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"The Emotional Brain"- Joseph LeDoux

Sarah Harding's picture

The wonders of emotions have baffled scientists since the time of Aristotle.  During the scientific revolution, Robert Burton tried to understand why emotions have such a momentous effect on the human life.  Still today, the mystery of emotions plagues Joseph LeDoux in his quest to understand how and why the brain processes emotions.  In his book, The Emotional Brain, LeDoux unearths evolutionary secrets that explain certain emotions, and he ponders the role of genetics in cognition.  As a scientific reader, this book tackles many serious issues and makes them easy to understand for the layman.


            The book begins with a discussion about the relationship between emotions and cognition.  We learn that although emotions have often been ignored by the field of cognitive science, both cognition and emotion “seem to operate unconsciously, with only the outcome of cognitive or emotional processing entering awareness and occupying our conscious minds.”[1] Our unconscious minds are incredibly fascinating, and yet incredibly misunderstood.  While LeDoux makes no attempt to declare himself an expert on the brain, he does a thorough job explaining how emotions are just another type of cognition.  His belief that emotions can be analyzed is groundbreaking in the sense that he doesn’t dismiss emotions as irrational reactions that cannot be understood. 


Using examples of former patients, microscopic images, scientific theories, and explicit diagrams, he lays out the information and allows the reader to form her own opinion.  Giving us all of the data on phobias and disorders he leaves room for exploration of the relationship between thought and emotion.  Are they connected?  The only conclusion LeDoux gives us: we shouldn’t dismiss the idea that these are mutually exclusive functions.  He likens thoughts and emotions to reason and passion, and wishes for a “harmonious integration” of the two.[2] 


One of his most fascinating chapters focused on the bases of fear in our minds. He describes in detail studies that have been conducted with rats to help us understand how fear works in humans.  From what LeDoux can deduce, we have conscious control over our reactions to frightening events, but emotional pre-programming “sets the emotional ball rolling.”[3]  Thus, it appears as though we elicit “pre-packaged emotional reactions” via stimuli that is either learned or innate.[4]  This information is greatly useful for someone attempting to understand their own emotions.  If you understand how your emotions are processed, it could be easier to live your life. 


The Emotional Brain would be an excellent read for Biology 202 because it enforces Emily Dickinson’s idea that the mind is “wider than the sky.” As LeDoux proves to us, everything is encompassed by our mind… perhaps that is why we are unable to understand everything about ourselves?  As it turns out, brains are pre-programmed (through evolution) to unconsciously respond to certain situations in a specific way.[5]  It’s impressive that these reactions are made without our conscious knowledge. The conscious vs. unconscious debate was often discussed in our class.  LeDoux leaves the reader questioning the validity of conscious thought.  How much do we actually control?  How many mental actions are accomplished without our knowledge?  These questions frame the center of this book and leave the reader questioning and exploring. 


As students, learning is a vital function of our lives, and a central part of our thought process.  Thus, it’s fascinating when LeDoux reveals to us “Hebbian Plasticity,” in which learning implies changes in neural functions.  When two cells are active at the same time, they can activate another cell.  At a time in the future, only one of the original cells is needed to activate the third.[6]  Thus, at the level of individual cells, we can see that learning is a natural part of our species. This is fascinating from the perspective of a student and a scientist.  Even on the most minute scale, we can see how the smallest portions of our minds mimic the actions of our full-size mind. We learned in class that nothing about the world can be explained.  LeDoux makes no attempt to alter this theory.  However, he at least shows us that our ability to acquire new knowledge will continue.  The quest for discovery of the mind will never end.  Who would have thought that tiny cells have the ability to learn?  Our capabilities as species are endless and mind boggling.   Our brains are very powerful (and all-encompassing), and LeDoux makes a valliant attempt to both avoid conclusions and provide useful knowledge.  The world of science, he demonstrates to us, it a catch-22. After all, one must not make any declarative sentences about anything.  However, one also must never stop searching for answers.  Our minds are unfathomably complicated, and will never be fully understood.


In 300 pages, Joseph LeDoux covers an impressive amount of ground.  From explaining the limbic system (which was initially identified as the area in the brain where emotions are processed), to the interactions between implicit and explicit memories, LeDoux covers many aspects of the human mind.  Despite his wide-ranging topics, it’s interesting to see how many of these topics are interwoven.  For instance, sections of the hippocampus contribute to cognitive memory, but this is a region that composes the limbic system.[7]  Thus, cognitions and emotions must be similar in properties.  Just when you think that you understand part of our emotions, LeDoux introduces a new concept that overshadows the previous concept.  He’s a fascinating read that shows the flexibility of science because there is so much to be discovered.  His ideas support the foundations of Biology 202 because he promotes questioning and searching.  Will we ever understand how the brain works?  Who knows; but because of Joseph LeDoux, we have a few more tidbits of information to ponder.


[1] LeDoux, Joseph. The Emotional Brain. Simon and Schuster Paperbacks: New York. 1996. pg. 20

[2] Ibid. pg. 21

[3] Ibid. pg 178

[4] Ibid. pg. 178

[5] Ibid. pg. 267

[6] Ibid. pg. 213

[7] Ibid. pg. 186


William (Nate) Jenkins's picture


So in the end does this all tie back to Quanta? What if we were able to actually be aware of every single neuron in our mind? Would that amplify our power as human beings or is that just some fairy tail?