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In this episode we explore the way emotions work, and particularly fear - the way it’s triggered, what happens in the brain and how much we are conscious of what’s going on. I think this is really relevant as we appear to be an extremely fearful, defensive and argumentative society in general, and perhaps if we understood what was happening inside us we might be able to limit some of the damage these kind of encounters produce. We also look at the the Limbic System and Triune Brain theories of emotions and the evolution of the brain, and find out why these hugely popular theories in Psychology are no longer really considered true by neuroscientists. Perhaps we can salvage something useful from these theories for psychology, as some really effective therapies have been based on them in the past.


So who better to help us clarify all this than emotion and fear specialist, neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux. Dr Le Doux is the Henry and Lucy Moses Professor of Science at NYU in New York in the Center for Neural Science, and he directs the Emotional Brain Institute of NYU and the Nathan Kline Institute. He is also a Professor of Psychiatry and Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at NYU Langone Medical School. His work is focused on the brain mechanisms of memory and emotion and he is the author of The Emotional Brain, Synaptic Self, and Anxious and his most recent book that we’ll be talking mostly about today “Deep History of Ourselves and the evolution of consciousness”. He has received loads of awards, including prizes from the Association for Psychological Science, the American Philosophical Society, the IPSEN Foundation and the American Psychological Association. His book Anxious received the 2016 William James Book Award from the American Psychological Association. Awesomely, he is also the lead singer and songwriter in the rock band, The Amygdaloids and performs with Colin Dempsey as the acoustic duo So We Are.


Joseph’s new book “The Deep History of Ourselves: the 4 billion year story of how we got conscious brains” 


What we discuss in this episode:


00:00 Intro

05:16 Joseph joined Mike Gazzaniga’s lab in the late 60’s

07:00 The neuroscience of being afraid and under threat

09:00 Left Brain Interpreter: Consciousness is a narration making sense of our behaviour

14:30 The conscious experience of emotion is an unconscious cognitive interpretation

16:45 The Amygdala: Raised heart rate and sweaty palms are not the emotion of fear

21:30 Cognition: internal representation of stimuli

23:30 Anthony Dickinson: Habit VS goal directed behaviour

28:45 Can we separate emotion from cognition?

33:00 A criticism of Paul MacLean’s Limbic system and Triune Brain theories

37:45 Evolution doesn’t add new parts, it takes what’s there and repurposes and expands them

38:45 We can’t get ladder theories of the evolution of consciousness out of the literature

40:00 The Amygdala is misunderstood when associated with fear rather than threat stimuli processing

45:00 Misunderstanding about what fear is: conflation between behaviour and mental states

45:45 We should keep mental state terms and behaviour terms separate

47:00 Threat hormones like cortisol can affect rational thinking in the frontal cortex



52:00 The conscious experience of anxiety and fear is often where the problem lies, not the physiological mechanisms the medication is treating

55:00 Medication was originally developed based on animal behaviourism

58:00 Medication cannot target subjective negative experiences

59:30 3 types of noetic consciousness: breaking it down to try and learn more

1:02:00 Autonoetic: mental time travel

1:04:00 Anoetic consciousness: knowing it’s you - subjective meta-cognition

1:11:00 We cannot know about the subjective feelings of animals from behaviour

1:14:00 Contrary to darwinism, cognition came before emotions

1:15:30 Reconciling the disconnect between experiences and brain activity

1:20:00 Conscious experiences have evolved from the earliest life approaching and withdrawing from nutrition and threat

1:24:00 The age of anxiety

1:27:00 Focussing on improving how we feel over how we behave



Leon Festinger’s theory of Cognitive Dissonance

Anthony Dickinson, Cambridge University, cognition research

Endel Tulving - 3 types of noetic consciousness

John Locke - Self is a bundle of memories about our experience

Steve Flemming UCL - subjective self awareness in the frontal pole area

WH Auden poem - “The Age of Anxiety” 1949