Two Pathways for Emotions

Psychology

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Two Pathways for Emotions

Zajonc, LeDoux, and Lazarus: Does Cognition Always Precede Emotion?

But is the heart always subject to the mind? Must we always interpret our arousal before we can experience an emotion? Robert Zajonc (1923–2008) [ZI-yence] didn’t think so. Zajonc (1980, 1984) contended that we actually have many emotional reactions apart from, or even before, our conscious interpretation of a situation. Perhaps you can recall liking something or someone immediately, without knowing why.

For example, when people repeatedly view stimuli flashed too briefly for them to interpret, they come to prefer those stimuli. Unaware of having previously seen them, they nevertheless like them. We have an acutely sensitive automatic radar for emotionally significant information; even a subliminally flashed stimulus can prime us to feel better or worse about a follow-up stimulus (Murphy et al., 1995; Zeelenberg et al., 2006).

Neuroscientists are charting the neural pathways of emotions (Ochsner et al., 2009). Our emotional responses can follow two different brain pathways. Some emotions (especially more complex feelings like hatred and love) travel a “high road.” A stimulus following this path would travel (by way of the thalamus) to the brain’s cortex (Figure 1a below). There, it would be analyzed and labeled before the response command is sent out, via the amygdala (an emotion-control center).

But sometimes our emotions (especially simple likes, dislikes, and fears) take what Joseph LeDoux (2002) has called the “low road,” a neural shortcut that bypasses the cortex. Following the low road, a fear-provoking stimulus would travel from the eye or ear (again via the thalamus) directly to the amygdala (Figure 1b). This shortcut enables our greased-lightning emotional response before our intellect intervenes. Like speedy reflexes (that also operate apart from the brain’s thinking cortex), the amygdala

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reactions are so fast that we may be unaware of what’s transpired (Dimberg et al., 2000).

Figure 1

The Brain’s Pathways for Emotions

Two illustrations of a left-facing woman’s brain, one illustrating the thinking high road and the other the speedy low road. In the high road, a fear stimulus goes to the thalamus, then to the somatosensory cortex, then the prefrontal cortex, and finally to the amygdala and down into the body to cause a fear response. In the speedy low road, a fear stimulus goes straight from the thalamus to the amygdala and into the body to cause a fear response.

In the two-track brain, sensory input may be routed (a) to the cortex (via the thalamus) for analysis and then transmission to the amygdala, or (b) directly to the amygdala (via the

thalamus) for an instant emotional reaction.

The amygdala sends more neural projections up to the cortex than it receives back, which makes it easier for our feelings to hijack our thinking than for our thinking to rule our feelings (LeDoux & Armony, 1999). Thus, in the forest, we can jump at the sound of rustling bushes nearby, leaving it to our cortex to decide later whether the sound was made by a snake or by the wind. Such experiences support Zajonc’s belief that some of our emotional reactions involve no deliberate thinking.

Multiple-Choice Question

Which of the following BEST describes the brain’s two pathways for emotion?

Some emotions are processed immediately, whereas others may not be processed by the amygdala until hours later. Some emotions are first processed in the amygdala, whereas others are sent to the cerebral cortex for interpretation before traveling to the amygdala. Subliminal information is processed immediately by the cerebral cortex, whereas conscious information is processed and interpreted by the amygdala. Emotional information is processed in the amygdala, whereas emotional responses are determined by the thalamus.

Correct. Complex emotions, such as love, take a “high road” pathway that includes the cerebral cortex while more simple emotions are directed straight to the amygdala.

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Emotion researcher Richard Lazarus (1991, 1998) conceded that our brain processes vast amounts of information without our conscious awareness, and that some emotional responses do not require conscious thinking. Much of our emotional life operates via the automatic, speedy low road. But, he asked, how would we know what we are reacting to if we did not in some way appraise the situation? The appraisal may be effortless and we may not be conscious of it, but it is still a mental function. To know whether a stimulus is good or bad, the brain must have some idea of what it is (Storbeck et al., 2006). Thus, said Lazarus, emotions arise when we appraise an event as harmless or dangerous, whether we truly know it is or not. We appraise the sound of the rustling bushes as the presence of a threat. Later, we realize that it was “just the wind.”

Figure 2

Two Pathways for Emotions

Illustration of how Zajonc and Ledoux’s theory of the path of emotions differs from Lazarus, Schachter, and Singer’s theory. Zajonc and LeDoux’s theory shows an event going straight to an emotional response, while Lazarus, Schachter, and Singer’s theory shows an event going to an appraisal first before becoming an emotional response.

Zajonc and LeDoux emphasized that some emotional responses are immediate, before any conscious appraisal. Lazarus, Schachter, and Singer emphasized that our appraisal and

labeling of events also determine our emotional responses.

So, as Zajonc and LeDoux have demonstrated, some emotional responses—especially simple likes, dislikes, and fears—involve no conscious thinking (Figure 2). When I [ND] view a big spider trapped behind glass, I experience fear even though I “know” the spider can’t hurt me. Such responses are difficult to alter by changing our thinking. Within a fraction of a second, we may automatically perceive one person as more likeable or trustworthy than another (Willis & Todorov, 2006). This instant appeal can even influence our political decisions if we vote (as many people do) for a candidate we like over the candidate who expresses positions closer to our own (Westen, 2007).

Multiple-Choice Question

How can our automatic “low road” emotions influence our decisions?

If we remember to trust our gut, we are more likely to make rational decisions the first time.

We may base important decisions (such as voting) on an initial “liking” rather than carefully considering the candidate’s position. We may choose to respond to a bully’s threats by empathizing with the person instead of retaliating with violence. We may decide to take the easy way out of a tough situation and ignore the problem instead of taking responsibility for our actions.

Correct. The instant appeal of some candidates is an example of “low road” emotions that do not involve higher-order decision making.

Last saved 16 days ago. The point to remember Although the emotional low road functions automatically, the thinking high road allows us to retake some control over our emotional life.

But our feelings about politics are also subject to our conscious and unconscious information processing—to our memories, expectations, and interpretations. When we feel emotionally overwhelmed, we can change our interpretations (Gross, 2013). Such reappraisal often reduces distress and the corresponding amygdala response (Buhle et al., 2014; Denny et al., 2015). Highly emotional people are intense partly because of their interpretations. They may personalize events as being somehow directed at them, and they may generalize their experiences by blowing single incidents out of proportion (Larsen & Diener, 1987). Thus, learning to think more positively can help people feel better. Although the emotional low road functions automatically, the thinking high road allows us to retake some control over our emotional life. Together, automatic emotion and conscious thinking weave the fabric of our emotional lives. (Table 1 summarizes these emotion theories.)

Table 1

Summary of Emotion Theories Theory Explanation of Emotions Example

James- Lange

Emotions arise from our awareness of our specific bodily responses to emotion- arousing stimuli.

We observe our heart racing after a threat and then feel afraid.

Cannon- Bard

Emotion-arousing stimuli trigger our bodily responses and simultaneous subjective experience.

Our heart races at the same time that we feel afraid.

Schachter- Singer

Our experience of emotion depends on two factors: general arousal and a conscious cognitive label.

We may interpret our arousal as fear or excitement, depending on the context.

Zajonc; LeDoux

Some embodied responses happen instantly, without conscious appraisal.

We automatically feel startled by a sound in the forest before labeling it as a threat.

Lazarus Cognitive appraisal (“Is it dangerous or not?”)—sometimes without our awareness —defines emotion.

The sound is “just the wind.”

Multiple-Choice Question

On her first day at her new job, Janna starts to feel nervous and worries about whether her co-workers will like her. How could she use cognitive reappraisal to help her make good decisions?

She could picture everyone she meets naked so that instead of feeling nervous, she feels not only embarrassed for them but also slightly repulsed. She could remind herself that the brain’s first interpretation of an event is always inaccurate and decide not to trust herself or anything else she heard on the first day. She could change her interpretation of her emotion as excitement about the new opportunities to make friends and decide to respond positively to each person she meets. She could remember that emotional reactions occur rapidly and prior to conscious interpretation so she should not use any facial expressions.

Correct. Cognitive reappraisal of the situation can help people overcome negative emotions.

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