological responses are the key emotion of what and how humans feel.
By this, the reaction exists in the physical framework to the emotional experience, an activity which suggests the sincerity of feeling those emotions. Without these physiological reactions, the emotions and experiences are merely pale and colorless; an activity which is “destitute of emotional warmth.”
To further understand the James-Lange theory, consideration would be given to a newly wedded couple. Of course, they married because they love themselves. While the man walks with her to the pew, he is very ecstatic, and he smiles.
The emotion of love isn’t what makes him happy, it is the smile on his face, the physiological response to that emotion is the sincere reaction of the experience of love. So, without the expression of happiness through a smile, one cannot resolve that the person expresses the emotions of happiness because there was no physiological reaction.
Further, our heartbeat faster when we are afraid because there is an impulse to run. When we run and start emitting sweat, our emotions and feeling of fear are expressed. This sensation within us constitutes the fear but the alterations in the physical activity; the run and the sweat emitting from the body; encompasses the emotion of fear.
In all, the James-Lange theory proves that once an experience occurs and it causes a physiological effect, we interpret this effect. It is after the interpretation of this physical effect that we have experienced the emotion. If this physical effect isn’t conscious and deliberate nor is it given a thought, no emotion can be said to have been expressed based on the experience.
Arguments against the James-Lange theory of emotions
A lot of psychologists disagree with the James-Lange theory. William Cannon who proposed the Cannon-bard theory suggests that people can experience physiological reactions connected with emotion without feeling those emotions. By this, he means that your heart may pump blood faster, hence race, because you are in the middle of a road walk.
He also suggests that emotional responses occur swiftly which may be difficult for a swift physical reaction. That is in the face of danger, one feels afraid before the hand trembles or a human's breath pace increases.
Another psychologist with the Schachter-Singer theory suggests that the physical response ensues first before the individual recognizes the reason for this response to experience the feeling before labeling it as an emotion. The cognitive interpretation, according to this theory, determines whether the physiological response could be labeled as an emotion to the particular experience
According to the Cognitive Appraisal Theory by Richard Lazarus, he holds that the plot of events involves first: the stimulus, then the thought after which comes the physiological response and then the emotion. That is, emotional feelings take a train; we are aroused by a stimulus, we think about the stimulus, our body reacts to it if it’s worthwhile and it is only after then that it is considered an emotion.
Amongst other psychologists, the James-Lange theory of emotion suggests that it is the physiological response that comes first. It is this reaction and response that defines the true experience of an emotional event.
This theory is unique because it presents the interpretation of the physical response as a catalyst for feeling emotion from a precise human experience. In other words, the awareness of a process through the physiological response makes an emotion well expressed. More like saying that you are not angry because you strike something or hit yourself but you strike something and hit yourself because you are angry.
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