It’s a long way from Eunice, a small town in Louisiana’s Cajun country, to New York University’s Center for Neural Science, but neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux gives the impression of being at home in both worlds. Perhaps it’s the lingering trace of the South in his speech, but more likely it’s the result of a career spent skirting convention in order to pursue highly original research on the neurological basis of emotions.
Poking holes in rats’ brainsLeDoux’s parents agreed to let him attend university in the state capital, Baton Rouge, on condition that he major in business and return to Eunice as a banker. It was while he was working on a master’s degree in marketing that he happened upon a course, on the brain mechanisms of learning and motivation, taught by Robert Thompson, a charismatic biological psychologist. “Thompson was studying the localization of memory by poking holes in rats’ brains, and I thought it was really fascinating,” Joseph recalls. Thompson put the student to work in his lab and encouraged him to pursue a Ph.D. in biological psychology. “And,” says Joseph, “it opened up a new world. For the first time I thought about the possibility of being a scientist.” He performed his thesis work on patients who had undergone split-brain surgery for epilepsy, which enabled him to compare how thoughts and behaviors were processed in each hemisphere. That sparked an ongoing fascination with the question of how emotions are processed and stored as memories outside of consciousness.
Why study emotions?At the time, few scientists were studying emotions, which they believed were governed by the limbic system, a theory that Joseph believed needed revision. Rather than trying to explain all emotions at once, he focused on fear as a very basic emotion with lots of implications for human society. “I studied how the brain decides a stimulus is threatening, and how it initiates a response to danger. All animals have to be able to do that, from bacteria all the way up through humans,” he explains.
Also, techniques from behavioral psychology existed to study fear. “Some things are hard to study, like consciousness, while others, like how a stimulus produces a response, are easy,” the neuroscientist points out. “Fear conditioning has been around since Pavlov: pair a sound with a shock, then the rat will express a response to the sound alone. Figure out how the brain processes a simple stimulus-response pattern, and then you can increase the complexity of that process.” For example, a rat that freezes in reaction to a sound can learn to make a bigger movement to prevent the shock. Adding response complexity as well as stimulus complexity builds up our knowledge of how the brain works within the fear response. And the animal models provide a framework for interpreting state-of-the-art images of human brain function. [See Mary Foley's profile] “Studying emotional responses is less sexy than studying emotional feelings, but we may get to feelings faster if we understand responses,” Joseph says.
A writer as well as a researcherJoseph is also the author of two critically acclaimed books on the brain. Published in 1996, The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life, focuses on how emotions work. It was followed in 2002 by The Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are, a call for an integrated theory of brain function. “In neuroscience we’re very good at studying individual processes like perception, memory, and emotion, but the whole is more than the sum of its parts,” observes the author. “We’re selves; we have personality. But personality can be reflected in the way you walk talk, speak, think, or remember, so it’s not the product of any one part of the brain.”
Joseph likes the challenge of writing books for the general public because it forces him to question his thought processes, re-digest material, and turn his ideas into a story. “It’s a way for me to learn,” he says. “As you get away from jargon and explain what things really mean, that’s when you’re really forced to learn what you thought you already knew.”
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Name: Joseph Edward LeDoux, Jr.
Born: Eunice, Louisiana, 1949
Where I go to watch IMAX films: Upper Broadway, New York City
Job: Professor, Center for Neural Science, New York University
Education: High school: Eunice High, Eunice, LA. B.S.: Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, LA. M.S.: LSU. Ph.D.: State University of New York at Stony Brook, Stony Brook, NY.
Book/s I'd want if I were stranded on a desert island: How to Make a Guitar from Coconut Parts
Favorite place to visit: Catskill Mountains and Montauk Beach
Favorite food: Chicken and sausage gumbo
Favorite artist/kind of music: Electric blues
Biking experiences: Country roads in upstate New York
How did you first hear about Wired to Win? I was a consultant for the movie.