Medicine & USMLE

Cannon-Bard Theory of Emotion

  1. Schachter-Singer (Two Factor) Theory of Emotion
  2. James-Lange Theory of Emotion
  3. Cannon-Bard Theory of Emotion


The Cannon-Bard Theory of Emotion proposes that the environment first provides an initial stimulus. Signals from this stimulus next enter the thalamus, which serves as a sort of nervous relay center. From the thalamus, outgoing nerve signals in turn cause physiological arousal and emotional responses, each of which are created in an independent and simultaneous fashion.

Key Points

  • Cannon-Bard Theory of Emotion
    • Physiological response and emotion are produced simultaneously and independently
    • The thalamus is the coordinating center for these signals
      • Initial stimulus first passes through the thalamus, which sends off simultaneous and independent signals to:
        • other parts of the brain (emotion)
        • the rest of the body, like the heart (physiological response)
    • The actual theory is slightly more complicated, but this simplifies the intent of the original paper.
      • Signals moving from cortex to subthalamic regions / the body go through the thalamus. Anatomical closeness/compression of nervous tracts thought to cause simultaneous activation by “direct activation or irradiation”
      • Cannon and Bard were physiologists (not psychologists), which is why they examined actual brain structures when creating their theory
    • Physiological response is not necessary to feel emotion
      • Emotion is produced by signals within the brain, so cognitive processes create emotion
    • Contrast vs. James-Lange Theory of Emotion


Say you are first greeted by an environmental stimulus. Let's say a scary dog. When you see and hear this dog, this and any other sensory information gets sent into your brain--specifically to the thalamus. You can think of the thalamus as a sort of relay center. From here, it will simultaneously send out two responses. Let’s say the first signal goes to your heart, which causes it to beat faster. Let’s then say the other signal goes out to your limbic lobes, which cause you to experience emotion (probably fear). And there you have it. These signals are unrelated to another -- in other words, they are independent. But they both were produced at the same time, or simultaneously, from the thalamus. The first signal produced the physiological response--that is, your heart beating faster--and the other signal produced emotion, that is, the fear.