Cognitive Influence on Emotion

Understanding emotion remains something of a mystery, yet it appears to be such a dominant controlling factor in our lives.  Many of the effects of emotions cannot be explained and it seems, often ignored by medical and psychological science.  Is emotion a result of a thought or a result of physiological changes in the body, or both?  I believe emotion to be influenced by both biological and mental processes. And I believe emotion to be influenced by metaphysical experiences as well, but that is a totally different topic than what I present here.  In this blog, my main objective is to focus on the influence of cognitive factors on emotion.  How much do our thoughts influence our emotions? In my opinion, a great deal.


As we have already learned in our chapter on emotion, views on emotions have changed dramatically since the James – Lange and Cannon – Bard theories. In review, the James – Lange Theory was one of the first theories of emotion proposed in 1884 (Bear, Connors & Paradiso 2007) which suggests that we experience emotion in response to physiological changes in our body. In other words, our physiological response is the emotion. For example, we feel sad because we cry. The Cannon – Bard Theory proposes that emotional experience and emotional expression are independent of one another, that emotions can be experienced regardless of sensed physiological changes, and that the thalamus regulates emotion (Bear, Connors & Paradiso 2007). We now know that it’s the amygdala, not the thalamus that is responsible for emotions such as fear and aggression. We have come to realize that emotions are different than reflexes, that emotions are not controlled by structures of the brain in the same way reflexes are.

In my quest to discover more about cognitive influence on emotion, I came across the work of Aaron Beck, the father of cognitive behavioral therapy. His publication of Depression: Causes and Treatment addresses the correlation between distorted thought and depression (Dobson & Dozois 2010). Beck’s studies on depressed individuals showed that thoughts alone can produce emotions, particularly how negative thoughts result in negative feelings and behavior. The diagram below shows the relationships between thoughts, emotions and behavior. Cognitive behavioral therapy focuses on examining these relationships as a means towards treatment.

CBT cycle

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a form of treatment that focuses on examining the relationships between thoughts, feelings and behaviors. By exploring patterns of thinking that lead to self-destructive actions and the beliefs that direct these thoughts, people with mental illness can modify their patterns of thinking to improve coping. CBT is a type of psychotherapy that is different from traditional psychodynamic psychotherapy in that the therapist and the patient will actively work together to help the patient recover from their mental illness. People who seek CBT can expect their therapist to be problem-focused, and goal-directed in addressing the challenging symptoms of mental illnesses. Because CBT is an active intervention, one can also expect to do homework or practice outside of sessions. (“Treatment and Services,” n.d.)

Below is the link to the NAMI website’s page on CBT. This page elaborates more on the definition of CBT and when it is used as a form treatment.

One of the ways in which a therapist would help a patient through CBT is to have their patient notice and monitor automatic thoughts (Dobson & Dozois 2010). Below is a video demonstrating the cycle of a negatively – framed automatic thought, the negative thoughts impact on emotion and behavior, and how a therapist can help a patient recognize and change their negative thinking.

I am familiar with the cycle of negative thinking all too well, as I’m sure we all are. It’s human nature to experience negative automatic thinking, perhaps some of us more than others. I find that my yoga practice is useful in helping me notice my thought patterns. It has been within the last 5 years since adopting a regular yoga practice that I have been able to combat my own symptoms of depression. Yoga, a physical, mental, and spiritual discipline, is very similar to cognitive behavioral therapy in that it involves noticing the activity of the mind. In preparing for this blog, I was excited to learn about a form of cognitive therapy called Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) created by Jon Kabat-Zinn. MBCT includes yoga, breathing, and meditation. MBCT combines the techniques and theories from Aaron Beck’s CBT approach with the Buddhist concepts of mindfulness. Jon Kabat – Zinn developed a program at the University of Massachusetts Medical School called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). It is an 8 – week intensive training and is now offered in over 200 medical centers, clinics, hospitals all around the world. Below is a link to the MBSR website if you would like more information about this program. It’s so great to see mindfulness – based programs like this one becoming more accepted and integrated amongst the medical and science communities.

So the question remains, can we change the way we feel by changing the way we think? I am a strong proponent for this theory and according to Aaron Beck research supports this idea. The youtube video below shows a fantastic “meeting of the minds” between Aaron Beck and the Dalai Lama in which they discuss cognitive influence on behavior. Beck talks about the research conducted on people with certain medical disabilities who have negative thoughts about their symptoms versus people with medical disabilities who have positive thoughts about their symptoms. He goes on to state that research shows that those with negative thought patterns towards their own medical condition suffer more than those with positive thoughts. He suggests that those who are able to view pain, for example, as separate from self, have less suffering. Those who see pain as part of themselves endure more suffering. The Dalai Lama suggests that it is helpful to look at negative thoughts or things that cause anger or sadness from a wider perspective, more holistically. He explains that a broader perspective compared to a narrow perspective makes a huge difference in how we feel and that it is very important to view all things as relative, to see both the negative and positive in all things. I hope you enjoy the discussion as much as I do!

This very important and exciting information about cognitive influence on emotion reveals that we can choose to no longer be slaves to feelings of anger, jealousy, or aggression and instead create emotions of joy, happiness, and contentment through our very own thought patterns. Just as it is necessary to nourish our physical bodies through proper nutrition and physical activity, we must tend to our minds with the same care and attention. We are indeed what we think.



 Bear, Mark F., Connors Barry W. & Paradiso Michael A. (2007). Neuroscience, Exploring the Brain 3rd edition. Philadelphia & Baltimore. Lippincott, Williams & Wilkins

Dobson, Keith S. & Dozois, David J. A. (2010. Handbook of Cognitive – Behavioral Therapies. Dobson, Keith S. Historical and Philosophical Bases of the Cognitive – Behavioral Therapies (pgs. 13 -15). Guilford Publications

 “Services and Treatment.” National Alliance on Mental Illness. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Aug. 2014.


Mirror Neurons

When I watched the video lecture on “Structures, Connections, Functions” for chapter 4, I was thrilled to see the segment on mirror neurons.  I have only recently learned about this new discovery during my own research for my first blog on neurons for this course.  It was through reading the article “The Neurobiology of We” that I became instantly intrigued by the new empirical findings on mirror neurons.  We all have heard the old saying “monkey see, monkey do”.  In the past 20 years, scientists have uncovered that there is a neurological reason behind this saying.  New research suggests that there are motor neurons in our brains that become activated not only when we perform a particular action, but also when we observe someone performing the same or similar action.  Scientists understand that these motor neurons called mirror neurons are essential to imitation and some even associate this ability to empathy and understanding the minds of others.  Perhaps it is the mirror neurons that make it possible to attune to each others needs.

definition mirror neurons Wikipedia definition: A mirror neuron is a neuron that fires both when an animal acts and when the animal observes the same action performed by another.[1][2][3] Thus, the neuron “mirrors” the behavior of the other, as though the observer were itself acting.

mirror image

The areas lit up in white in the picture above indicate the location of mirror neurons. It is within the premotor cortex, regions of the motor cortex in the prefrontal lobe of the brain in which mirror neurons reside. 

These regions of the brain are the secondary motor cortex, the areas involved in planning and carrying out movement.  As Dr. H stated in the segment on mirror neurons in her lecture video, mirror neurons were recently discovered in the early 1990s in a lab in Italy.

It was, as you will see in the very last video of this blog, that it was Italian neuroscientist Dr. Giacomo Rizzolatti along with his colleagues at the University of Parma who made this accidental discovery while conducting studies in regions of the secondary motor cortex of the rhesus monkey brain.  Neural activity showed specific motor neurons in those regions of the brain firing in response to the monkey performing an action such as reaching for a peanut.  The same motor neurons fired when the monkey would simply watch the experimenter reach for the nut.  The amazing uncovering here is the firing of the same neurons during the simple act of watching the experimenter reach for the peanut as when the monkey itself reached for the nut.  This exciting new finding, as Dr. H. discussed, suggests structures in the brain that suggest imitation, a possible neural basis for social cognition.

Monkey Mirror Neurons
 Just as our individual neurons communicate to one another within our brains, it seems that our brains communicate to one another via mirror neurons.  This leads me to believe that this type of communication provides us with the ability to perceive and feel other people’s feelings as though they are our own; therefore, providing us with an innate ability to attune to the needs of others.

In his book, “Mindsight”, Dr. Seigel describes the discovery of mirror neurons to be one of the most exciting discoveries in neuroscience.  He declares that mirror neurons are a hardwired system designed for us to understand the state of mind of another person which help us connect to one another.  He proposes that it is through the mirror neurons that our minds unconsciously gather and interpret information about the feelings and intentions of those around us which create emotional resonance.  He describes mirror neurons as “antennae” that pick up information such as feelings and intention.

Below is a video of Dr. Siegel explaining mirror neurons in depth, specifically how an intention behind an action activates these neurons.  He describes that beyond observation, we see the intention of the behavior observed, which creates the capacity to imitate behavior. 

In an article “Imitation, Empathy and Motor Neurons”, Marco Iacoboni, presents experiments conducted on higher and lower levels of imitation in social behavior.  One hypothesis tested suggested the more people imitate others, the more concern they develop for other people’s feelings.  This experiment found a strong correlation between the tendency to empathize and the amount of imitative behavior displayed by the participants.  Does this mean that through imitation, we are able to feel what other people feel, attune to the needs of others as we do our own, and respond with compassion to the emotional states of those around us?  I believe so.

The link below is to the article “Imitation, Empathy and Motor Neurons” by Marco Iacoboni.

And here is another video to watch by Dr. Siegel which explains the function of mirror neurons in relation to empathy.

It is my personal belief that we are hardwired with these capabilities and that we are meant to have interpersonal relationships that are deeply meaningful, connected, and filled with compassion for one another.  It has been through my work as a massage therapist, physical therapist assistant and yoga instructor that I have learned to appreciate feeling other people’s feelings and knowing what they need through attunement.  I have always trusted this ability and have not questioned much where it comes from; however, it is truly amazing to think about our hardwired mirror system and what is happening on a neural level when when these qualities are present.  

This PBS video below has been my favorite to watch throughout my research on the roles of mirror neurons.  It even suggests that autism may be linked to “broken” mirror neurons.  I can only imagine the exciting new discoveries to come from the continuing research on mirror neurons.



Mirror neuron. (2014, July 22). Wikipedia. Retrieved July 25, 2014, from

Siegel, D. J. (2012). Mindsight: change your brain and your life (New ed.). Brunswick, Vic.: Scribe Publications.

Marc Iacoboni. “Imitation, Empathy and Mirror Neurons”. Annual Review of Psychology. September 15, 2008. Retrieved July 25, 2014.


Neural Connections

It is simply fascinating to me that all of our sensations, feelings, thoughts, motor responses, emotional responses, learning and memory, and any other function or dysfunction of the brain can emerge from the electrochemical interactions of neurons.  Neurons are just like other cells in the body except they have an axon, which allows for communication between neuron to neuron via an electrochemical process; therein lies the complexity of these basic building blocks.  Additionally, unlike other cells, neurons stop reproducing shortly after birth and are not replaced when they die.  Research shows that new connections between neurons form throughout life, which indicates to me that new behavioral patterns must be available to us throughout our lives, that our brains are malleable and that we are capable of breaking old patterns and adopting new ones that better serve us.



neuron (1)


As a yoga practitioner and teacher, I am especially excited over the idea that our brains are malleable and adaptable and that brain research has supporting evidence that we can change the workings of our brains and create new neural pathways through mindfulness and meditation practices.  Dr. Richard Davidson, world – renowned neuroscientist and leading expert on the impact of mindfulness/meditation practices has studied the brains of meditating Buddhist monks and has produced scans that show the ability of the brain’s ability to change its’ structure and function, otherwise known as neuroplasticity.  From these studies, Richardson has concluded that the brain, of all other organs, is built to change in response to experience. This is an incredible new discovery in science since not too long ago, scientists believed that the brain was stagnant and fixed, unable to change into adulthood.



As I study and learn about neurons through this Biopsychology class, I can’t help but think about my own behavior and specifically my own reactions to certain stimuli and how my behavior is directly related to the inhibitory or excitatory processes that take place and how particular information is processed within my own brain chemistry.  I am filled with curiosity around the idea of how I can break certain habitual behavioral patterns that no longer serve me, those so called “bad habits” if you will, through paying attention to when they are happening and then changing my thought patters.

Daniel Siegel, clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine and founder of the emerging field of interpersonal neurobiology suggests that we can in fact change old patterns through new neural connections, even though our earliest interpersonal experiences may have created detrimental or destructive repetitive patterns.  Through Dr. Siegel’s research, he has concluded that change must happen in the mind in order for a person to change, that mental processes of attention and imagination change the firing in the brain which create new neural pathways or changes within the brain.  The popular phrase “mind over matter” holds true to its’ long time usage!  In fact, it is the mind that drives the mass, the idea of mind over matter, the evolutionary growth of the human mind!

It has been through my own experience with yoga, meditation, and other forms of mindfulness that I have been introduced to the concept that change can happen within the neural pathways of the brain.  After years of struggling with depression and self – destructive behavior, I decided to make the dedication to paying attention to my body, noticing and focusing on breath, noticing my thoughts and committing to changing the negative thoughts into positive ones over and over again, cultivating awareness around my actions and reactions and learning to pause and breathe in order to choose to react differently as the need arises, and through the years I have began the process of neuroplasticity within my own brain and have realized that through A LOT of everyday practice, not only is change possible, but healing is as well!  And the process all takes place within the neurons of the brain.  Simply AMAZING!!




de Llosa, Patty. “The Neurobiology of We”. Parabola Magazine. Summer 2011: 4 pages. Parabola Magazine Web. 11 July 2014

Kaufman, Marc. “Meditation Gives Brain a Charge, Study Finds”. Washington Post 3 Jan. 2005: 5 pages. Washington Post Web. 11 July 2014

Ryan, Denise. “Health: Mental Exercises Like Meditation Can Literally Change Our Minds”. Vancouver Sun. 25 September 2009. 2 pages. Vancouver Sun Web. 11 July 2014

About Me

My name is Michelle Newman and I am attending Cedar Crest College as an adult learner and and majoring in Psychology, a subject I’ve always been fascinated by and now at 35 years of age, am creating the opportunity to learn more about this exciting and interesting field.

I have a background in holistic health through 15 years of experience practicing massage therapy, 4 years of teaching yoga to children and adults, and an Associate’s degree to practice as a physical Therapist Assistant.  Healthy living through proper nutrition, movement and self- care is extremely important to me and I am invested in nurturing my own connection between mind, body and spirit as well as helping others to understand how to do the same for themselves.

I have the best husband in the world who I feel so lucky to call my partner and best friend and together we have a beautiful, funny and intelligent 8 year old child who fills us with love and laughter always.

I am excited to be a part of this Biopsychology course and to learn more about blogging, two experiences I’ve never had before.  I always enjoy learning and trying new things!