To what extent does cognition control emotion?
Cognition and emotion are inextricably linked. The debate over their connection dates back even to Greek philosophy. Marcus Aurelius meditated
“If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment” (cited in Ochsner & Gross, 2005, p.243).
This statement epitomized the puzzle: Are emotions entirely subject to cognitive interpretation, and by the same reasoning, can emotions be consciously altered or removed, at will?
This essay considers the theories that have been proposed to explain the links between emotion and cognition, as well as the ways that cognition controls emotion, with evidence gleaned from experimental research demonstrating this link in action, followed by a consideration of the extent to which cognition does, and does not, control emotion based on the evidence presented.
It has been suggested that there are five main emotions, sometimes termed ‘the big five’, consisting of anger, fear, sadness, disgust and happiness. These emotions include both feelings of the moment, or ‘state’ emotions, and long-standing personality characteristics, or ‘trait’ emotions (Yiend & Mackintosh, 2005).
In more recent consideration of the link between emotion and cognition, a variety of theorists have attempted to elucidate the nature and extent of the relationship between cognition and emotion.
As a precursor to the ‘cognitive revolution,’ several researchers linked autonomic response to the control of emotion. James suggested that physiological responses to stimuli lead in turn to emotion (Yiend, et al, 2005). For example you might see a lion, turn to flee, and in fleeing, experience fear. Carl Lange agreed with James’ analysis, thus forming the James-Lange theory (Yiend, et al, 2005). Both men observed physiological responses to stressful situations that they believed were too rapid to be the result of an emotion. This is supported by measurements of the speed of the startle response to loud noises: LeDoux (1996) reported that physiological responses occur within a few milliseconds, but conscious awareness begins subsequently.
Fear is, however, a basic survival instinct. What of a higher, less ‘necessary’ emotion, such as love, or empathy? James asserted that all emotions derive from physiological response, but that the type of emotion experienced derived from the ‘signature’ of the arousal (Yiend, et al, 2005). This seemed extreme to Cannon and Bard, who revealed that autonomic arousal was relatively identical regardless of the associated emotion; elevated heart rate, perspiration, shallow breathing (Yiend, et al, 2005). Consequently, they suggested that emotions must originate from higher processes in the cerebral cortex. Supported by evidence from animals whose spinal cords and later various neural pathways were cut (e.g. LeDoux, 1989; LeDoux, 1996), the Cannon-Bard theory professes that physiological responses may occur in response to a stimuli
alongside the experience of emotion, but are not a prerequisite for it (Yiend, et al, 2005). Unlike James-Lange, Cannon-Bard allowed for the experience of emotion without physiological reaction or expression (Yiend, et al, 2005). In this way, one might feel frightened but not respond physically, be happy but not smile.
Schachter and Singer proposed one early purely ‘cognitive’ theory of emotion regulation in 1962. They realized that during a physiological response, individuals process their response in terms of situational context and pre-conceptions. These cognitive processes influenced the type and extent of emotion experienced.
Schachter and Singer experimentally manipulated the emotional response of individuals experiencing autonomic arousal, by manipulating the context of their environment. In one experiment, participants were given either epinephrine or placebo injections, both...
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