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Three Types of Arousal


Explanations > Motivation > Three Types of Arousal

Cognitive | Affective | Physical | Brain and body | Interaction | So what


When we are aroused we are energized and 'feel alive'. There are three ways that arousal can be achieved: mentally, emotionally and physically, as described below.

Cognitive arousal

Cognitive, or intellectual, arousal is about thinking and mental stimulation. This is the state where we are exploring, learning and discovering interesting things. We are driven into this cognitively aroused state by curiosity, novelty and general interest.

Some people are more easily stimulated by cognitive arousal than others. When aroused, some are more focused on learning whilst others (often 'experts') are more likely to act to display and defend their pre-existing ideas and knowledge.

Affective arousal

Affective, or emotional, arousal happens when we are emotionally charged up and feel passionate about something. We may be angry, excited, scared, joyful or feeling the stimulation of any other emotion.

Some people fall easily into affective arousal and may be considered to have a volatile temperament.

Affective arousal is, in some ways, most central to arousal in that cognitive and physical arousal are more likely to be accompanied with some degree of emotional sensation. There is a less frequent direct connection between cognitive and physical arousal.

Physical arousal

Physical arousal occur where our bodies are in a heightened sense of arousal, typically with adrenaline coursing through our system and activating our muscles. Physical arousal includes both sexual arousal and the bodily activation we feel when we are engaged in sports and other physical exertions.

There are deeply programmed responses to physical threats which create arousal and action without cognitive intervention, for example when we jump out of the way of a falling branch or block a punch thrown at us.

Although we generally seek positive emotions, there is also an attraction to negative emotion, as evidenced in the many stories and movies that engender fear, sadness, anxiety and so on. Likewise many physical sports engender anger, fear and so on. What often happens in these situation is that, by some curious process, the negative emotion gets converted into pleasurable excitement.

Brain and body

Physical arousal is managed in the brain by the brainstem, the oldest 'reptilian' part of the brain that manages wakefulness and basic bodily action.

Emotional arousal is driven by the limbic system, particularly the amygdala. Emotional arousal also engages the physical arousal system.

The thinking cortex has the greatest involvement in cognitive arousal. This mental arousal may also involve emotional and physical components.

Arousal interaction

At any time we may have any combination of arousal states, and they interact in different ways. For example:

  • Affective arousal can trigger physical arousal, such as in the Fight-or-Flight reaction.
  • Cognitive arousal can lead to affective arousal, such as when we get excited about a new discovery.
  • Affective arousal can suppress cognitive arousal, such as when anger or lust leads to unwise decisions.

So what?

People have preferences for being aroused in different ways and seek these ways in life, for example in the way the intellectual enjoys reading and why others play football. So play to these in your persuasion, offering them different types of arousal as rewards or invoking the language of different arousals in your conversation.

See also

Emotional Arousal, Identity, The Need for Arousal, Hot and Cold Emotions, Stimulation


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