Feelings and the body: the Jamesian perspective on autonomic specificity of emotion

Biol Psychol. 2010 Jul;84(3):383-93. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsycho.2009.10.006. Epub 2009 Oct 29.


"What is an emotion?" William James's seminal paper in Mind (1884) proposed the idea that physiological and behavioral responses precede subjective experience in emotions that are marked by "distinct bodily expression." This notion has broadly inspired the investigation of emotion-specific autonomic nervous system activity, a research topic with great longevity. The trajectory of this literature is traced through its major theoretical challenges from the Cannon-Bard, activation, and Schachter-Singer theories, through its rich empirical history in the field of psychophysiology. Although these studies are marked by various findings, the overall trend of the research supports the notion of autonomic specificity for basic emotions. The construct of autonomic specificity continues to influence a number of core theoretical issues in affective science, such as the existence of basic or 'natural kinds' of emotion, the structure of affective space, the cognition-emotion relationship, and the function of emotion. Moreover, James's classic paper, which stimulated the emergence of psychology from philosophy and physiology in the latter nineteenth century, remains a dynamic force in contemporary emotion research.

Publication types

  • Historical Article
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Autonomic Nervous System / physiology*
  • Cognition / physiology
  • Emotions*
  • History, 19th Century
  • History, 20th Century
  • Humans
  • Psychological Theory*
  • Psychophysiology / history
  • Psychophysiology / methods
  • Social Behavior / history