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Cannon-Bard Theory of Emotion

By Charlotte Nickerson, published Nov 01, 2021

Key Takeaways

  • The primary argument of the Cannon-Bard theory of emotion is that emotions trigger affective “feelings” and physiological responses to stimuli at the same time, in different regions of the brain. This stands in contrast to the James-Lange theory of emotion, which posits that people and animals feel emotions because they consciously process their physiological responses to stimuli.
  • The Cannon-Bard theory of emotion differentiates between feelings associated with the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight responses) and parasympathetic nervous system (calm responses), and Cannon believed that sympathetic and parasympathetic responses could not happen simultaneously.
  • The Cannon-Bard and James Lange theories of emotion have greatly influenced modern research into emotional processing and the brain; however, both theories have garnered great criticism for their overgeneralization of emotion and contradictions between theory and evidence dating as far back to Cannon’s own research.

According to Cannon-Bard theory of emotion, physiological arousal and emotional experience occur simultaneously, yet independently. This theory was proposed in the 1920s and early 1930s by Walter B. Cannon and Philip Bard.

In short, the Cannon-Bard theory of emotion, also known as the Thalamic theory of emotion, states that the lower part of the brain, what neurologists call the thalamus, controls emotional experience.

Meanwhile, the higher part of the brain, the cortex, controls emotional expression. These feelings (through the thalamus) and physical reactions (through the cortex) occur at the same time. For example, seeing a spider may trigger both a physical response (such as jerking back one’s hand) and an affective, emotional one (such as a feeling of fear).

The Cannon-Bard Theory of Emotion represented a shift from the James-Lange Theory of emotion to one which studied central brain mechanisms as the cause of emotions; however, work as far back as the 1860s posited physiological causes for emotion (Dror, 2014).

How Does the James-Lange Theory Work?

The main idea of Cannon’s approach to emotions is that people react to emotional stimuli, but that two separate parts of the brain control the conscious feeling of emotion and the body’s physiological response.

Cannon reviewed research on emotions in both animals and people with brain damage, as well as conducting his own experiments. He concluded that the thalamus was the region of the brain most involved in physiological emotion, while the cortex is responsible for controlling and inhibiting them.

This is supported by modern neuroscience, which believes that the thalamus is responsible for relaying sensory and motor signals to the cerebral cortex, which handles processes related to thought, consciousness, reasoning, and memory.


Stressful Exam

Say that a student is about to take a high-stakes midterm exam that he has not studied for. This stressful stimulus (an upcoming exam) triggers two regions of the brain separately: the cortex and the thalamus.

The cortex triggers a physiological response to the emotion. For example, the student may be sweating, his heart may race, and his fingers may tremble as he picks up his pencil.

These, according to the Cannon-Bard theory of emotion, are physiological responses to stress triggered by the sympathetic nervous system, and the triggering of the sympathetic nervous system means that the parasympathetic nervous system cannot be triggered.

Meanwhile, the stimulus triggers the student’s thalamus separately, leading to the conscious, affective feeling of stress.

The student is not stressed because he is trembling, according to Cannon-Bard, but because his thalamus has been activated by an impending exam.

This emotional reaction would be separate and independent of the physiological arousal, even though they co-occur.

Purring Cat

Taking an example from Bard’s 1936 letter to Cannon, consider a resting cat who is being pet by its owner. As the owner pets the cat, the cat may purr and relax its muscles, or slowly fall asleep.

This purring is a physiological response of the parasympathetic nervous system to the stimulus of being pet, and, according to the Cannon-Bard theory of emotion, exists entirely separately from the cat perceiving a conscious emotion (such as calmness or comfort).

According to the Cannon-Bard theory of emotion, the cat is not calm because it is purring and has relaxed muscles; rather, it is calm because the stimulus of petting has activated its thalamus, allowing the cat to have the conscious, affective emotion of calm.

Comparison to Other Theories

James-Lange theory of emotion came to influence a century of empirical emotional research and rebuttals of the James-Lange theory of emotion, notably Cannon-Bard’s 1927 critique, have spurned long-standing debates in neuroscience and psychology (Lang, 1994).

James-Lange Theory of Emotion

Both the James-Lange and Cannon-Bard Theories of emotion investigated whether emotions originated from a source central or peripheral to the nervous system (Meiselman, 2016).

The James-Lange theory of emotion is ultimately a peripheral approach to understanding emotion. This means that, rather than first perceiving some stimulus that could elicit an emotion, experiencing an emotion, and then experiencing some bodily reaction in response, James-Lange assumes that the bodily reactions themselves elicit conscious emotions.

Cannon offers five objections to the James-Lange theory of emotion:

1.) the latency of physiological responses to emotion is too long to account for the immediacy of emotional behavior;

2.) Artificially inducing bodily reactions to emotion does not in itself produce emotions;

3.) the viscera are so-called “insensitive structures;”

4.) visceral changes are the same between emotions; and

5.) interrupting the feedback that occurs because of visceral bodily emotions does not influence emotional behavior (Fehr and Stern, 1970).

James-Lange Example

To illustrate the contrast from which these five objections arise, consider somebody who is afraid of dogs.The dog barks within range of the person, and the person is aroused, according to the James-Lange theory of emotion, autonomically.

This person could have a physical response such as trembling. Because of that autonomic arousal (the trembling), the person has the conscious feeling of fear. The person feels afraid because they tremble.

Meanwhile, according to the Cannon-Bard theory of emotion, the dog’s bark triggers two separate regions of the brain: the thalamus and the cortex.

Because the dog triggers the cortex, which controls physical reactions, the person trembles. However, the person feels fear because the bark triggers their thalamus, which controls conscious feeling of emotion.

In theory, if that person’s thalamus or cortex were dysfunctional, the person may be able to feel fear without trembling or tremble without feeling fear. The dog makes the person tremble and feel afraid, but these are reactions stemming from two entirely different parts of the brain.

Cannon-Bard Example

Considering his objections, Canon introduced a specificity model of emotions (Dror, 2014). He distinguished different classes of emotions by whether they affected the sympathetic or parasympathetic nervous system.

Emotions that affect the sympathetic nervous system are associated with fight or flight responses and those that activate the parasympathetic nervous system restores the body to a state of calm (Waxenbaum, 2021). The anatomical, physiological, and metabolic differences between the emotions expressed by the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system create a difference in how people consciously labelled these emotions (Cannon, 1914).

In contrast to the Cannon-Bard and James-Lange theories of emotion, the so-called “common sense” theory of emotion posits that someone has an emotional response and this response triggers a physiological reaction.

For example, someone can see a barking dog and consciously feel fear. As a result, they tremble (Meiselman, 2016).

Singer’s Two-Factor Theory of Emotion

In the Schachter-Singer Two Factor Theory of Emotion, one does a conscious cognitive appraisal of their physiological response, labels that response, and feels the emotion that results. Neither physiological nor cognitive arousal in itself is enough to elicit an emotion, according to Schacter-Singer.

The Cannon-Bard theory maintains that emotional experience occurs simultaneous to and independent of physiological arousal. The Schachter-Singer two-factor theory suggests that physiological arousal receives cognitive labels as a function of the relevant context and that these two factors together result in an emotional experience.

To repeat the example of a barking dog, a person may tremble or feel an increased heart rate. After detecting that they are trembling, the person can then label the physiological response (“I must be scared!”) and only then consciously feel the emotion.

Schachter-Singer Example

A person, according to the Two Factor Theory of Emotion, must appraise their physiological responses in order to experience emotion (Meiselman, 2016).

Zajonc-LeDoux Theory of Emotion

The Zajonc-LeDoux theory of emotion says that emotional reactions exist separately from cognitive labels on emotional situations.

According to this theory, some emotions which have evolutionarily been necessary (e.g. anger or fear) are activated through quicker pathways than others.

Certain emotions can happen instantly, without active cognitive appraisal. For example, someone can be startled by the bark of a dog before labeling it as a threat (Meiselman, 2016).

Key Research

In 1925, Cannon and Britton introduced a way of studying emotions through a cat whose cortex had been removed from his brain (Cannon and Britton, 1925).

From this cat, Cannon and Britain described a new type of emotion — “sham rage.”

At the time, Cannon noticed that laboratory animals did not consistently develop the desired emotional reactions to stimulus consistently and dependently, and so Cannon removed the region of the brain — the cortex — thought to inhibit emotions, allowing Cannon to study a stream of emotions over longer periods of time.

This decorticated cat came to underpin Cannon’s physiological model of emotional experience.

In the mid 1920s, Philip Bard was a doctoral student studying under Walter Bradford, a physiologist at Harvard University, and two years after introducing this method for studying the physiology of emotions, Cannon suggested that Philip Bard section the cat’s brain in order to discover which parts of the brain were responsible for emotional expression (Bard, 1973).

From this, Cannon-Bard discovered that the thalamus generated affective emotions.

Many neurologists have initiated empirical research in order to determine how and in which order emotion affects various regions of the body.

The first of these researchers was Allport, who devised the facial feedback hypothesis (Laird, 1984). In short, the facial feedback hypothesis postulated that one’s facial expressions directly affect their emotional experience. For example,someone who tries to smile will feel happier because they have a smiling expression.

To Tomkins (1962-1963), emotions are “sets of muscles and glandular responses located in the face.”

Later researchers suggested embodied theories of emotion. According to embodied theories of emotion, simply contracting the facial muscles associated with a particular emotion can intensify or elicit the emotion associated with those contractions, even when participants are not contracting those muscles consciously (Niedenthal, 2007; Soussignan, 2002).


Cannon (1927) conducted several animal tests to disprove James-Lange’s peripheralist approach to emotion (Meiselman, 2016). For example, Cannon conducted tests where he artificially induced certain bodily reactions and observed that these in themselves did not elicit emotions (Meiselman, 2016).

Researchers such as Fehr and Stern (1970), among many others, have criticized these tests. One of the predominant criticisms of the Cannon-Bard Theory of Emotion is that the theory assumes that physical reactions do not influence emotions.

For example, Cannon-Bard would assume that someone would not necessarily feel happiness if the facial muscles creating a smile were triggered.

However, a large body of research on facial expressions and emotions suggests that this assumption is not true. Some scholars, such as Dror (2014) have argued that Cannon’s own studies have contradicted his theory of emotion.

For example, one large component of Cannon’s physiological theory of emotion was the belief that either the sympathetic or parasympathetic nervous system could be activated by an emotion, but the activation of these systems was mutually exclusive.

Relatively common phenomena — such as the contraction of the bladder and rectum during intense emotional stress — would confuse Cannon and his followers because these represented the simultaneous activation of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems (Cannon, 1914).

Scholars, and indeed Cannon himself, was aware of contradictions and flaws in his studies of the decorated cat as a model for physiological emotional experience (Dror, 2014).

For example, as Dror (2014) emphasizes, Cannon and Britton included clear evidence of parasympathetic activation such as contraction of the rectum and occasionally defecation in their descriptions of the cat experiencing “sham rage” – a supposedly sympathetic, fight or flight emotion (Cannon and Britton, 1925).

Many other physiologists in the 1930s would confirm this evidence that “shame rage” activated both the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system (Beattie, 1932; Beebe-Center and Stevens, 1938). The second major flaw of Cannon’s theory, according to Dror’s 2014 review, was that there was a lack of anatomical proof for two major aspects of the Cannon-Bard theory of emotion.

The stipulation of the Cannon-Bard model that the optic thalamus was the region that organized emotional expressions, as well as the belief that the thalamus itself was the source of the affective experience of emotion lacked anatomical proof (Cannon, 1927).

Thirdly and lastly, scholars have criticized Cannon’s theory for its overextension beyond the evidence provided by the Cannon-Bard experiments.

Although Cannon-Bard studied the decoriated cat’s “sham rage” exclusively, Cannon would go on to extend his model of emotions to joy, grief, and disgust, long before Philip Baard himself would send a letter to Cannon observing pleasure in decorticated cats (such as pleasure when being petted) (Dror, 2014).

About the Author

Charlotte Nickerson is a member of the Class of 2024 at Harvard University. Coming from a research background in biology and archeology, Charlotte currently studies how digital and physical space shapes human beliefs, norms, and behaviors and how this can be used to create businesses with greater social impact.

How to reference this article:

Nickerson, C. (2021, Dec 02). Cannon-Bard Theory of Emotion. Simply Psychology.


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