Joseph LeDoux: Inside the Brain, Behind the Music, Part 1

Part 1: “Fearing”

In June of 2008, four NYU scientists spent a week in the Hamptons.  The sun shone brightly each day, but we went home paler than when we arrived.  Tyler Volk, Daniela Schiller, Nina Curley and I spent every waking moment possible in a basement. We weren’t doing some arcane experiment that required we be in a dark, dank environment.  You see, we aren’t just four scientists—we are the founding members of the rock band, The Amygdaloids, and we were tracking our second album, Theory of My Mind, in a subterranean recording studio in the home of Ed and Jennifer Brout.

The Amygdaloids' Theory of My Mind

Jen, though a clinical psychologist by training, is also CEO and executive producer of Knock Out Noise, our recoding label. Joining us down under were Tim Sommer (co-executive producer) and Stuart Chatwood, (producer-engineer).  When we emerged after a week of self-imposed isolation and sweaty, round-the-clock rock, we had recoded the basic tracks for 13 songs.  Over the subsequent months we completed the recordings, including adding back up vocals on two tunes by Grammy Award winner Rosanne Cash. Then began the arduous process of getting the record mixed and ready to go. Finally, on June 15, 2010, Theory of My Mind appeared on iTunes.

We Amygdaloids have carved a unique niche out for ourselves—original rock/pop/country songs about love and life peppered with ideas and facts about mind and brain and mental disorders.  This is a theme we started on our first CD, Heavy Mental, released in 2007.

I write most of the music, and I decided I wanted to share some of scientific background and personal inspiration for the songs on Theory of My Mind.  The Beautiful Brain graciously agreed to post my explanations in the form of a running blog.  We’re going to start this series with the third track on the CD, “Fearing,” and then move on to some of the others over the next few weeks.

We chose “Fearing” for this inaugural installment for two reasons.  It is a song that is near and dear to my scientific research, which is all about fear and the brain.  But we also chose “Fearing” because we are releasing a music video of it with the publication of this blog.  The video was written, produced and directed by Noah Hutton, who happens to be the mastermind behind The Beautiful Brain, but who is also an award-winning documentary filmmaker.  We did the “Fearing” video at a farm in the Catskills.  Daniela Schiller, our drummer, and I drove upstate for the weekend and worked with Noah and his partner in video crime, Ben Ehrlich.  The video, like the song, is dark and stark.

The song “Fearing” is an adaptation of poem in a collection called Life by Emily Dickinson.  Legend has it that she was a fearful person who stayed in her home quite a bit.  Her poem is indeed dark, and has a strong sense of dread and anxiety about it.  I took some (not too many) liberties with her words, changing things around a bit, adding lines or phrases here and there, to make them work as a song, but I kept the general structure and feel to the poem.  My main contribution, though, was to compose the music, a minor chord progression with a dirge-like feel that compliments the sense of foreboding that she so effectively created with her well-crafted phrases.

Rather than do a straight music video, Noah and I decided to try something different.  We added short lectures on the psychology and neuroscience of fear in the parts of the song where two guitar solos normally occur.  Thanks to the wonders of modern digital recording technology, we were able, with the help of KON engineer Stuart Chatwood, to mute the lead guitar and create some loops that extended the duration of the space where the solos were located, creating two windows in which to squeeze a 30 sec lecture on the basic functional or psychological aspects of fear and 1 min lecture on the brain mechanisms involved.

The functional part emphasized the fact that fear is the most primitive emotion, and that it exists to help keep organisms alive.  Animals can forego eating, drinking or sex for a long time, but must respond to danger immediately.  All species have pre-programmed ways of dealing with dangers that were routinely encountered by their ancestors on a regular basis.  But most of the things that make us afraid are learned.  This allows us to adapt so that novel dangers encountered today can be responded to tomorrow.  The learning is rapid and the memories created are long-lived. They in fact seem to persist throughout life.  Fears can be reduced in various ways, but even when successfully treated they can always remerge, especially in the fact of stress.

The second, longer lecture focused on the brain mechanisms of fear.  The region of the brain most clearly associated with the fear is the amygdala.  This structure gets its name from the Greek word for almond, a designation that came about because of the shape of one of the amygdala subregions.  Althought the amygdala has a dozen or so divisions, two are especially important for fear.  The lateral nucleus receives inputs about dangerous stimuli and the central nucleus controls the expression of fear responses. The amygdala is also responsible for learning about novel threats and storing the information in a way that allows rapid expression of fear response when the need arises.  This brain area is significantly altered in psychiatric conditions involving fear and anxiety, but in depression, autism, and schizophrenia as well. Fear is not the only function of the amygdala, but is the function that is best understood.

This was an experiment in using rock music as a means of enhancing public understanding of science.  It obviously doesn’t go into a lot of detail in the minute and a half exposition.  You can learn much more by reading a chapter in a book.  But the point is that maybe– just maybe– hearing about the brain in the context of a rock song might make you more inclined to pick up one of my books, or someone else’s, and explore the topic in greater detail.

Below, we include the full lyrics to the song, as well as the text of the two mini-lectures.  More information about fear can be found at my lab website and in my books, The Emotional Brain (Simon and Schuster) and Synaptic Self (Viking).

“Fearing,” as originally recorded, can be heard in the player on the band’s website.  You can also join our mailing list there to keep up with the band’s adventures in brain rock, or what we sometimes call Rock-It Science.

Check back here at The Beautiful Brain for further installments.  The next one will be track 2, “Mind Over Matter.”  This song also has a music video associated with it.  It is a more traditional music video, done in French surrealism style not unlike what might be found in a Michel Gondry film.  Alexis Gambis and the Imagine Science Film Festival produced this one.  Be sure to go to www.amygdaloids.com and join the mailing list to find out when the “Mind Over Matter” blog and video are up.

Until next time, may your fears be few and far between, and your mind be capable of controlling your matter (but not so much that you aren’t enjoying yourself). As “Nowhere Man” failed to understand, “the world is at your command.”

Joseph LeDoux is a University Professor, Henry and Lucy Moses Professor of Science, Professor of Neural Science and Psychology and Child Psychiatry at NYU. He is also the Director of the Emotional Brain Institute at NYU and at the Nathan Kline Institute. The author of two best-selling books, The Emotional Brain and Synaptic Self, LeDoux is also a the singer and song writer of The Amygdaloids, a band of scientists that plays music about mind and brain and mental disorders.

Fearing (adapted from E. Dickinson

by Joseph LeDoux)

While I was fearing it came

But with less of the fear because

Fearing it so long

Had almost made it dear

There is a fitting dismay

An appropriate despair

Tis harder knowing that fear is due than

Knowing it is here

The waiting is the worse

It ties you up in knots

Anticipation a curse

A thousand empty shots

If to fear were merry

And to worry were gay

How blithe would be the memory

Of that awful day

When hell was turned loose

A full psychic assault

A fearful memory so cruel

Could it be my fault

If recollecting were forgetting

Then I remember not

And if forgetting recollecting

How nearly I forgot

But recollecting is not forgetting

It’s vivid rehearsal of pain

It reminds me of that day

It keeps fear in my brain

If recollecting were forgetting

Then I remember not

And if forgetting recollecting

How nearly I forgot

But recollecting is not forgetting

It’s vivid rehearsal of pain

It reminds me of that day

It keeps fear in my brain

It keeps me a waiting

But not waiting in vain

It keeps me a waiting

It keeps fear in my brain

It keeps me a waiting

It keeps fear in my brain



Text of the 2 mini-lectures.

Lecture 1: the functional or psychological aspects of fear

Fear is the most basic and primitive emotion

It occurs when we encounter danger

An animal can put off the good stuff eating, drinking sex for days

But responding to danger must be immediate

Or there will be no more eating, drinking or sex.

The fear response is the same humans and other mammals

Muscles tense, heart beats fast, hormones flow

These responses help keep us alive when threats arise.

Lecture 2: the neuroscience of fear

Evolution says, “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it”

Indeed, the brain mechanisms of fear are highly conserved

The amygdala is a key structure

It detects danger and produces hard wired protective responses

The amygdala also forms emotional memories

It uses these to predict harm in the future

Fear learning is rapid and persistent

While fear memories can be controlled but are hard to eliminate

The amygdala is hyperactive in many psychiatric conditions

Some of which can be treated with drugs

While others respond better to psychotherapy

We need better treatments for fear

About the author

Joseph LeDoux

Joseph LeDoux is a University Professor, Henry and Lucy Moses Professor of Science, Professor of Neural Science and Psychology and Child Psychiatry at NYU. He is also the Director of the Emotional Brain Institute at NYU and at the Nathan Kline Institute. The author of two best-selling books, The Emotional Brain and Synaptic Self, LeDoux is also the singer and songwriter of The Amygdaloids, a band of scientists that plays music about mind and brain and mental disorders.

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