Saturday, April 12, 2008

Joseph LeDoux: Putting Emotions Back into the Brain

(hat tip to Arpit)

Twenty years ago no one cared about emotions and the brain, but it seems in the last couple of years there's been a flurry of activity. One reason for this may be that the topic was ignored for so long, and the vacuum is being filled. Another, though, is that there have been some successes in approaching the problem, and these have changed peoples' minds about the feasibility of studying emotions in the brain...

I've come to think that emotions are products of different systems, each of which evolved to take care of problems of survival, like defending against danger, finding mates and food, and so forth. These systems solve behavioral problems of survival. Detecting and responding to danger requires different kinds of sensory and cognitive processes, and different kinds of motor outputs, different kinds of feedback networks, and so on, than finding a mate or finding food. Because of these unique requirements, I think different systems of the brain are going to be involved in the different kinds of emotions…

Emotional reactions that occur in this quick and dirty way are really reactions that are important in survival situations. The advantage is that by allowing evolution to do the thinking for you at first, you basically buy the time that you need to think about the situation and do the most reasonable thing. For example, freezing is often the first thing people and other animals do when sudden danger appears. Predators respond to movement, so freezing is overall probably the best single thing to do first, at least it was for our distant ancestors. If they had to think about what to do first, they'd have been so caught up in the thought process they'd probably fidget around and then get eaten.

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