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What Is the Connection between Cognition and Emotion?

By Stacy Taylor
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Until the mid-20th century, scholars and health professionals largely viewed emotional responses and cognitive conditioning as two separate entities. As study regarding cognition and emotion progressed, however, many authority figures changed their opinions about the presence of absolute disparity between the two states. Although it still is not unanimous, scholarly viewpoints have begun to entertain the notion that there is a possible connection between cognition and emotion.

"Cognition" usually refers to the psychological processing of learning and reasoning. It involves a natural participation in abstract activities related to memory, planning, problem-solving and perception. Cognitive functions can occur without much awareness of them or in direct response to outside input. For example, a simple cognitive response to extreme danger is to reason out a means of escape, which might happen almost automatically or after spending at least a few minutes problem-solving. Another simple example involves making the cognitive choice to shut out outside distractions until a particular task is complete.

On the other hand, emotion historically defies an easily agreed-upon definition. Among the various explanations for states of emotion, mental health authorities typically subscribe to the theory that emotion occurs because of reward or punishment conditioning. Doctors who come from a more clinical or medical background might prefer the theory that the human body informs emotional responses. This latter group largely believes that emotions are connected to brain structures such as the amygdala, the hippocampus and the hypothalamus. Whatever theory they ultimately choose to believe, most professionals who study brain activity have come to agree that emotions appear to affect cognitive processes, and cognition seems to affect emotional responses.

Cognition and emotion are linked in many ways. Anatomical bidirectional connections involving prefrontal and anterior brain structures link a surge of emotion to the successful completion of associated autonomous cognitive tasks. Additionally, a stimulus that elicits an emotional response from an individual appears to stimulate cognitive responses at the same time. For instance, emotional visual content might activate the cerebral cortex, resulting in heightened cognitive processes related to the way that the visual system perceives and processes information.

Another connection between cognition and emotion relates to the way the body learns to respond in certain situations. Called cognitive emotion regulation by many scholars, this theory describes how a person might reappraise a set of stimuli following an intense emotional reaction. This type of cognitive reappraisal might occur because of brain structure interactions involving the amygdala, which is commonly stimulated when a person responds to emotional input, and the insular cortex.

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