Do thoughts ALWAYS precede emotion?
January 16, 2011 1:14 AM   Subscribe

Do thoughts ALWAYS precede emotion?

A psychologist I am working with stresses that THOUGHTS always precede emotions. I am conflicted, because I think sometimes this isn't the case. For instance, when someone has low blood sugar they may FEEL anxious BEFORE they think, "I need to eat something."

I am curious what all you psychologists/philosophers think. I googled this issue myself but I would love further clarification.

posted by learninguntilidie to Human Relations (40 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
In my humble opinion, your psychologist has gotten lazy...he or she has one standard way of getting you to see the world (even though none of us experiences it that way).

But you won't do yourself any favors trying to win an argument about it. The psychologist is thoroughly convinced that his/her expertise rightly positions him/her to convince you of this.

Either accept that the psychologist can help you despite his/her shortcomings (which is possible), or seek help elsewhere.

Listen, the psychologist doesn't realize it, because he/she paid alot of money to become an expert, but s/he's just peddling a metaphor that, if adopted by the client, might be a helpful way of looking at the world.

Personally, I have little patience for it anymore. I'd be tempted to look at him/her and say, "you're an idiot" and leave. Unless this person has any power over my situation; ie. I'm inpatient somewhere, or in mandated therapy.

Not all psychologists are inflexible idiots.
posted by vitabellosi at 1:33 AM on January 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

You'll have situations where emotion precedes thought (you panic in the dark before you calm yourself down and search for a light switch) and vice versa (you start thinking about how someone broke something of yours but you didn't get mad until you realized they never did anything to make amends).

Your brain is a frenzied mess of systems which approximately match each other in pace. I'll agree that cultivating regular habits to analyze and control your behavior can be helpful when cast in a "Always do X in Y situation" manner, but there are very few "always" situations with behavior and thought.
posted by Lifeson at 2:31 AM on January 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

They way the psychologist I went to a while ago told me it, was in terms of things can influence each other both ways - it was this diagram they used. This seems to me to be a cleaned-up diagrammatic version of Lifeson's "frenzied mess of systems"!
posted by Coobeastie at 2:35 AM on January 16, 2011

Yes and No--Well, Yes. Anxiety, by most functional definitions, is a name we give to certain physiological responses we experience as part of processing information about the internal and external environment. It is specifically tied to a real or perceived threat/danger. In order for these physiological responses to be triggered some form of cognition precedes the physiological mobilization. It can happen in a way we experience with the response and stimulus being simultaneous ( a truck veering out of control) or as anticipatory (fearing a truck is losing control). Most of the experiences we label as anxiety is anticipatory and tied to imagined or real threats to our "being/humanness ". For example, social anxiety, most phobias, etc. As to whether you feel low blood sugar as anxiety. I think what you actually do is experience a set of physiological responses you label/call anxiety (or some other discomfort--dizziness, etc.) I am not going to say your psychologist is "right" but for all practical purposes it is the way to properly define anxiety. It ges a bit muddier when you get into classical conditioning (Pavlov/bells/shocks/food/etc). But once again, even though there does not appear to be any cognitive mediation between the "bell" and the "shock" the future fear of the "bell" with out a shock is a cognitive mediation. Primitive though it be.

Bottom. line, I would not want to argue this point with your psychologist. It is an empty victory and avoids dealing with real reasons you are there. Good Luck
posted by rmhsinc at 2:45 AM on January 16, 2011 [3 favorites]

I tend to shy away from absolutes such as "always" and "never."

One of the few things actually worth retaining in a psych education is that most things ride a continuum. There's usually a little bit of both going on at the same time.
posted by XhaustedProphet at 3:01 AM on January 16, 2011


Your psychologist is not particularly insightful. I suspect she may be trying to send the message that emotional responses can be controlled by thought; in that case, though, she ought to emphasize that thoughts can precede action and that emotion doesn't need to lead to unmediated impulse behavior.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 3:53 AM on January 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

A very popular theory of emotion, these days, says that an emotion is a type of judgment. So, if you construe "thought" very widely to include any forms of judgments, and if you interpret "precedes" in a particular way, it is possible to understand your psychologist's claim in a way that is supported by a fair amount of philosophical literature. Her claim could amount to saying, "When you feel an emotion, what you are doing is judging the world in a certain way. So, focus on what the nature of that judgment is, not what the nature of the feeling is."

However, I admit that, given the way you present your psychologist's claim, this reading seems like quite a stretch. I'd suggest you ask them for a clarification.

One final point, though: there is a distinction between a mood and an emotion. A mood sometimes is understood as a feeling, whereas an emotion is a feeling about something. So, in your example, feeling anxious because you're hungry could be seen as just a mood, not an emotion.
posted by meese at 4:25 AM on January 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think it's kind of a dark rabbit hole of semantics that you're peering into. What constitutes a thought? Presumably abstract ideas are "thoughts," but what about physical perceptions? Associations? Memories? Memories projected into the future as expectations? Must "thoughts" be conscious? Can non-human animals think? If animals can't think, wouldn't it follow that animals can't feel emotions? You're arguing without defining terms, which sets you up to go around in circles.

I agree that your shrink is pushing a sloppy, lazy metaphor. If it doesn't make sense to you, ask him or her to clarify what they mean or try a different way of explaining things to you. Or find a different therapist.
posted by jon1270 at 4:26 AM on January 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

This is a bit more abstract that you're asking about, but there's experimental evidence that demonstrates that people can have emotional reactions to stimuli that they're not consciously aware of experiencing (and therefore don't have any conscious thoughts of). For example, someone with a phobia about snakes who's shown an image of a snake for just 30 ms might not be aware of what picture was flashed in front of them, because the exposure was so short, but might still produce physiological effects of fear, such as increased skin conductance. [1] That seems to demonstrate that emotions can (sometimes) certainly occur without thoughts preceding them.

I'm getting this from a paper published by the journal I work for [2] in which the author uses examples like this to argue against the notion that "emotions are special types of judgments". More citations to experimental evidence can be found in Section 3 of that paper, or I could post further citations if you're interested (but I suspect this is rather more academic and less oriented toward everyday real life than you were looking for!)

[1] Öhman, A. and Soares, J. J. F. [1998]: ‘Emotional Conditioning to Masked Stimuli: Expectancies for Aversive Outcomes Following Nonrecognized Fear-Relevant Stimuli’, Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, vol. 127, pp. 69–82.

[2] Scarantino, A. [2010]: 'Insights and Blindspots of the Cognitivist Theory of Emotions', British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, vol. 61, issue 4, pp. 729-768.
posted by logopetria at 4:32 AM on January 16, 2011 [7 favorites]

No. Conscious thoughts are, well.. self-awareness. you can't be conscious (self-aware) of an emotion until you actually have that emotion. So... emotion comes first, then the awareness or the thought of it.
posted by herox at 4:43 AM on January 16, 2011

A psychologist, by definition, is going to emphasize the importance of your thoughts. So s/he is just repeating what s/he's learned.
In the body-mind therapy that I practice, emotions are physical. Thoughts are a completely different animal. They may add fuel to the fire, but they can also distance us from our emotions, and this can happen before, during and/or after the emotion itself.
"Information" about what we feel comes from the body. If you can catch yourself and observe your body when you get angry, for example, you will notice all sorts of things: maybe your shoulders are up around your ears, maybe you're gritting your teeth, maybe you're clenching your fists or your stomach. All of these things can happen before you even realize (in your head, through thinking) that you're royally pissed off.
posted by Paris Elk at 5:16 AM on January 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

Thoughts are sometimes as far removed from emotion as the East is from the West. We can have irrational thoughts that lead to emotion and we can have emotions which lead to thoughts. We can have emotion without any thought at all.
posted by brownrd at 6:34 AM on January 16, 2011

"A psychologist, by definition, is going to emphasize the importance of your thoughts. "

No. (Not this one, anyway.)

"We can have emotion without any thought at all."

posted by DMelanogaster at 6:58 AM on January 16, 2011

Nope. This has actually been a hot debate in psychology. As with most debates, it currently looks like both sides are a bit right: it is possible to have thoughts before emotions (obviously), but there is also evidence that suggests you can have emotions that precede thought.

About 20 years ago Robert Zajonc published a highly influential paper in the American Psychologist advocating for the primacy of emotions: "Feeling and thinking: Preferences need no inferences." I've pasted the abstract below:
Affect is considered by most contemporary theories to be postcognitive, that is, to occur only after considerable cognitive operations have been accomplished. Yet a number of experimental results on preferences, attitudes, impression formation, and decision making, as well as some clinical phenomena, suggest that affective judgments may be fairly independent of, and precede in time, the sorts of perceptual and cognitive operations commonly assumed to be the basis of these affective judgments. Affective reactions to stimuli are often the very first reactions of the organism, and for lower organisms they are the dominant reactions. Affective reactions can occur without extensive perceptual and cognitive encoding, are made with greater confidence than cognitive judgments, and can be made sooner. Experimental evidence is presented demonstrating that reliable affective discriminations (like–dislike ratings) can be made in the total absence of recognition memory (old–new judgments). Various differences between judgments based on affect and those based on perceptual and cognitive processes are examined. It is concluded that affect and cognition are under the control of separate and partially independent systems that can influence each other in a variety of ways, and that both constitute independent sources of effects in information processing.
posted by eisenkr at 7:14 AM on January 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

Tell your not particularly insightful therapist that this model isn't helpful to you and ask for a different framework. Emotions can be affected and managed, but they are complex. The mind and body are deeply interconnected.
posted by theora55 at 7:15 AM on January 16, 2011

Thoughts and emotions are completely intertwined.

An easy example for this is "anxiety" and "excitement". Both are cognitive perceptions of the future. "Anxiety" is prediction of a negative outcome and "excitement" is prediction of a positive outcome.

Let's take the case of public speaking, where a junior manager has been instructed to prepare his work to present to the board of directors.

There is an external stimulus -- presenting to the board of directors -- and the response, heightened state of emotions due to the "newness" of that situation.

If the junior manager perceives the presentation as being successful, they will read the heightened state of emotion as "excitement".

If the junior manager perceives the presentation as being unsuccessful or challenging, they will read the heightened state of emotion as "anxiety".

Thus they completely co-operate. Extended over time, anxiety can be moderated by repetitively successful events.

A friend had a tremendous fear of flying, so much he could not fly. The anxiety was tremendous and for years he would book trips and then cancel them. He was sure he would die in a crash or attack. Over time, he took short flights. First 30 minutes, then 45 minutes, then an hour. Three years later, he is excited about airplane travel because he has attached new cognitive thoughts to the heightened sense of emotion.

The reverse is also true. Many new managers out of business school want to use their newfound skill to change companies! Yay! They are excited. After some time of dealing a structure dedicated to stability over improvement, they become less excited and perhaps even anxious because they start to anticipate the outcomes of their change initiatives as negative.

Thus, they run together. This is exactly the point of cognitive behavioural therapy. Reconnecting positive thoughts with emotional triggers and disconnecting negative thoughts.

Of course, the technical answer is that emotions ALWAYS precede thoughts due to the hindbrain and whatnot, but there is such an element of time, it's probably safest to say that in cognitive experience, the events occur together.
posted by nickrussell at 7:18 AM on January 16, 2011

I'm a little concerned by the people here implying your therapist is bad. Did she actually insist that you must believe thought precedes emotion, or did she present it as part of a technique to use? Therapy is not supposed to be an academic seminar; your job as a patient is not to engage in an intellectual discussion about theories with your doctor. Arguing with your doctor about theories is an excellent way for you to avoid talking about how you feel.

It sounds like your doctor might be trying to do a kind of cognitive therapy with you, which emphasizes breaking down the connection between thoughts and emotions. A lot of people have been really helped by this model. A treatment model doesn't have to be conceptually perfect to work. Your doctor may just be giving you a basic explanation so that you can start in on the work of observing yourself. If she had to give you a phd level explanation you'd never get anywhere.

Of course, it could be true that your therapist is rigid, or you don't get along, or that this approach won't help you. But in order for therapy to have a chance of working you are going to have to stop arguing intellectual points with your therapist and start focusing on expressing yourself to him or her instead.
posted by yarly at 7:48 AM on January 16, 2011 [5 favorites]

No. Sometimes (about once a month, right before my period), I have very negative emotions. Right after it ends, all feels right again. Thoughts were not involved, just hormones.

The best advice I ever got from a therapist regarding emotions is to not take them too seriously and not to assume that they reflect reality. Just because that guys feels like he would be good for me doesn't mean he would be good for me. Just because I hate my coworker today doesn't mean I will hate him forever.

Too much time spent focusing on your emotions messes you up, not the opposite.
posted by eleslie at 8:28 AM on January 16, 2011

I'd be more inclined to ask, do thoughts EVER precede emotions... but as said above, this could be a confusion of definitions. Or, is it possible you're misunderstanding the purpose of the claim, eg, that the psychiatrist wants to stress the importance, rather than which one comes first in time?
posted by mdn at 8:34 AM on January 16, 2011

I'm a little concerned by the people here implying your therapist is bad. Did she actually insist that you must believe thought precedes emotion, or did she present it as part of a technique to use?

I can't speak for everyone, but, to me, this therapist is bad because she's either wrong (about something a therapist should not be wrong about) or lying.

Yes, it might be helpful to think of thoughts as ALWAYS coming before emotions, but whether it's helpful or not, it's either true or false. It's impossible for thoughts to both ALWAYS come before emotions and ALWAYS not come before emotions. It's one or the other.

If the therapist had said, "It would be helpful for you to THINK of thoughts as coming before emotions," that would be one thing. But it's another thing to posit this as a fact. You might consider that an overly pedantic destination: "Does it really matter if it's literally true, if it helps?" It matters -- to me -- because I think it's important to (a) be able to trust that a therapist isn't going to lie to you, (b) that she's not going to make ignorant statements about how the mind works.

I once had a therapist ask me to describe my dreams, because "every dream has a wish in it." Since Science hasn't yet figured out what exactly dreams are and how (or if ) they're useful, I knew she was either bullshitting or prey to some sort of magical thinking. That seriously shook my faith in her ability to help me. I knew that I couldn't trust anything she claimed was true about the mind.
posted by grumblebee at 8:37 AM on January 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm surprised by how hostile many of the responses have been to the OP's psychologist. The position in question doesn't strike me as obviously unreasonable; and the OP hasn't said anything to indicate that the psychologist has been dogmatic in any especially problematic way (can't she simply hold a strong view?). I would guess that many people believe that, by insisting that thought precedes emotions, the psychologist is somehow discounting the complexity or importance of emotions in some way--but I don't think that this is necessarily the case.

For my own part, I can tell you that Plato held a similar view (see: The Republic). That is, he believed that the function of emotions is to provide an impetus to act in accordance with one's rational judgments. If you experience the emotion of shame as a result of cheating on your spouse, for instance, this must be because you have at some point come to believe that infidelity is bad; the idea that you could feel shame without ever having made a judgment to this effect seems odd. Ideally, your feeling of shame helps discourage you from cheating, and it is in this sense that emotions have instrumental value.

Now, this is not to say that there is always a tight coupling between one's emotions and one's judgments or thoughts. On Plato's view, all emotions originate in some judgment or other; but an individual may change her judgments without effecting a corresponding change in emotional response. For instance, someone who, by rational reflection, has come to accept that homosexuality is morally permissible may nonetheless feel disgust when he imagines gay sex--his emotions no longer accurately reflect his judgments. (Plato believed that achieving an ideal psychology largely consisted in aligning one's emotions to one's judgments in the correct way.)

I don't know enough about the details of your psychologist's view to really scrutinize it. If her claim is that literally every emotional experience is preceded by a corresponding thought, that strikes me as too strong. Likewise, Plato's account surely is not completely accurate. However, I do think that the significance of thought to emotion tends to be understated by our common sense view (many people seem to think that thoughts and emotions are completely separate); so I am sympathetic to your psychologist's argument.
posted by Maxa at 8:49 AM on January 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

Wikipedia has some information about the role of cognition in emotions including links to psychologists who support the theory. Whether it is true or not, unless they're faced with data to the contrary, it's okay for a professional to hold an opinion on an area of their work without being bad/worth firing.

More intriguingly, I'm wondering why almost everyone here is assuming you're "working" with this psychologist as a patient, but perhaps I'm too used to working with academics..
posted by wackybrit at 8:52 AM on January 16, 2011

But to get to specifically answer the question (sorry for the derail, above. Mods, do your job if you must...), if you define emotions as automatic responses of the nervous system, then they definitely precede thoughts in many cases. It's pretty clear that most fish don't think -- not in the sense of having conscious ideas and an inner monologue. They don't think, "Oh, shit! A shark is coming!!!" Yet they do flee.

Animals, including humans, are capable of a large number of thoughtless reactions that, to an outside observer, look like emotions. Whether or not you call these reactions emotions is up to you. That's just a matter of one's arbitrary definitions.

But there's another thing that can happen, which is AWARENESS of the reaction -- and also CLASSIFICATION of the reaction: "Wow! I'm really scared right now!" THAT can't happen without thought, because that IS thought. So if you consider that sort of conscious awareness a necessary part of emotion, then emotion can't exist without thought. But the initial reaction can still come before thought.

However, once a creature has evolved that level of consciousness, thought can also trigger emotion. "I wonder if that house is haunted? Shit, it would be scary if it was. Oh no, I've scared myself!" And, of course, this can lead to a vicious cycle, because that fear can lead to more thoughts which can lead to more feelings and so on.

But it's still very possible to react -- in a way almost everyone would classify as, say, fear -- without first thinking about it. To prove this, hide in a closet and then, when your friend comes into the room, jump out screaming. (Don't really do this.) I guess it's possible that your friend has a light-speed thought "Ohmygod somehorriblemonster isafterme!" before he shrieks and bolts out of the room, but I doubt it. Evolution should select for automatic response in such situations. But I bet your friend will later say, "You fucker! You scared the shit out of me!" So, at least in that case, emotion preceded thought.

Unless, again, you decide that the emotion didn't exist until your friend could consciously give it a name. But if you go that way, you need to assume that infants, not yet having names for things like fear and joy, don't experience those feelings.
posted by grumblebee at 8:54 AM on January 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

rmhsinc is the most correct.

Thoughts precede emotion. These aren't necessarily conscious thoughts.

You have to have thoughts before emotion, because your brain has to figure out what it has witnessed. You have to comprehend something at a basic level before you can have emotion about it.

Example: A man gets splashed by water from a car driving past. Before we feel anything, we (likely subconsciously) identify a human, the water, the car. That's thought. Then we must think about context. Again, probably subconsciously- a guy we hate? We feel schadenfreude. Someone we like? We feel pity. Someone on their way to a funeral? We feel more pity and sadness.

Note: mood and emotion aren't the same things. If we are in a shitty mood due to physiological or previous emotional events, then our interpretations and emotional reactions may be different.

Note2: physiological reflexes don't count. This includes learned reflexes. Our hand jumps from pain, our mouths salivate when we hear a bell, our skin goes clammy and our heart rate goes up when we sense a danger pattern, all before the sensation makes it to the higher functioning processing of the images and emotions.
posted by gjc at 9:18 AM on January 16, 2011

No. Emotions precede thoughts. In fact, our emotions generally know what's up before our "logical" self does. You might want to read "How We Decide" by Jonah Lehrer. It's incredibly fascinating, and talks extensively about this topic.
posted by kookaburra at 9:28 AM on January 16, 2011

It might be that knowing the science of the situation, the truth of the process, won't really help that much.

For me, emotion is the "weather" in which thoughts happen. This affects the conditions that thoughts are likely to take place in and the direction they travel in as a result.

But to me (as someone with a brain chemistry "issue"), it can be successful to use thoughts to "predict" or pre-assess the weather to some degree which results in an overall improvement in the thoughts that occur in that environment.
posted by nickjadlowe at 10:01 AM on January 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

It sounds like your psychologist is approaching things from a CBT perspective but has oversimplified matters. It's not as black and white as that. Sometimes you can think your way into an emotion, sometimes you can think your way out of it, sometimes both, and sometimes your brain chemistry is out of whack or you just really need a nap.
posted by Metroid Baby at 10:03 AM on January 16, 2011

Geez, very harsh in here. OP, if you want the latest on cognitive theory, go to a conference. If you want to do therapy, work on communicating with your therapist (including any feelings of discomfort with how she communicates her ideas to you). You may decide your therapist isn't right for you, but you may have gained something along the way. At any rate, I can assure you that demanding that your therapy be scienifically or philosophically perfect is not going to get you far. Yes, it's important to look for evidence-based treatment, but at a certain point you just have to *try* it. You are in therapy - you're not running a double blind test on yourself for publication.
posted by yarly at 10:30 AM on January 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

OP, I just read your other askmes. I would really urge you to discuss this with your therapist rather has accepting the negative judgments here.
posted by yarly at 10:34 AM on January 16, 2011

Your therapist is obviously a practitioner of CBT. The idea that thoughts drive emotions is pretty much the driving credo of the whole therapy. Google "cognitive model of emotional response." Everyone in this thread complaining about your therapist should recognize that they are criticizing the most widespread and mainstream form of talk therapy, and the one that has enjoyed more empirical vindication by evidence-based assessments than any other form. This is not to say that all of the underlying doctrines of CBT are correct, but all the condemnations of the therapist in here seem pretty ignorant of psychiatry to me. This claim is one that most talk therapists would probably make.

OK, so what of the doctrine itself? Does our best science tell us that thoughts always precede emotions? There's somewhat of a disconnect between clinical psychology and cognitive psychology. Psychiatrists often tend to be pragmatic; methods are appraised by their usefulness and effectiveness. I think it's fair to say that your therapist, and CBT practitioners in general, might be a good therapists even though cognitive psychology has shown their central claim to be wrong. (Think of the difference between an engineer and a physicist. A physicist might show that of an engineer's Newtonian assumptions are false because they don't take relativistic effects into account, but the engineer doesn't care: his equations are good enough for getting his bridge to stay up.)

Here I join gjc and give another upvote to rmhsinc. I think the real problem here is the word 'thought'. It's a folky sort of term actually doesn't play much of a role in cognitive psychology. We process information in all sorts of different ways. Which sorts of processes count as thoughts? Cognitive science, for the most part, just doesn't care. When the word 'thinking' is used, it tends to mean something like 'representational process that is not too low-level', and that's obviously vague. (Sometimes people limit it to the processes of a "central system", if they are committed to there being a central system.) If 'thought' just means 'representational process', then it does seem to imply that thoughts precede emotions. A baby can't be afraid of a snake without antecedently manipulating the representation 'snake'. That representation had to come from somewhere. So, sure, in this sense, thought has to precede emotion.

Is the claim doctrine true on the "good enough" level of psychiatry and folk psychology? I don't think it's unreasonable. In your example, you identify a mood, generalized anxiety, as an emotion. (The emotion would have content, such as 'I'm anxious that I'm going to miss the bus', and this obviously requires prior thoughts about missing the bus. CBT will try to redirect your thoughts away from worries like these.) I also think it's not obvious that being hungry leads to generalized anxiety without any prior interpretation on your part. More plausible is that being hungry makes one irritable. It only leads to anxiety when you start thinking about the sorts of things that make you anxious.

It's impossible for thoughts to both ALWAYS come before emotions and ALWAYS not come before emotions. It's one or the other.

Scope error! I think you mean "It's impossible for thoughts to both ALWAYS come before emotions and not ALWAYS come before emotions. It's one or the other."
posted by painquale at 10:56 AM on January 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Scope error!

Yes. Thanks.
posted by grumblebee at 11:01 AM on January 16, 2011

IANAPsychologist, but:

No. However, thoughts can cause cycles which make unpleasant emotions worse.

Anxiety Example:
I feel anxious.
I think, "Boy, I sure feel anxious." Anxiety continues.
I think, "I always get this anxious. What's wrong with me." Anxiety worsens.
I think, "Everyone can tell how anxious I am." I get more anxious.

Depression Example:
I feel a little depressed.
I think, "God, this sure is a shitty day." Depression continues.
I think, "What's the point of doing anything." Depression worsens.
I think, "Nothing is ever going to matter." Depression worsens.

Changing your pattern of thinking can prevent cycles like these from continuing. Instead of thinking "Boy, I'm sure anxious, what's wrong with me" when I'm anxious, I've found personally it's more helpful to be aware of the fact that I'm nervous, reassure myself that everyone feels this way, it feels worse than it looks, I'm fine, Hey look, a tree. So while it feels disingenuous of your psychologist to tell you that thought ALWAYS precedes emotion, there's a reason. It's easier to control your conscious thoughts and redirect your emotions than to prevent emotions from occurring in the first place.
posted by girih knot at 11:25 AM on January 16, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks all for your feedback.

This psychologist is very effective. I just felt unsettled by her rigidity and dogma surrounding certain areas, ie this one, so I wanted an outside perspective.

And yes, I have communicated this concern to her and am awaiting her response.
posted by learninguntilidie at 12:55 PM on January 16, 2011

I think it's not correct to say that thoughts always chronologically precede emotions, but maybe they precede them logically, meaning that there's no strong distinction between thought and emotion, emotions are necessarily partly cognitive. And vice versa: in Descartes' Error, Antonio Damasio famously argues that there is no cognition that's not emotional. What this means is that any emotion has a conceptual component; if it wasn't there (because your culture doesn't have conceptual or linguistic categories about them, for example), you would experience them as physiological sensations. This is why it's possible to have somatic depression - purely body sensations of fatigue, low energy, pain without feeling sadness. And the reverse process, psychologizing body effects like low blood sugar or hormonal changes, feeling anxious or upset because of physical cues from your body that you aren't conscious of.
posted by AlsoMike at 1:20 PM on January 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

You make a good point, and it's odd for your therapist to be rigid here; of course physical state has some influence.

As logopetria and eisenkr have said, research suggests that some reactions are triggered without passing through conscious awareness. Conscious awareness is pretty slow compared to some things. A perceived threat can trigger a stress reaction (adrenaline, faster heart rate) very quickly. Then -- due to the fear coursing through the body -- the conscious brain will interpret a stimulus as frightening. (My understanding here is basic; I just read all these studies a few years ago, but I find myself conflating cognition and conscious thought while others are drawing a distinction, so I might be missing something.)

You can read the research yourself. Others have listed some of the classic studies, and check out the top of p. 51 here for a brief summary of the research and some citations to start your reading, as well as the abstract for Phobias and preparedness: the selective, automatic, and encapsulated nature of fear, Susan Mineka and Arne Öhman (2002). You could search around google scholar with some of these keywords -- affective / autonomic [...reaction, response, response time], cognition, conscious thought, cognitive thought, facial electromyography, skin conductance / galvanic skin response -- and draw your own conclusions.

This is not to say that conscious thought has no relevance or even that CBT isn't useful. You can work toward extinction of the conditioned stress reactions (so the stress doesn't get triggered), practice overriding the stress reaction (so that you can cope and recover when it does), and prevent causing or worsening stress reactions via your thoughts (so that you avoid any stress responses that you can).

Even cooler, as I learned while fact-checking this comment, biofeedback apparently lets you learn to influence your pre-conscious physical reactions. Psychiatric Times (2/1/99, behind a paywall) says: "biofeedback, also referred to as applied psychophysiological feedback, is the process of displaying involuntary or subthreshold physiological processes, usually by electronic instrumentation, and learning to voluntarily influence those processes by making changes in cognition. It provides a visible and experiential demonstration of the mind-body connection."

But even without a biofeedback machine, I agree with you that taking care of yourself physically can reverse feelings of anxiety. When I'm stressed, everything looks more frightening, and my thoughts keep racing. Even if I can't shift those thoughts but can at least remember to take deep breaths, after ten minutes I begin to feel calmer anyway. YMMV. If you continue to feel unheard by your therapist on this point, you could search for one with more openness to somatic approaches.
posted by slidell at 2:52 PM on January 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

For me, emotion is the "weather" in which thoughts happen. This affects the conditions that thoughts are likely to take place in and the direction they travel in as a result.

That is mood, not emotion.
posted by gjc at 3:54 PM on January 16, 2011

As a therapist who uses CBT, I tend to think your therapist is often right, but did an incomplete job of explaining the way that cognitions and emotions are linked. The example you bring is a good one - if your blood sugar drops, you may feel a little dizzy and nauseous, but you're unlikely to attribute those sensations to anxiety until you acknowledge them, even if you haven't consciously deliberated them out verbally. However, I'm sure even your therapist would acknowledge that a panic response to danger is unlikely to have been preceded by thinking. That's what fight or flight means.
posted by namesarehard at 9:11 PM on January 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

I experience emotions that are triggered by sounds/music and smells all the time. Generally it is some bit of nostalgia, but I don't even have time to think about thinking before the emotions wash over me. My experience is that those emotions precede thought, but this might be different because we're talking about stored memories and the emotions associated with them.
posted by palacewalls at 11:25 PM on January 16, 2011

While getting into the murkiness of of the subconscious and physiology could have everyone debating here all day, for most intents and purposes in therapy thoughts come before emotions.

In what I would imagine is the majority of instances of depression and anxiety, thoughts create the emotions and the emotions serve to intensify and perpetuate the thoughts. This is why CBT has been shown to work very well time and time again.

If emotions came before thoughts I can't imagine CBT working.

For those of you skeptics, try tracing all of your positive or negative emotions to a cognition, however fleeting it was. I cannot recall a time when I was not able to do this, even when the thought was a mere millisecond.
posted by Defenestrator at 11:47 PM on January 16, 2011

For those of you skeptics, try tracing all of your positive or negative emotions to a cognition, however fleeting it was. I cannot recall a time when I was not able to do this, even when the thought was a mere millisecond.

Fascinating. I completely believe you, but this isn't my experience at all. I could give many counter-examples, but here's one: I respond to depression and anxiety by getting a stomach ache. This has been happening to me for 40 years. The link between certain emotions and stomach aches is so strong that, sometime in my late 20s, it started happening the other way around.

By which I mean that having a stomach ache -- one that I just got from eating too much or gas or something -- started making me feel sad or worried. This still happens. My awareness seems to go something like this:

Oh, shit! It's terrible! It's TERRIBLE! I'm fucking SCREWED!

Wait. What's terrible? How am I screwed?

Let me think back through my day. Has anything bad happened? No. Everything is fine. So why do I feel this way?

Ooooooh! Because my stomach hurts!

As-soon-as I realize this, my depression falls away (though I still have a stomach ache).

I've made my life a lot better by doing a sort-of CBT move on myself. Whenever I get upset, I try to remember to check my stomach first. (I am sadly unaware of my body, and am capable of having a stomach ache without consciously realizing it.) When I do things, I can diffuse any irrelevant feelings.

But, at least in these cases, the feelings ARE coming before the thoughts. In fact, there aren't any thoughts. Just feelings disconnected from any cognition. If you define "cognition" as any mental process, then I guess I'm wrong. There must be some inner process that says "You have a stomach ache: therefor you're depressed." But I don't have access to it.
posted by grumblebee at 12:01 PM on January 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

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