useful words



‘penser c’est toujours  sentir’

(“to think is to feel”)

Etienne Condillac[i]



We grew up understanding that the brain affects the body, that it controls and coordinates its functions.  The idea that states of the body can affect states of mind, long suspected, is now firmly established


Embodiment of cognitive processes (“embodied cognition) refers to the always present involvement with body functions.  Often neglected are the internal sensory receptors of the viscera (“enteroceptors”) and the musculature (proprioceptors),  as well as countless specific chemicals that have more-or-less access to the brain where they participated in organizing and initiating (or suppressing) action, including learning (Merleau-Ponty, 1962).

A potent phrase from Mark Johnson:  “Meaning Is More Than Words and Deeper Than Concepts” (in: The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding (p. 1). Univ Chicago 2007) .  In A&O this clearly resonates with abstract art that has no obvious symbolic or semantic meaning–but is still connected through the way it makes one feel.   



“In his classic thought experiment set out in ‘What Is Emotion?’ (1884)[ii], William James, pioneer psychologist and brother of the novelist Henry, tried to imagine what would be left of emotion if you subtracted the bodily symptoms. What, for example, would grief be ‘without its tears, its suffocation of the heart, its pang in the breastbone? A feelingless cognition that certain circumstances are deplorable, and nothing more.’ James’s resonant conclusion that ‘a purely disembodied human emotion is a nonentity’ launched a century of debate in which emotions have been dissected and analysed, modelled in the lab to determine causal sequences, and evoked in experimental subjects (mostly, obliging undergraduates).” Andrew Beatty[iii]  in preface to essay on cultural differences in emotion…


Similarly, intuition involves access to cognitive resources of which an individual is unaware and typically precedes conscious reasoning (Haidt 2012[i] and see Chapter 9)   An early representation of an important dimension of embodiment is the James–Lange theory that the experience of emotion is a consequence of a change in the physiological state of the body. (Lange 1994[ii]; Friedman 2010[iii]). Since it took shape in that late 19th century it has been relentlessly provocative, evoking enthusiasm as well as  critique is it is examined from various perspectives.  Similarly provocative and controversial about 100 years later, Antonio Damasio’s somatic marker hypothesis, which proposes that specific changes in the body are associated with specific emotions that have important effects on cognitive function (Damasio 1994)[iv].  Interestingly, Damasio champions the view of Spinoza—similarly controversial in the time of Descartes—that mind and body are not separate, but two aspects of a single thing. In the last analysis, it appear that whatever quibbles there be  within and between science and philosophy, the view that mind and body or reason and passion are necessarily separate is doomed and attention to the workings of physiology will become more welcome in the phenomenological fold.

The countless problems of relating specific cognitive processes with the environment which surrounds  them and with their action, resonates with the ending lines of William Butler Yeats’(1933)[v] “Among School Children: “O chestnut tree, great rooted blossomer, / Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole? / O body swayed to music, O brightening glance, / How can we know the dancer from the dance?”


More about embodied emotions: how does James-Lange work?  https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-the-james-lange-theory-of-emotion-2795305)[vi]





[i] Haidt, J. (2012). The righteous mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. New York: Vintage Books.

[ii] Lang, P.J. (1994) The varieties of emotional experience: a meditation on James-Lange theory.  Psychol Rev.  Apr;101(2):211-221.

[iii] Friedman, B.H. (2010) Feelings and the body: the Jamesian perspective on autonomic specificity of emotion.  Biol Psychol. 2010 Jul;84(3):383-93. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsycho.2009.10.006. Epub 2009 Oct 29.  PMID: 19879320   DOI: 10.1016/j.biopsycho.2009.10.006  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19879320


[iv] Damasio, A. R. (2008) [1994]. Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain. Random House. ISBN 978-1-4070-7206-7.


[v] Yeats, W.B. (1933) “Among School Children” from The Poems of W. B. Yeats: A New Edition,  Finneran., R.J. (ed.) Macmillan Publishing Company, renewed © 1961 by Georgie Yeats. Reprinted by Poetry Foundation at https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43293/among-school-children with the permission of A. P. Watt, Ltd. on behalf of Michael Yeats.   Source: The Collected Poems of W. B. Yeats (1989).


[vi] How Does the James-Lange Theory Work? ( https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-the-james-lange-theory-of-emotion-2795305 )

According to this theory, witnessing an external stimulus leads to a physiological response. Your emotional reaction depends on upon how you interpret those physical reactions.


Suppose you are walking in the woods, and you see a grizzly bear. You begin to tremble, and your heart begins to race. The James-Lange theory proposes that you will interpret your physical reactions and conclude that you are frightened (“I am trembling. Therefore I am afraid.”)

William James explained, “My thesis, on the contrary, is that the bodily changes follow directly the PERCEPTION of the exciting fact, and that our feeling of the same changes as they occur IS the emotion.”

For another example, imagine that you are walking through a dark parking garage toward your car. You notice a dark figure trailing behind you and your heart begins to race. According to the James-Lange theory, you then interpret your physical reactions to the stimulus as fear. Therefore, you feel frightened and rush to your car as quickly as you can.

Both James and Lange believed that while it was possible to imagine experiencing an emotion such as fear or anger, your imagined version of the emotion would be a flat facsimile of the real feeling. Why? Because they felt that without the actual physiological response that they believed precipitated the emotions, it would be impossible to experience these emotions “on demand.” In other words, the physical reaction needs to be present in order to actually experience the real emotion.

Criticisms 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 instead suggests that our physiological reactions, such as crying and trembling, are caused by our emotions.

While modern researchers largely discount the James-Lange theory, there are some instances where physiological responses do lead to experiencing emotions. Developing a panic disorder and specific phobias are two examples.

For example, a person may experience a physiological reaction such as becoming ill in public, which then leads to an emotional response such as feeling anxious. If an association is formed between the situation and the emotional state, the individual might begin avoiding anything that might then trigger that particular emotion.

One major criticism of the theory was that neither James nor Lange based their ideas upon anything that remotely resembled controlled experiments. Instead, the theory was largely the result of introspectionand correlational research. Both James and Lange did present some clinical findings to support their theory. For example, Lange cited one physician’s observations that blood flow to the skull increased when a patient was angry, which he interpreted as supporting his idea that a physical response to a stimuli led to the experience of that emotion.

It was the later work of neuroscientists and experimental physiologists who demonstrated further flaws with the James-Lange theory of emotions. For example, researchers found that both animals and humans who had experienced major sensory losses were still capable of experiencing emotions. According to both James and Lange, physiological responses should be necessary to truly experience emotion. However, researchers discovered that even those with muscle paralysis and lack of sensation were able to still feel emotions such as joy, fear, and anger.

Another issue with the theory is that when tested by applying electrical stimulation, applying stimulation to the same site does not lead to the same emotions every time. A person may have the exact same physiological response to a stimulus, yet experience an entirely different emotion. Factors such as the individual’s existing mental state, cues in the environment, and the reactions of other people can all play a role in the resulting emotional response.

Support for the James-Lange Theory of Emotion

While it seems as if the James-Lange theory should be nothing more than something you might study for its historical significance, it maintains its relevance today because researchers continue to find evidence that supports at least some parts of James’s and Lange’s original ideas.

Some evidence in support of the theory:

  • PET scan studies have revealed that the basic emotions elicit distinct patterns of activity in the brain.
  • These same studies showed that the brain’s somatosensory cortex, and area of the brain associated with processing sensory information from the muscles, skin, and organs, became active during emotional responses.
  • Studies also suggest 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.

A Word From Verywell

Emotions make up such a huge part of our lives so it is not surprising that researchers have devoted so much effort toward understand the how and why behind our emotional responses. The James-Lange theory of emotion represents just one of the earliest theories. While the theories has been criticized and altered considerably over the years, James’s and Lange’s ideas continue to exert and influence today.

The theory has been modified over time and competing theories of emotion such as the Cannon-Bard theory of emotion and Schacter’s two-factor theory of emotion have also been introduced. Today, many researchers would instead suggest that rather than our emotions being the result of physical reactions as James and Lange suggested, our emotional experiences are instead modified by both physiological reactions along with other information.



[i]  Condillac (d.1780), friend of Rousseau and helped introduce Locke’s ideas (made fashionable by Voltaire) in French intellectual circles. (“By far the most important of his works is the Traité des sensations, in which Condillac treats psychology in his own characteristic way. He questioned Locke’s doctrine that the senses give us intuitive knowledge of objects, that the eye, for example, naturally judges shapes, sizes, positions, and distances. He believed it was necessary to study the senses separately, to distinguish precisely what ideas are owed to each sense, to observe how the senses are trained, and how one sense aids another. He believed that the conclusion has to be that all human faculty and knowledge are transformed sensation only, to the exclusion of any other principle, such as reflection.”)      John Locke’s idea that all knowledge was founded in experience was taken  further by a,: ‑‑: preconceived notions of relationships between  sensory data had to be discarded if clear analysis of feelings were to be had. Shortly after Condillac’s death (1780) IMMANUEL KANT popularized his system in  Europe: physicians, functioning in a world of appearances, should examine  their own prejudicial ways of perceiving carefully.  Kant then went further:  We understand the world because there are certain concepts embedded in our  brains:  time, space, causality.   Thus there were no laws in nature, but that  mental constructs set up by these embedded concepts.  His follower, Friedrich von Schelling (Physician in Bamburg) developed Kant’s  ideas into Naturphilosophie:  Man was once at peace with nature, but his ability to reflect had alienated him from it.  (German science sought basic laws ‑‑and for the next 40 years concentrated on microscopic phenomena.  At the same time the French concentrated on careful observation and data  available to the senses, largely because of the events of 1789 and a shift from actions guided by philosophical, theoretical beliefs to those guided by empirical evidence. 

(This was crystallized in some part by the shift in medicine. Before the Revolution, Physicians in France were, like others in Europe, a powerful  elite serving the aristocracy. After the Revolution,  Doctors‑‑members of upper classes‑‑were to be  reeducated, but surgeons were craftsmen and elevated by the new ideology.  Since 1743, surgeons were allowed in University, but still greatly resisted by  physicians:  advice from the university faculty: “let hospitals be your  library, and cadavers your books.”  Physicians went to war with potions, lists of symptoms and a bedside manner;   surgeons went prepared for trauma, and they learned much: about infections;  about treating for shock before surgery; about relaxing muscles (with nicotine  & alcohol) before setting broken bones; about the fallacy of wind death  (replacing it with knowledge of massive internal injuries caused by tiny  bullets).  Hospitals expanded and by 1807, Paris had 37,000 beds while all Britain had  only 5000.)

[ii]  Mind, vol. 9, 1884, pp. 188–205

[iii] Andrew Beatty (2019) The Emotional Lives of Others.  AEON 8 July 2019 (https://aeon.co/essays/what-does-anthropology-say-about-the-emotional-lives-of-others?utm_source=Aeon+Newsletter&utm)    Beatty is an anthropologist. He is interested in psychological anthropology, life writing, and literary approaches to ethnography. His books include two narrative ethnographies, A Shadow Falls: In the Heart of Java (2009) and After the Ancestors: an Anthropologist’s Story(2015), and Emotional Worlds: Beyond an Anthropology of Emotion (2019).