The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life

The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life

The Emotional Brain investigates the origins of human emotions and explains that many exist as part of complex neural systems that evolved to enable us to survive....

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Title:The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life
Author:Joseph E. LeDoux
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Edition Language:English

The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life Reviews

  • Cooper Cooper

    Brief Review

    A prominent researcher who focuses on the “emotional brain,” Joseph LeDoux contends that, contrary to the belief of some experts, there is no single emotional or “limbic” system in the brain, but different systems for different emotions. He also maintains that the fear system, in which he specializes, has two components that are not always in sync. There is the “lower” system, controlled by the amygdala in the midbrain, which is oriented toward survival and thus triggers fligh

    Brief Review

    A prominent researcher who focuses on the “emotional brain,” Joseph LeDoux contends that, contrary to the belief of some experts, there is no single emotional or “limbic” system in the brain, but different systems for different emotions. He also maintains that the fear system, in which he specializes, has two components that are not always in sync. There is the “lower” system, controlled by the amygdala in the midbrain, which is oriented toward survival and thus triggers flight or freeze or fight reactions based on a gross reading of sensory perceptions; this system is more potent than the “higher,” more finely discriminating cortical system, and sometimes overpowers it—which accounts for the persistent emotional ravages of such syndromes as PTSD and the phobias. This book is written for the layman as well as the specialist, and I recommend it to anyone interested in how the brain works.

    Expanded Review

    Joseph LeDoux is a psychologist who specializes in investigating the emotions. He is a protégé of Michael Gazzaniga, who in turn was a protégé of the late Roger Sperry, winner of the Nobel Prize for his work with split-brain patients (people with their cerebral hemispheres surgically separated).

    Until fairly recently, emotions were neglected if not ignored by most academic psychologists—emotions did not fit neatly into the worldview of the behaviorists, who for many years dominated American psychology, while their successors, the cognitive psychologists, have tended to treat the emotions as just another form of cognition. LeDoux surveys this whole history of neglect.

    Recently, though, there has been quite a lot of work on the emotions, and in particular, on what happens inside the brain during emotional states. LeDoux himself has focused on the emotion fear, because it is probably the easiest to study. Mostly he discusses how the brain produces fear and anxiety, and what the implications are for pathologies like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and the phobias. One of the keys to the fear response is Pavlovian ("classical") conditioning, in which a "learned trigger" or conditioned stimulus (CS—for example, the sound of a bell), comes (through association) to produce the same fear reaction as does a "natural trigger" or unconditioned stimulus (US—for example, an electric shock).

    Based on his own work and a thorough knowledge of recent studies by other investigators, LeDoux draws the following major conclusions:

    *Multiple Systems—Contrary to earlier views, different emotions appear to have different systems in the brain. Fear has one system, rage another and sex still another. There is no "limbic system" that processes all emotions.

    *Evolutionary Advantages—Each emotional system has evolved to confer specific advantages related to personal survival (e.g., fear) and perpetuation of the species (e.g., sex).

    *Two Systems for Fear—There are two systems that control the human fear response: the "lower" system, controlled by the amygdala, a small almond-shaped structure in the midbrain, and the "higher" system, controlled by the lateral medial area of the prefrontal cortex (this area controls "working memory"—what used to be called "short-term memory").

    *Lower System Built for Speed—The lower system is more primitive than the higher, and it evolved first. It is common to all mammals and to some lower orders as well. It has one purpose: to allow the person to mobilize her resources and act quickly at any sign of danger. Sensory stimuli are routed to the amygdala, which instantly queries the longterm memory in the neighboring hippocampus ("Do these stimuli correspond with anything dangerous?"); if there is danger, the amygdala releases signals to systems that will mobilize the body to flee (if it has time) or to "freeze" (if it can't flee) or to fight (as a last resort). Some major points about this system: 1) some of its responses are apparently inherited rather than learned—for example, laboratory rats will "freeze" when encountering a snake even if they've never before seen one (or, presumably, read about one); 2) because it is vital to survival, this system can learn in "one trial"—a memory can be indelibly imprinted in the hippocampus based on just one frightening experience, so the system is highly susceptible to Pavlovian conditioning; 3) it is a "quick-and-dirty" system, that does not make fine discriminations among sensory stimuli—so it may later respond not only to the original danger stimulus but also to other, similar stimuli, and also to conditioned stimuli (stimuli that happened to be present along with the dangerous stimulus—for example, a honking horn during a mugging); and 4) its processes are completely unconscious, which allows us to react to dangerous situations before we "know" (consciously) about them—thus we react before we have to think about what’s going on (in an emergency, thinking takes too long).

    *Higher System Built for Discernment—The higher system evolved more recently, and is most highly developed in the human. The system's "executive" is located in the prefrontal cortex, in the area that houses the brain's "working memory." This is the seat of consciousness, where we evaluate, compare, calculate, combine—where we do our conscious thinking. When we suddenly encounter a dangerous situation, the sensory stimuli are routed to this system, though a bit more slowly than to the lower system. The sensory stimuli are followed by perceptions of our lower system's (and therefore our body's) reaction to the situation—rapid heartbeat, quickened breathing, tensed muscles, etc. We then decide what to do based on a more comprehensive, conscious review of the situation. For example, the lower system spots a "snake" on the path, and makes the body jump back—then the higher system sees that the "snake" is actually a harmless stick, and tries to turn off the alarm and calm the body down. Points about the higher system: 1) it involves consciousness and can therefore evaluate context—the overall situation; 2) it reacts more slowly than the lower system; 3) it discriminates much more finely than the lower system; and 4) it is less powerful than the lower system (there are many more circuits leading from the amygdala to the "working memory" system than vice versa).

    *Serious Problem: Decoupling of the Two Systems—The lower and higher systems do not always "talk" to each other. 1) The lower system may remember things that were below the perceptual threshold of the higher system. For example, the lower system may pick up a conditioned stimulus that the higher system is not even aware of (e.g., the honking horn during the mugging), and mobilize the body's defenses for no apparent (to consciousness) reason. Also, during very stressful situations, when the hippocampus is flooded with steroids, the higher system may fail to convert working memories into long-term memories, so that a traumatic event may be forgotten by the higher system but remembered by the lower system. The higher system may know from the body's responses (racing heart, etc.) that there's something wrong, but has no idea what. It may simply experience an anxiety attack. 2) The higher system may remember a traumatic event (for example, a bad fall), but it may also know that it is powerless to calm down the lower system's overreaction to all heights (acrophobia). This usually leads to avoidance behavior—the higher system habitually steers the person away from high places.

    *Anxiety Disorders Caused by Decoupling—LeDoux makes the case that the anxiety disorders—post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), phobias, anxiety attacks, generalized ("free-floating") anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)—are caused by the decoupling discussed in the last paragraph, and by the consequent inability of the higher system to keep the lower system under control. The lower system hears a car backfire—this turns on a Vietnam combat memory—DANGER!—and mobilizes the body to flee, freeze or fight. The higher system remembers the Vietnam incident but can't subdue the lower system, which persists for a long time in flooding the body with danger signals. Alternatively, the lower system sees a flashbulb pop and mobilizes the body to flee, freeze or fight, but this time the higher system is unaware of the connection between the flashbulb and Vietnam—it knows only that the body and mind are beset by an all-out anxiety attack. So from the standpoint of the human being, the lower system has an upside and a downside: the upside is that it allows us to react very quickly to real dangers and to remember those dangers forever; the downside is that it tends to react too readily to similar and conditioned stimuli, to generalize to other related stimuli, to resist relearning, to fail to distinguish between the situation "back then" and the situation now—and of course it never forgets (even if the memory is "extinguished," it can be retriggered at any time by stress, even stress totally unrelated to the original trauma: for example, acrophobia “irrationally” revived by the death of a beloved grandparent).

    This is an excellent book for anyone who wants to know how the brain and emotions work, or who's particularly interested in the anxiety disorders. There may be more history than you care for (the book aims at neuroscientists as well as laypeople), but the presentation is simple, with many good examples and some very useful diagrams.

    Key concepts and brain areas:

    Amygdala

    Conditioned Response (CR)—e.g., salivation

    Conditioned Stimulus (CS)—e.g., bell

    Frontal Cortex—the location of the “higher” brain

    Hippocampus—brain area that consolidates long-term memory

    Lateral Medial Prefrontal Cortex—seat of the brain’s “executive” and “working memory”

    Learned Trigger—e.g., bell

    Natural Trigger—e.g., food

    Unconditioned Response—e.g., salivation

    Unconditioned Stimulus (US)—e.g., food

  • Petter Wolff

    Very good overview of an integrated view of emotions, (emotive) consciousness and underlying neurophysiological functions. I feel it complements Damasio well. I don't know if there is any more recent writing on the subject, I'll be on the lookout for it.

    Re-read jan 2018, raising to a 5. It's really well laid out and argued, and comparably easy to read. The drawings are a bit drab, though.

  • David Olmsted

    Despite being over 10 years old now this book by a leading researcher in the field gives some good information on the fear generating system of the brain.

    The first two chapters review the various psychological movements of the 20th century with the third chapter narrowing that down to how they dealt with emotion. By the mid 1980's (page 53) the experimental evidence was in showing that affective (emotional) reactions could take place in the absence of conscious awareness. The key fig

    Despite being over 10 years old now this book by a leading researcher in the field gives some good information on the fear generating system of the brain.

    The first two chapters review the various psychological movements of the 20th century with the third chapter narrowing that down to how they dealt with emotion. By the mid 1980's (page 53) the experimental evidence was in showing that affective (emotional) reactions could take place in the absence of conscious awareness. The key figure was Robert Zajonc who first demonstrated the phenomena known as the exposure effect in which emotionally neutral things one has previously seen are preferred over novel objects. After this discovery, in another experiment, he presented pictures to people so fast that they had no conscious recollection of what they saw yet they still exhibited this exposure effect. Today we call this subliminal suggestion. Zajonc took this further. By subliminally presenting an emotionally charged picture (a smiling or frowning face) just before a normally presented emotionally neutral picture and doing this for a whole set of pictures the test subjects had a tendency to later either like or dislike the neutral images according to what emotionally charged images was associated with them (page 59). The main point here is that some unconscious brain mechanism is a work and this is what the author, Joseph LeDoux investigated from a neuroscience perspective (this exposure effect is also the main reason why we must endure advertising).

    Chapter 6 gets into learning phenomena of conditioning (Pavlov's dog), especially fear conditioning in which a tone is paired with an electrical shock. This chapter finally gets into some neuroscience by describing the pathway of an auditory triggered fear conditioning. The key brain center involved in producing fear responses in all vertebrate animals turned out to be the central nucleus of the amygdala. It receives neuronal inputs direct from the auditory thalamus thus its inputs do not depend on the cerebral cortex. Electrical stimulation increases the heart rate (blood pressure increase), induced animal freezing responses, stress hormone release, and reflex potentiation (they get faster and stronger). Lesions eliminate these responses in fear conditioning experiments. Joseph LeDoux himself further refined these results by showing that the central amygdala's projection to the periaqueductal grey of the brain stem was responsible for the freezing reflex, that its projection to the lateral hypothalamus was responsible for the blood pressure rise. Others showed that its projection to the bed nucleus of the stria terminalis (in the hypothalamic region) was responsible for the stress hormone release. Electrical stimulation of the amygdala in humans most often produces the conscious sensation of fear (page 172). Damage localized to the amygdala in humans is very rare but one such patient was studied by Antonio Damasio. This patient was unable to recognize a fear facial expression even though she could identify all the other major classes of facial expression (page 173).

    Chapter 8 is a very good discussion mental illness emphasizing the role that unconscious fear conditioning might play. This is rather obvious for various phobias and stress disorders but this also has a role in producing anxiety and thus depression. The author suggests that panic attacks could be a fear conditioning that improperly treats the body's own autonomic fear responses as a fear producing stimulus (page 258). In learning theory this is known as the "assignment of credit" problem. This is the problem of determining which prior event should be associated with a fear event.

    Chapter 9 is a discussion of consciousness that includes the concept of “Working Memory”. Working memory is a more comprehensive idea about short term memory which allows one to remember temporarily up to 7 things at a time for up to a few minutes. In the amygdala it indicates that either more neurons are recruited into the event or the neural activation in the amygdala lasts longer than would be normal. Working memory seems to be controlled by the lateral prefrontal cortex at the very front of the brain which exists only in primates (page 274) so presumably it is able to keep amygdala neurons active longer. Below the prefrontal region is the orbital cortex which seems to be responsible for evaluating an emotional stimulus in terms of longer term goals.

    Overall a good and thought provoking book.

  • Shashwat Singh

    If you're an interested in learning how emotions work and their neurobiological background, read this book.

    This is a science heavy and technical book. I'd recommend you read Daniel Goleman's Emotional Intelligence first before tackling this book. However, this books gives a very indepth look into why and how emotions occur based on the latest research. The author gives a balanced overview, and you are aware that the whole field of research into emotions is still quite new and there is a lot we

    If you're an interested in learning how emotions work and their neurobiological background, read this book.

    This is a science heavy and technical book. I'd recommend you read Daniel Goleman's Emotional Intelligence first before tackling this book. However, this books gives a very indepth look into why and how emotions occur based on the latest research. The author gives a balanced overview, and you are aware that the whole field of research into emotions is still quite new and there is a lot we don't understand.

    According to the author and based on research, emotions are the byproduct of certain neural systems that accomplish certain goals are purposes. There is no "one" emotional system, but rather separate systems. The author mainly goes in depth into the fear system and the various fear and anxiety related disorders. This system has a lot of research into it, so we have an accurate idea of how it works.

    Essentially, emotions occur when these systems work in an animal(us) that have conscious awareness and are only a part of a larger systematic reaction. For example, during fear your body goes through a multitude of physical reactions including increased sweating, adrenaline, higher heart rates, etc. You can't have the emotion of fear without the bodily responses associated with it.

    These larger systematic reactions actually occur in most animals(although with various variations). The reason we feel emotions is because we have conscious awareness.

    There is a huge amount of content covered in this book about emotions that can give you a much better understanding of how your brain and emotions work. Have you ever wondered why emotions tend to overwhelm us completely? This book goes into the reasons why in depth.

    The book mainly focuses on fear and anxiety in terms of emotions, which are the cause of major anxiety disorders including PTSD, phobias, panic attacks, etc. He delves deep into the neuroscience of anxiety so you have a crystal clear idea of how they work.

    One of the coolest things I read in this book is about how the amygdala(the part of the brain that holds strong unconscious emotional memories) matures faster than the hippocampal system(which is heavily involved in creating conscious long term memories). What that essentially means is if you had childhood trauma, even if you don't remember it all, your amygdala still remembers it which can leading to troubling anxiety disorders.

    This is a very in depth book, and writing a summary of it would take forever. I highly suggest you read this book if you're interested in learning more about emotions and the brain and take notes(of which I have over 7500 words of notes from the book). Understanding is the first key to being able to utilize your brain to its maximum efficiency and this book is a great step for that.

  • Juozas Grigas

    Generally, The Emotional Brain is a very accessible overview - for both laymen and people interested in more technical details of the topic – about origin, mechanism and function of emotion, and a very important distinction between ‘emotion’ and ‘feeling’, focusing more on the former. A proposition LeDoux makes can be generalized into something like emotion being a physiological and behavioral response to certain external (and possibly internal) stimuli. In that sense, emotion can be treated in

    Generally, The Emotional Brain is a very accessible overview - for both laymen and people interested in more technical details of the topic – about origin, mechanism and function of emotion, and a very important distinction between ‘emotion’ and ‘feeling’, focusing more on the former. A proposition LeDoux makes can be generalized into something like emotion being a physiological and behavioral response to certain external (and possibly internal) stimuli. In that sense, emotion can be treated in a purely mechanistic approach, similarly to an automatic retraction of an arm away from a hot stove if it is touched. At the very beginning of the book author warns the reader that ‘emotion’ discussed in this book is going to be stripped away of its flamboyant expression in human beings, which is more accurately attributed to ‘feeling’. I can imagine a chosen direction of the book can be off-putting to some readers who expect more emphasis on the ‘feeling’ part of emotion.

    Personally, I very much enjoyed a rigorous deconstruction of a very complex and primitive part of human brain. LeDoux slowly and gradually lays layers of information, starting from the most basic premises of action/reaction dichotomy and a behavioral approach to the problem and proceeding to include – one by one – other parts of the sophisticated mechanism of human emotion, concentrating on fear (since the majority of his own research focuses on this particular emotion). This careful construction makes the reading easy and concepts understandable, with the help of very simplified and easy to follow diagrams. It was fascinating to look at the problem of emotion from a strictly anatomical/physiological point of view, devoid of the air of mystery that the topic carries with itself when presented by other authors. No wonder that, as LeDoux himself admits, scientific research on emotion has been thoroughly lacking, and has only recently been picked up by neuroscientists, since it has, for a very long time, been thought of as ‘beyond the interest of science’.

    Aside from my admiration for the book, some criticism is in order. Firstly, especially at the beginning chapters, LeDoux goes off to explain the historical context of research on emotion, mainly focusing on the work of the 20th century psychologists. Although I understand the importance of the origins of research on the topic, I believe a lot of ideas from the past that he explains add close to nothing to a contemporary understanding of emotion. The research carried out by psychologists in the 20th century was arguably very fascinating (e.g. the Little Albert experiment, subliminal signaling, etc.), it seems to be presented here for that reason alone – to capture a possibly fleeting attention of a reader, rather than adding anything to the general discussion. I understand that some readers might enjoy this trip through early research in psychology, but for me it served more as a distraction than anything else. Secondly, focus on fear when talking about problems of emotion eventually made me thirsty for diversity. What about other emotions? I do understand that the major part of LeDoux’s research focuses solely on fear, some extended discussion – even hypothetical in nature – would have been appreciated, even it made the book fifty or so pages longer, especially after the author tempts the reader with propositions that every emotion might have a separate circuitry in the brain. It would have been interesting to know more about a possible evolutionary advantage of having other emotions, like anger, disgust or joy and their underlying mechanism.

  • Tran

    "You're reading that for *fun*?" "Yup."

    Okay so it wasn't really "fun", reading this book, and god knows it took me nearly the entire summer to finish it, but here are some crazy tidbits about our emotional brain:

    You know how sometimes you wished you could will yourself to feel a certain way about a certain situation/person/thing? Ya know, adopt an emotionally "mature" perspective on it? But instead you feel kinda angry/bitter/jealous/scared/sad/etc. about the whole fucking thing? W

    "You're reading that for *fun*?" "Yup."

    Okay so it wasn't really "fun", reading this book, and god knows it took me nearly the entire summer to finish it, but here are some crazy tidbits about our emotional brain:

    You know how sometimes you wished you could will yourself to feel a certain way about a certain situation/person/thing? Ya know, adopt an emotionally "mature" perspective on it? But instead you feel kinda angry/bitter/jealous/scared/sad/etc. about the whole fucking thing? Well here's why (in a grossly reductive, I'm-too-lazy-to-write-a-10-page-essay-about-this-shit-kinda-way): the amygdala. You see, that part of the brain mediates emotional arousal, and its pathways to (and subsequent influence on) the cortex (where higher cognitive functions -- e.g. thinking -- occur) are far stronger than the other way around. That explains why it's much easier for emotions to grip your conscious thoughts & behavior than vice versa. (I think.)

    Okay that was essentially one tidbit, but I'm tired now and this ain't Amazon anyway. Read the book if you wanna know more.

  • Bob Nichols

    This is a good book, although some of the more technical descriptions were challenging. Whether any of this is dated, I can't say.

    LeDoux argues that we make a mistake when we conceive of emotions as a distinct, unitary system, as we more or less implicitly do when we contrast emotions with cognition and reason. "Emotions are" he writes, "...functions involved in survival. But since different emotions are involved with different survival functions - defending against danger, finding f

    This is a good book, although some of the more technical descriptions were challenging. Whether any of this is dated, I can't say.

    LeDoux argues that we make a mistake when we conceive of emotions as a distinct, unitary system, as we more or less implicitly do when we contrast emotions with cognition and reason. "Emotions are" he writes, "...functions involved in survival. But since different emotions are involved with different survival functions - defending against danger, finding food and mates, caring for offspring, and so on - each may well involve different brain systems that evolved for different reasons. As a result, there may not be one emotional system in the brain but many."

    Following up on that observation, LeDoux states that the only way to understand emotion is to study them one at a time and he spends most of this book on fear as a case study. The key observation about this emotion is that two systems, the nonconscious "emotional" amygdala and the conscious, reasoning cortex, work together and complement each other. The amygdala is immediate and fast, providing a survival value that way, but it can be wrong. The conscious part of the brain follows a fraction of a second later with supplementary information that more accurately assesses the situation and how best to respond. The "snake" may actually be a stick. Both responses, which LeDoux terms the low and high roads respectively, may be involved in other areas as well, although that might violate his caution to study on one emotion at a time. Yet, this observation about how "emotions" in general operate at least in relationship to the cognitive system does seem to match up with Kaheman's System 1 and System 2 processes, and with much of what we ourselves can self-observe in our lives.

    LeDoux generally defines emotions as a response to an arousing stimulus. This makes it easy for him to select fear as his case study because of the obvious response that is involved. But this begs a larger question: Why do we fear? LeDoux also writes that Aristotle saw anger as a reasonable response to an insult. Here anger responds, but what is it about "insult" that creates the response? Clearly, something deeper is going on that involves our body's energy.

    LeDoux acknowledges that while "scientists have not been able to agree about what an emotion is," he thinks looking at "universal behavioral functions" is a better way of defining basic emotions and, in common with our animal heritage, he sees emotional systems revolving around "the need to obtain food and shelter," protection "from bodily harm," and precreation." Elsewhere, he refers to emotional behaviors as those associated with "fighting, feeding, sex, and social bonding" and "caring for offspring." Seen this way, the involuntary responses identified by Darwin and others become much less significant as a focus or become part of a larger notion of emotion, which is now conceptualized as survival energy that seeks from the world what is needed to survive and defends against what is not needed from that world. LeDoux states that some sort of assessment goes on when the conscious or nonconscious brain evaluates the stimulus as a threat (or as an appropriate object to seek). Assessment implies "evaluation against a standard." LeDoux does not discuss what that standard is, but it could very well be these core survival values that are embedded in our basic emotions (need states).

    This view of the organism, and of ourselves, now moves the self away from the passive responder role that characterizes much of the discussion about emotion, and moves the self into an active seeker and protector of the body's core interests. We seek food, sex, love, group bonding, security. We defend against threats to these values. The energy that is built into these behaviors is primariy the low road, System 1 stuff, where we act or react largely without conscious thought, and some involve the "flush" of emotions that we typically associate with emotions. In short, we act on and react to the world in the way we do because the body cares, and we care because these ways of acting and reacting to the world have enabled us - our predecessor bodies - to survive over the eons.

  • Joe Silber

    "The Emotional Brain" was surprisingly tough to get through; I found it a bit of a slog. Ledoux was admittedly trying to walk a line: stay accessible and layman-friendly while not "dumbing-down the science." As to whether or not he succeeded, your mileage may vary. First of all, be aware that Ledoux does not get much into the "experience" of emotions per se; this book is focused on the underlying brain processes that cause them. Ledoux doesn't get too deep into the biochemistry of things (he spr

    "The Emotional Brain" was surprisingly tough to get through; I found it a bit of a slog. Ledoux was admittedly trying to walk a line: stay accessible and layman-friendly while not "dumbing-down the science." As to whether or not he succeeded, your mileage may vary. First of all, be aware that Ledoux does not get much into the "experience" of emotions per se; this book is focused on the underlying brain processes that cause them. Ledoux doesn't get too deep into the biochemistry of things (he sprinkles in a bit here and there, but nothing that a scientifically literate person can't follow) but brain anatomy plays a very significant role, and keeping straight some of the different parts of the brain was a challenge for me at times, particularly later in the book as Ledoux describes complex feedback loops.

    For a book about emotions, I found it to be a very dry, cerebral read, particularly the chapters surveying the history of the topic. Ledoux was frustratingly inconsistent in his ability to explain concepts clearly. Sometimes he did so in straightforward language and I would perk up and follow easily. Other times, I would have to reread a paragraph two or three times to follow what he was saying. I never doubted that Ledoux knew what he was talking about; the book is VERY extensively footnoted with references, and Ledoux was very careful to qualify how certain he was about any speculative statements. The book was published in 1998, so it is now 17 years old. It's certainly possible that some of the material is outdated by more recent research. However, as far as I know, there aren't a lot of books on the neurobiology of emotions (Antonio Damasio is another big researcher in the field who has written some books, but that's about it, I think), so it's probably still worth reading.

    Getting past the style of the book, there is some very good technical content. Ledoux lays out his case that emotions are, essentially, the conscious awareness of specific underlying unconscious processes, that occur in certain circumstances. The unconscious processes that cause emotions are ones that tend to promote the survival of the organism and/or species. In the process of laying out his argument, Ledoux teaches the reader about how things like sensory processing, learning, memory, attention/consciousness and other tasks work at a biological level in the brain. I'm familiar with many of these concepts from a psychology perspective, but learning the more specific biological mechanisms was new and interesting to me.

    Ledoux's research work focuses on fear, arguably the easiest emotion to study (and the easiest to relate to survival of the organism!). Therefore, in the book, he uses fear as an example/template/test case to explain emotions. He also discusses fear disorders - phobias and anxieties. Discussions of other emotions (joy, disgust, anger, etc) are minimal. The overt focus on fear was my main complaint about the knowledge content of the book. On the other hand, if he covered all the emotions, the book would be 900 pages long and I'd never have finished it.

    So should you read this book? I read it because the general topic of brain science and psychology interests me and I'm slowly working on expanding my knowledge in the area, and this book definitely helped. However, it's more a book that I'm glad to have read, rather than one I enjoyed reading. If you're willing to slog through a dense read, I can just about guarantee you'll learn something.

  • Alex Delogu

    A deep look into emotional/neural pathways. The start of the book is a good introduction to the schools of psychology and philosophy of mind and their respective domains of research. The latter half of the book goes into very detailed neurological descriptions that are beyond useful for me.

  • Stephie Williams

    This book discusses how emotions are produced in the brain, and what their functions are. How do they help us as we travel through life. The author, Joseph LeDoux, is a brain scientist, who has extensively study the fear response in animals. He believes from his own work, and those of others, that the emotion of fear is produced in the same way in human beings. Humans may have an extra component; this would be we feel fear, which is partly a cognitive affair, which he believes takes language and

    This book discusses how emotions are produced in the brain, and what their functions are. How do they help us as we travel through life. The author, Joseph LeDoux, is a brain scientist, who has extensively study the fear response in animals. He believes from his own work, and those of others, that the emotion of fear is produced in the same way in human beings. Humans may have an extra component; this would be we feel fear, which is partly a cognitive affair, which he believes takes language and self-consciousness, but still does not rule out the possibility of higher mammals, such as apes, dolphins, and perhaps even some birds having some form of feelings also. The emotion of fear involves the amygdala and connections to other parts of the brain, including the cortex and the brain stem. He covers the debate whether or not we and other animals have innate fears of certain objects, such as snakes and heights. On his way through the book he explains many parts and connections the brain is composed of. The book also contains some readable endnotes of interest, but unless you have a Kindle version, which I did not, it is kind of a nuisance reading them.

    I have some comments on specific pieces of the text. The page numbers for the text are in brackets []. An “@” symbol indicates were a comment was made, but was not specifically connect to the text, but was thought about during that part of the book. Pagination is from Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, copyrighted in 1996.

    [31] “We do not consciously plan the grammatical structure of the sentences we utter.” This lends support to seeing that language production is separated from thought in the brain; in other words, we do not think in language. It is processed in separated areas in the brain.

    [34] “. . . Ulric Neisser states that the field [cognitive science] is not about the dynamic factors (like emotions) that motivate behavior.” When emotions become conscious feelings occur, and the feelings that are responsible for carrying through a conscious decision is what I think is known (or should be) as free will.

    [35] “It is now believed that thinking does not normally involve the pure reasoned rules of logic.” I feel that most people that say they think logically really do not as can be deduced from the following: “He [Philip Johnson-Laird] found that quite often people draw illogically valid conclusions.” Moreover, “People are rational . .. they just don’t achieve their their rationality by following formal laws of logic.” This is another bit indicating that most people that say that they think logically, actually do not. Another thing it indicates is a possible role of feelings as an intimate link with language. [39] One more quote of support here; “Minds have thoughts as well as emotions and the study of either without the other will never be

    .” (I italicize here because of the importance of these two mental phenomena). I think it is fools that ignores their feelings. It is actually impossible to have emotions whether conscious or not without them affecting thoughts.

    [41] In a discussion on whether or not a computer could be programmed to be consciousness, LeDoux states: “However, even if a computer could be programmed to be conscious, it could not be programmed to have an emotion, as a computer does not have the right composition, which comes not from the clever assembly of human artifacts, but from eons of biological evolution.” The same defect could be said about consciousness which must have taken eons to have evolved too. Also, they already have programs that can mimic evolution for some shapes that look somewhat biological. Anyway, if one thing could be evolved on a computer, why could not both consciousness and feelings be programmable.

    [44-5] By William James’ account, “. . . we do not tremble because we are afraid or cry because we feel sad; we are afraid because we tremble and sad because we cry.” This cannot be right; one could possibly feel fear without trembling, and I know you can be sad without crying.

    [57] “And the inability of subjects in the subliminal perceptions experiments to verbally identify the secret stimuli was due, not to a failure to consciously perceive the stimuli, but to imperfections of verbal processes when it comes to accurately characterizing perceptual experiences.” Another piece of evidence that we do not think in language. And here is another piece [71]: “And we will not likely begin to fully understand the workings of human {unconsciousness} processes until we turn away from the use of verbal stimuli and verbal reports.” I also think this is why strong AI has not yet arrived; it uses language, and since if we do not think in language, as I claim, it is unlikely to be a way of achieving success in strong AI.

    [@240] If the hippocampus is needed for conscious recall, does this not open the door to some kind of consciousness for other animals that have one; this would make a much large membership in the consciousness group and probably some ability to feel emotions, but not like human beings, whose language ability allows for verbal expression, and hence a richer level of feelings. And, Antonio Damasio’s work also widens the membership criteria to consciousness.

    [300] He claims that consciousness in other human beings is “completely justified philosophically . . .” Nothing is completely justified in philosophy, not even logic, if included, because of the different types of logics, or the use of a different set of axioms or rules to manipulate them.

    [301] “Although the exact nature of the brain specialization involved in making language possible is not fully understood, something changed with the evolution of the human brain to make language happen. Not surprisingly, the development of language has often been said to be the key to human consciousness.” LeDoux’s claims that the ability to feel emotions limits the number of species who have self-consciousness. I would agree with this when it means the ability to recognized or verbalized feelings. But, I think the circle for some form of consciousness probably in most mammals, and maybe some birds) gives these animals some sense of feelings.

    Overall, while the book did have its good points, I was disappointed with it. I did not care for his diagrams. Not for the diagrams themselves, but the captions, which basically repeated exactly what was in the text. And, he basically focused on fear (his research area), then attempted to expand it to more complex emotions. Feelings were given only a chapter and he discounted the ability of most animals to have them of which I disagree.

    I suppose I could recommend the book for those interested in emotions, but not so much feelings. However, I feel there are better books out there, such as the works of Antonio Damasio.

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