What is the Cannon Bard Theory? (+7 Examples)

In this blogpost, we will be explaining what the Cannon Bard Theory is. We will also be giving you some examples of the Cannon Bard Theory and describing how it differs from the James-Lange Theory of emotion.

What is the Cannon Bard Theory?

The Cannon Bard Theory of emotion states that the thalamus region of the brain is responsible for experiencing emotions or feelings, while the cerebral cortex is responsible for the physical expressions.

This theory proposes that both these regions of the brain work at the same time to stimuli thereby giving feelings as well as physiological changes in the person’s body. The Cannon Bard Theory was proposed by Walter B. Cannon and Philip Bard during the 1920s.

The Cannon Bard Theory is commonly known as the ‘fight or flight’ response which is the most used term for this theory nowadays. According to this theory, a stimulus affects the thalamus which in turn affects the cortex leading to physiological changes in the body.

The physiological changes in the body to a strong stimulus as explained by the Cannon Bard Theory of emotion are:

  • An increased heart rate
  • Increased breathing rate
  • Higher blood pressure
  • Higher levels of cautiousness
  • Increased pulse rate

Examples of the Cannon Bard Theory

The Cannon Bard Theory of emotion can be explained through several different examples. A few examples of the Cannon Bard Theory from real life have been discussed in the following section.

A first date

While a first date may certainly be an exciting thing, it can also be anxiety inducing for some people. When you are getting ready for your first date with someone, you may feel increasingly sweaty or even have trembling in your limbs as you wait for them to show up.

These are all because of the fight or flight response in your system. You may also experience these emotions and physical symptoms during your date, which can make you anxious and sometimes even sick to your stomach.

Moving to a new city

Moving to a new city means a new life, but can also mean that you need to leave your comfort zone and be ready for new surprises. Big moves like this can also induce feelings of anxiety and fear whenever you think about it.

The anxiety feeling may also be much higher as the date of the move comes closer and closer. Apart from the physical or physiological symptoms, you may also experience an emotional spiral, overthinking even simple things.  

Receiving shocking news

Another example of the fight or flight response is when you receive some shocking news, such as the death of a loved one. While the actual grief process comes a little later on, the initial responses to such news are all induced by the fight or flight.

In such circumstances, you might find that your heart is beating way too fast and may experience dry mouth. Some people may also find that their blood pressure changes all of a sudden leading to fainting spells.

Taking on a new job

Taking on a new job can also lead to feelings and symptoms of the fight or flight response. New jobs, especially new careers, can mean that you have to say goodbye to your old one along with your set of co-workers.

Even if you are truly excited for the new job, while getting ready for your first day at work, you may experience an increased heart rate along with a lot of anxiety about your work and your new work environment.

Witnessing an accident

Witnessing something horrific or traumatic can also create such a response in you. For instance, being a witness to a car crash can also lead to a physiological response like increased palpitations and sweating.

This is especially felt even more if one witnesses someone else dying in front of them. The fight or flight response may manifest itself in the form of heavy sweating, cotton-mouth, trembling in limbs, etc.

Learning about a divorce

Learning about a parent’s divorce can also lead you to experience a fight or flight response, especially if you are a young child. Since divorce can lead to feelings of abandonment or guilt for the child.

This can also be felt if you are the one who is going through the divorce. And the feelings of anxiety may be multiplied if you have had no clue about the intentions of your partner and the divorce caught you by surprise.

Changing schools

Even seemingly small circumstances like changing schools can lead to a fight or flight response in the child. While this situation may seem small for adults and grown-ups, it can be traumatizing for children and teenagers.

This is mainly since they will be required to leave their friends behind and make new ones in the new school. Changing schools also means changing extracurricular activities which can also be pretty anxiety-inducing for children.

Strengths of the Cannon Bard Theory

The Cannon Bard Theory is definitely one of the most accepted theories of emotion. Some of the strengths of this theory of emotion which set it on a higher plain than others have been listed as follows,

  • The Cannon Bard Theory has been tested and tried many times through experiments
  • Many research studies have proven that the Thalamus is indeed very important for experiencing emotions which further supports the Cannon Bard Theory
  • Another strength of the Cannon Bard Theory, is that this theory led scientists to understand the significance of cognitive appraisals

Weaknesses of the Cannon Bard Theory

While the Cannon Bard Theory has its share of strengths, it also has its weaknesses. Some of the weaknesses of this theory of emotion are:

  • While the Cannon Bard Theory has been proved by many experiments, these experiments have been mainly conducted in animals. This is another weakness of the Cannon Bard Theory of emotion.
  • The Cannon Bard Theory gives a lot of importance to the Thalamus. While the Thalamus is important for experiencing emotions, research studies have shown that even other areas of the brain are important for emotions.
  • The Cannon Bard Theory places plenty of significance to cognitive appraisals, but does not differentiate between slow and fast cognitive appraisals which are explained much better by the James-Lange theory.
  • There is a certain amount of research which supports the Cannon Bard Theory, but at the same time, there is also a lot of research which discredits this theory of emotion. This is another weakness of the Cannon Bard Theory.
  • Another main weakness of the Cannon Bard Theory is that it does not take in to account that physical reactions can induce emotional responses as well. This has been supported by studies which show that the physical act of smiling can increase happiness levels.

Cannon Bard Theory vs James-Lange Theory

While there are many theories of emotion which have been proposed, the Cannon Bard Theory and the James-Lange Theory are most well-known. At the same time, both of these theories have similarities with each other.

In the Cannon Bard Theory, it is accepted that the emotions and the physiological arousal to the stimulus occur at the same time. However, in James-Lange Theory, the physiological arousal is said to occur first, following which the person experiences the emotion.


In this blogpost, we have explained what the Cannon Bard Theory is. We have also given you some examples of the Cannon Bard Theory and described how it differs from the James-Lange Theory of emotion.

If you like this blogpost, please leave your comments and questions in the space below.



Was this helpful?

Thanks for your feedback!