Is It Possible to Have Cognition Without Emotion?

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By Sarah Stevenson, The Tini Yogini

One cannot have cognition without emotion. According to current research, “there are no truly separate systems for emotion and cognition because complex cognitive, emotional behavior emerges from the rich, dynamic interactions between brain networks” (Pessoa, 2008, p.148). Cognition takes place in the pre-frontal cortex (neocortex) involves controlled processes, reasoning, memory, perceiving, language, problem-solving, remembering, and all forms of knowing and awareness (American Psychological Association, n.d.; Pessoa, 2008). Emotion that takes place in the limbic system involves a ‘mental reaction’ to one’s environment in the form of feeling, behavioral and psychological changes in the brain that shows up in forms such as anger, fear, and excitement (Merriam-Webster, n.d.).

It is Hard to Seperate the Two

Cognition and emotion are separated for the purpose of understanding each of their capabilities, but research has not concluded that it is proper to separate them in terms of functionality. Cognitive, emotional research suggests that it is challenging to separate cognition from emotion because of the synaptic interconnectivity of brain regions (Pessoa, 2008). According to Pessoa (2008, p. 148), isolating areas of the brain is impossible because “brain regions viewed as ‘affective’ are also involved in cognition; second, brain regions viewed as ‘cognitive’ are also involved in emotion; and critically, third, cognition and emotion are integrated in the brain”. One cannot act on emotion (behavior) without cognition, so separating cognition from emotion is impossible (New York University, 2017).

Emotion can either positively or negatively affect one’s cognition, specifically regarding memory and retrieval (Okon-Singer et al., 2015). A psychological diagnosis like clinical depression shows decreased specificity in the long-term memory storage bank (Oatley et al., 2011). Individuals who have suffered psychological trauma have a heightened connection with long-term memory. In cases like post-traumatic stress disorder, hearing sounds or seeing images that retrieve anxiety or fear (emotion) may cause the person to act out in ways that do not match up with the current situation (cognition) because of the heightened anxiety provoked memory (Swain & Takarangi, 2021).

Maladaptive Cognition

 Research strongly links maladaptive cognitions such as rumination, suppression, distorted beliefs, selective attention, and memory with emotional disorders like borderline personality disorder and panic disorder (Baer et al., 2012). These emotional disorders link negative emotions like anger, fear, and depression with maladaptive cognitive processes, and longitudinal research indicates that cognition precedes these emotions (Alloy & Riskind, 2006; Matthews & MacLeod, 2005).

Cognitive Behavior Therapy

Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) is a common therapeutic technique that uses the relationship of thoughts, emotions, and behaviors to decrease negative feelings like depression, panic disorder, and anxiety (Beal, 2019). The link that CBT draws between cognition, emotion, and behavior is based on years of longitudinal, quantifiable research (Pinheiro et al., 2021). As a behavior analyst, I have spent the last 20 years utilizing CBT with my clients that struggle with social, emotional development by targeting negative cognitive thoughts to create behavior change supported with productive emotions. I have spent years witnessing the intricate connection of emotion and cognition, and I stand with the researchers who postulate that you cannot have one without the other (Passeo, 2008).


Alloy, L. B., & Riskind, J. H. (Eds.). (2006). Cognitive vulnerability to emotional disorders. NY: Erlbaum.

American Psychological Association. (n.d.). Cognition.

Beal, D. G. (2019). Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT). Salem Press Encyclopedia of Health.

Baer, R. A., Peters, J. R., Eisenlohr-Moul, T. A., Geiger, P. J., & Sauer, S. E. (2012). Emotion-related cognitive processes in borderline personality disorder: A review of the empirical literature. Clinical Psychology Review, 32(5), 359–369.

Herbert, J. D., & Forman, E.V. (2011). Acceptance and Mindfulness in Cognitive Behavior Therapy: Understanding and Applying the New Therapies. Hoboken: Wiley. Print.

Mathews, A., & MacLeod, C. (2005). Cognitive vulnerability to emotional disorders. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology, 1, 167–195.

Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Emotion. dictionary. Retrieved June 9, 2021, from

New York University. (2017). Emotions are cognitive, not innate, researchers conclude. ScienceDaily.

Oatley, K., Parrott, W. G., Smith, C., & Watts, F. (2011). Cognition and emotion over twenty-five years. Cognition & Emotion, 25(8), 1341–1348.

Okon-Singer, H., Hendler, T., Pessoa, L. & Shackman, A. J. (2015). The neurobiology of emotion-cognition interactions: Fundamental questions and strategies for future research. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 9, 453-464.

Pessoa, L. (2008). On the relationship between emotion and cognition. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 9(2), 148–158.

Pinheiro, P., Gonçalves, M. M., Sousa, I., & Salgado, J. (2021). What is the effect of emotional processing on depression? A longitudinal study. Psychotherapy Research: Journal of the Society for Psychotherapy Research, 31(4), 507–519.

Swain, T. L., & Takarangi, M. K. T. (2021). Preliminary evidence for a relationship between prospective memory and PTSD symptoms in the general population. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 77, 62-73.

By The Tini Yogini

I hold a Masters degree in psychology with an emphasis in behavior modification & have worked with individuals in the public & private sector for 20 years. I am a certified Yoga Instructor RYT & sole proprietor of my own health and wellness business for the last 14 years built from the ground up. I implement Cognitive Behavior Therapy theories to help clients eliminate self-destructive unconscious behavior patterns and replace them with positive life affirming behavior patterns. I am also a professional writer and have spent the last 10 years writing articles about implementing research-based behavior strategies to positively enhance one’s life. I teach workshops throughout the United States that teach individuals how to flourish and thrive.

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