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BY: T. Franklin Murphy | April 1, 2012 (modified January 14, 2023)
Emotions motivate behavior; behavior stirs emotions. Around and around we go in this complex cycle not sure what comes first—the emotion, cognition, or the behavior
Do we feel first and then think or do we think first and then feel? Thinking and feeling interact, creating our motivational system—the foundation of action. Modern science now capable of mapping synaptic firing adds exciting new input into this age-old debate.
In the late 1800’s, American psychologist William James theorized we are afraid because we are running from the bear rather than running from the bear because we are afraid. While this theory of the thought-emotion-behavior continuum is over simplified, it provides fodder for thought, challenging the generally accepted idea that we feel, think, then determine how to act.
For James, he saw feeling as "perceptions of physiological body changes in the autonomic, hormonal, and motor systems." We experience emotion "once we become aware of the physiological bodily changes" (2008).
James wrote 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" (1884/2008).
James-Lange theory of emotion was welcomed into the discussions by many, vehemently opposed by others. Peter Lang wrote, "variously interpreted and elaborated by others, it had been alternatively the guiding light—or a lightening rod for criticism—for generations of emotion researchers" (1994).
The outward appearance of a unified mind is deceptive. Consciousness filters, combines and adjusts many sources of information before our mind composes a unified and cohesive story. This is a complex process that creates order from a confusing world. We achieve a sense of mastery over our experience by envisioning a process of compiling information from external triggers, logical processing, and rational emotional reaction.
James, William (1884/2008) What is an Emotion? Wilder Publications
Lang, Peter (1994). The Varieties of Emotional Experience: A Meditation on James–Lange Theory. Psychological Review, 101(2), 211-221.
Northoff, Georg. (2008). Are our emotional feelings relational? A neurophilosophical investigation of the James–Lange theory. Phenomenology and the Cognitive Sciences, 7(4), 501-527.
Other Flourishing Life Society articles of interest on this topic: