What Is an Emotion?

Emotion is defined as “brief, rapid responses involving physiological, experiential and behavioural activities that help humans respond to survival related problems and opportunities” (Kazdin, 2004). While it is easily enough defined, the question still lingers; what makes an emotion? Is it physical factors (responses from the autonomic nervous and limbic systems) or psychosocial factors (responses based on cognition and social conditioning) that most influence, and help humans understand, this complex concept? In order to answer such questions, theorists have devised three main theories to explain in what order cognition, behaviour and physiological arousal are experienced (Heffner, 2001) and thus which factor is more relevant in terms of experiencing emotion. It is important to note that the importance of such factors differs depending on which emotion is being studied. Herein, these three main theories of emotion will be evaluated with respect to the emotions fear and anger and the relevant psychosocial and physical factors will be explored based on each.

In his book; What Is An Emotion? William James (1884) stated that each emotion is defined by specific, physiological patterns. Combining his theories with those of Carl Lange, the ‘James-Lange’ theory of emotion soon followed (Kazdin, 2004). The ‘James-Lange’ theory argues that emotion is only experienced after physiological changes are percepted and behaviour has begun. (Heffner, 2001).   This has been proven to be true in some circumstances, particularly in terms of the ‘fear’ response.

Studies have been done on people with phobias’, where brain activity monitored and, in situations of perceived immediate danger, sensory information has been noted to skip the cortex of the brain and go directly to the amygdala, thus creating an autonomic response (adrenalin release, sweaty palms, increased heart rate, etc.) before time is allowed for cognition (Primal Instincts- Fear, 2004). Often phobia’s are...