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Joseph LeDoux: Inside the Brain, Behind the Music, Part 2

[ 8 ] July 1, 2010

Inside the Brain, Behind the Music is part of an ongoing series of dispatches written for the The Beautiful Brain by neuroscientist and rock musician Joseph LeDoux. Each piece presents the personal and scientific background of a song from his band The Amygdaloids‘ latest brain-themed album, Theory of My Mind (Amazon, iTunes).

Part 2: “Mind Over Matter”

Today’s song is “Mind Over Matter.” This is one of two songs that Rosanne Cash, bless her heart and incredible voice, sang with me on Theory of My Mind.

To explain what this song is about, I want to briefly discuss the expression in the title.

Let’s start with something Plato reportedly said: that he looked forward to death so that he could be free of his body and all of the distractions it posed to the pure thoughts of his soul.  For Plato, the body was a source of wild passions (animal instincts or emotions).  To lead a good, virtuous life, one uses reason (thought or cognition) to control these inner beasts and keep them from being expressed in behavior.  But this control of behavior by the mind is not what “Mind Over Matter” is about.

"Mind Over Matter" music video directed by Alexis Gambis.

Plato’s view of the mind as pure thought contrasts with the more modern scientific view, which is that cognition and emotion are both parts of the mental landscape. The goal is to understand how the brain (a material object) makes all these processes of the mind possible.  The modern view also emphasizes that much of what the mind does (including the control of the behavioral responses of the material body) takes place unconsciously.  This applies to both the cognitive and emotional aspects of mind.

Descartes, sort of like Plato, equated the mind with consciousness.  Freud helped crystallize the idea that consciousness is only a part of the mind.  But the unconscious today is considered even more important than Freud imagined—it doesn’t just refer to a repository of previously conscious anxious thoughts, but also refers to the basic mental machinations that keep everything psychological humming along.

Physics provides an understanding of how the material world works.  And neuroscience is showing us how a physical object, the brain, makes the mind possible. We know a lot more about the basic processes of the brain involved in seeing, hearing, smelling, speaking, eating, sleeping, and mating than we do about how some of the underlying processes percolate up into consciousness.  But most scientists take for granted that the entirety of our mind operates within the constraints imposed on matter by the laws of physics. This doesn’t mean that the mind or soul does not exist. It just means that whatever the soul is, it is subject to the laws of physics.

The Amygdaloids perform in the music video for "Mind Over Matter" directed by Alexis Gambis.

I attended a conference sponsored by the Vatican a few years back. I was surprised to find theologians from various religions who accepted the dependence of the mind (soul) on the physical brain. These theologians, in other words, accepted that the soul was tethered to and made possible by the brain, at least during life.  They were struggling to find some way that physics (as it currently exists or might exist in the future) could explain how the soul could be a physical entity (though not one you could see and touch, but a physical entity nevertheless) that survives death of the body.

As a neuroscientist, I also firmly believe that the mind (or soul, if you like) is part of the material world, a product of the brain.  I am not claiming that we fully know how the brain makes the mind possible, but I believe it does.  That’s the hypothesis I’ll cling to until it’s falsified by scientific evidence, or more likely, until I’m 6 feet under and no longer have a brain that can have such a thought (unless the theologians are correct and there is some kind of physics that will allow my mind a material life of its own in some invisible aspect of space-time).

Back to “Mind Over Matter.” Let’s look at a few key lines from the song. First thing to note is that a number of my songs have an inverted structure– they start and end with a chorus, and the verses come in the middle. I don’t know why I’ve been doing that but that’s how they come out sometimes (the ole unconscious at work). The opening chorus lines in the song are:  “Mind over matter, that’s something I’m trying to do; it’s just a little physics, that keeps me apart from you.”  So right away you know that the singer is missing someone. He then says to the missing person that he wants to “break down space and time, and be together with you.”  This suggests that the person is in some unknown place.  So far so good in terms of physics.  But as we go into the verses we see options such as time travel (“are you still in my time?”) and communication with the afterlife (“or in a place heavenly?”).  But simpler options are in there as well (“different continent or on the sea?”).  Determined to close the gap, he asserts, “wherever you are now, I’ll use my mind to find; no amount of space or time, can keep you from being mine.”

So you might be thinking that “Mind Over Matter” is an odd song for a brain scientist to write since it implies several potential violations of the laws of physics.  But in the end scientists are just like everyone else.  We have longings and fantasies that don’t always make perfect sense.  We miss those who are no longer with us, and long to be with them, even if we know it is not physically possible.  I am scientifically rigorous when I am wearing my scientific hat. But I don’t necessarily spend every waking moment of the day carefully considering whether my thoughts and feelings match the predictions of physics.

I always find it interesting when song writers explain where a particular song came from. So, if I may, I’ll share the origin of “Mind Over Matter” with you. A couple of years ago my wife Nancy and I went to the Rubin Museum’s Friday evening film program called “Mind Over Matter.”  The film was “The Innocents,” a chilling cinematic version of Henry James’ Turn of the Screw. I read the book in college, and I saw the film many years later in the old Carnegie Hall Cinema.  During the showing at the Rubin, I thought that “Mind Over Matter” would be a great title for one of my mind/brain songs.  So I went home I picked up my guitar and started randomly picking.  Out came the opening guitar riff (again the unconscious doing its thing).  I then sang the first phrase “mind over matter” and an hour later it was basically done. Record time for me.

Lenny Kaye (L) and Joseph LeDoux perform "Mind Over Matter" at the Rubin Museum of Art in New York City in April. (Photo: Michael J. Palma for the Rubin Museum)

The Rubin Museum, though, has another role in the story.  This past spring I participated in the Brainwave Festival there, where I got to sing “Mind Over Matter” live in its place where it germinated. My partner in musical crime was Lenny Kaye, the legendary guitarist of the Patti Smith Group.  Lenny came up with another song called “Mind Over Matter,” a much earlier version by Nolan Strong and the Diablos.  The doo-wop flavor of Lenny’s choice was a perfect compliment to the rock/pop/country feel of mine. We had a great time.

“Mind Over Matter” is my favorite song on the CD. I hope you’ll listen and like it too.  Thanks to Alexis Gambis, his crew, and the Imagine Science Film Festival  for making the wonderful video possible.

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.

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

[ 10 ] June 29, 2010

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 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

The Country of the Face-Blind

[ 10 ] June 6, 2010

Contributor Sam McDougle Reports on Friday evening’s “Strangers in the Mirror” event at the 2010 World Science Festival in New York City.

Prosopagnosia, or “Face Blindness,” can be a devastating affliction.

Imagine: after suffering a stroke, the faces of your loved ones are no longer the unmistakable visages they once were, but are now unrecognizable collages of noses, lips, eyes, and ears.  You can’t tell your loved ones from strangers, and mirrors are less reflections of yourself than they are opportunities for embarrassing run-ins with a similar looking person who has a spot-on impression of you.

Friday evening’s World Science Festival event “Strangers in the Mirror” was a poignant , compelling, and surprisingly (though respectfully) humorous glance into the lives of the face-blind.  The event was moderated by Robert Krulwich (Radiolab, Nightline, Frontline) and the guests were neurologist and author Oliver Sacks and the artist Chuck Close.  Both men are notable thinkers in their respective fields, prolific in their bodies of work, talented orators and educators, and severe prosopagnosics.


Sacks began the narrative of his disease with a story:  He and a physicist made plans to meet at a restaurant for some scientific musing.  On his arrival, the hostess sent Sacks to the table where the physicist was sitting, and they began their conversation.  Unbeknownst to Dr. Sacks, his dinner guest also suffered from severe face blindness.

This improbable fact was not discovered by either man until the physicist, after a course or two, went to the bathroom. He emerged to find that neither he nor Sacks remembered each other’s faces.  An amusing man hunt ensued as the physicist looked for the right table and Sacks wondered where his guest was, like two blind-daters searching for each other at a crowded restaurant.

Sacks first acknowledged his deficit when he was twelve.  He recounted “saying hi to people I didn’t even know,” in a kind of lottery strategy so that he may eventually say hi to a friend and put on that he recognized them.

While Sacks noted sometimes remembering the faces of his loved ones after years of exposure (an important consolation that some prosopagnosics lack), at times he is subject to forgetting even the most recognizable faces – he playfully remarked about “apologizing for almost running into an older bearded man,” who happened to be his reflection.  Krulwich then asked if he recognized his neighbors and Sacks swiftly quipped, “I recognize their dogs.”


Chuck Close has a similar story.  He also felt he was “born with” the deficit and believed it to be his main push towards painting portraits.  He knew he was disabled (though there was likely no word for face blindness at the time of Close’s youth), and thoughtfully mentioned that disabilities often implore one to “find other venues for their intellect.”  Without explaining what “other” really meant, his implication was clear – face blindness certainly blocked some “traditional” professional paths, professions that involve working closely with people and managing day-to-day social interactions.  Close chose the life of the artist.

Close’s inimitable portraits are known for their juxtaposition of the part and whole of the image – each portrait is made up of small square paintings that, on their own, resemble abstract shapes.  However, when the viewer pulls back from the painting the whole face is revealed.

Chuck Close, self portrait

Chuck Close, "Self Portrait"

Curiously, Close mentioned having less trouble recognizing celebrity faces than faces in his daily life.  He found it easy to recognize faces when they were static, “flattened out” images (portraits!), but struggled in 3-dimnesions, saying, “move your head one half inch and it’s a face I’ve never seen before.”


The neurophysiology of face blindness is certainly not completely understood, but there are some hints.  The fusiform gyrus is the area of the cortex involved specifically with facial recognition, and surely plays a role in face blindness.  Acute damage to the area (stroke, cancer, injury) is thought to be related to trauma-induced face blindness.  However, Sacks and Close both have congenital face blindness, and they both report other deficits, including problems with remembering places and navigating.  I caught up with Dr. Sacks after the event and asked him if this points to a more systematic (rather than acute) problem in the congenital vs. acquired prosopagnosic brain.  He said that probably is the case, and referred to his own illness as less of a specific face-recognition deficit than as a more categorical issue – the face as a whole is not a category-worthy object to him because he only sees it in parts (eyes, mouth, nose), and this makes it less likely to lodge in his memory.  It seems that congenital prosopagnosics have trouble seeing the forest instead of the trees.

At the end of the meeting, Krulwich, Sacks, and Close discussed the prevalence of face blindness in the world, and it seems clear that many more people have it than we think and much more can be done to help them.  Sacks painted a picture of hundreds of thousands living in “private embarrassment,” while Close lightheartedly joked about the vast number of prosopagnosics that are likely incarcerated.  Eventually those who suffer from face blindness will know they don’t suffer alone, and perhaps seek therapies that can mitigate the social and personal fallout of the disease.  It only takes the successes of two men like Dr. Sacks and Chuck Close to see that there are always “other venues,” for the disabled among us.  I await a prosopagnosic-written comedy screenplay about a man who incessantly apologizes to a stranger in the mirror.

Good Stories, Well-Told

[ 2 ] June 4, 2010

Contributor Ben Ehrlich Reports on Thursday evening’s The Moth: Grey Matter event at the 2010 World Science Festival in New York City.


The Moth: Grey Matter

Sometime after the appearance of language in the species Homo sapiens the first story was told.  It happened in a tree (in my imagination).  This hypothetical moment would be of the utmost evolutionary importance to some theorists.  Storytelling, like the other ancient and universal arts, could be an adaptive trait.  (Read 2009 Brian Boyd, On the Origin of Stories).  Or—say Steven Pinker and others—it is a spandrel, an elegant-meaning (if not – sounding) Renaissance term for the triangular space created by the intersection of two arches at a right angle.  (Read 1979 S.J. Gould & R.C. Lewontin, “The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptionist Programme”).  Now, while I do find this debate to be irresistibly interesting it is simply no substitute for stories themselves.  A good story, well-told, remains infinitely more meaningful than the sum of its deconstructed parts.  It is all about the sharing of experience.  This is the reason I found myself in the packed auditorium at Webster Hall on Thursday night fanning myself with two programs while my knees jutted dangerously into the frontmost aisle.  The Moth, a storytelling organization that features competitions in different cities, was hosting a special “mainstage” event for the World Science Festival called “Grey Matter:  Stories from the Left and Right.” It was a hot ticket;  the line had stretched all the way down 11th street.

The line-up was certainly impressive.  Host Mike Birbiglia opened the night with an uproarious story about bladder cancer, a staple from his well-rehearsed stand-up routine.  I had heard the story live twice before, and laughed anyway.  Good storytelling is always immediate,  as there should be attention for nothing else but the words of the teller. Technically, the first performer was Richard Garriott, who—as Mr. Birbiglia quipped—epitomized nerdiness by making a fortune programming video games in order to fund his own trip into space.  Unfortunately, Mr. Garriott’s ten-minutes expired before he could relate much about his twelve-day orbit to the audience. Next Daniela Schiller, a neuroscientist currently at New York University, delivered a wonderful and well-crafted narrative about Memorial Day in Israel and her father, a Holocaust survivor.  Her research with Dr. Elizabeth Phelps and Dr. Joseph LeDoux has focused on painful emotional memories—and the possiblity of disarming them.

Writer Mark Katz told the funniest story of the night, although it had nothing to do with science. Mr. Katz was asked by the Clinton White House to punch up a gala speech for then vice-president Al Gore. He scored a huge hit with a joke that he did not—in fact—write.  The infamous joke:  “Al Gore is so boring that his Secret Service code name is Al Gore.”  (Pause for laughter, it’s quite good).  The highlight, however, was learning about the passionate hugging style of our one-time (November 7, 2000 at 8:00pm) president. During another delightful delivery, Nobel Laureate Frank Wilczek recounted the controversy he caused by scaring a Long Island banana farmer about potentially apocalyptic “strangelets,” hypothetical particles that may or may not be able to devour the world.  This put the Brookhaven particle accelerator in jeopardy and, more importantly, disturbed what should have been an idyllic vacation for Wilczek.  It was a thrill to hear the physicist speak publically;  he was so clearly brilliant, and as “strange” as those “lets” he spoke of.  After hearing Dr. Wilczek speak, I wonder if one must have a memorably idiosyncratic laugh in order to win a Nobel prize.  (See also:  Kandel, Eric).

The penultimate tale was told with honesty and feeling by the geneticist Kristin Baldwin. She explored the theme of similarity and difference through her relationship with her younger sister, whom she described as her complete opposite.  It was a great performance—and courageous—as I do not believe she is an experienced performer.  I think that the whole audience appreciated her hilarious recollections of conversations with potential suitors about her livelihood: “Oh, I clone mice and make their brains glow.”  Dr. Baldwin, of Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California, has also collaborated on an art project that uses genetically engineered E. coli bacteria as paint.

The last storyteller was Leonard Mlodinow, the physicist who also wrote for Star Trek: The Next Generation and Macgyver, whose moving account of his own father, a Holocaust survivor, succeeded in affecting perspective.  He talked meaningfully about heroism, as well as actions and consequences.  At times he was forced to pause and step back, as though at a mental crossing, to let a train of painful memories pass.  These were booming and breathtaking silences. For me, this was the height of a great performance.  It all ended in applause, of course, because that is the best way to appreciate a good story.  As long as we praise art, it should not matter how or why it came to exist.  I—for one—would not want to live without it.

Consilience at the World Science Festival in New York City

[ 0 ] May 28, 2010

114576882_3001Sam McDougle and I are guest blogging for the World Science Festival, which will take place in New York City next weekend. Sam’s first post is on “evolutionary bridges”:

In my recent career as an undergraduate, I noticed a curious phenomenon–around my junior year, dorm rooms across the campus were suddenly spending Friday nights captivated by the wonders of the natural world, led along by David Attenborough’s poised intonations. BBC’s Planet Earth box set would soon be as ubiquitous in 18-24 year olds’ DVD collections as The Matrix, Dazed and Confused, and any Wes Anderson venture. As a science student, I was intrigued to see my art-historian/Russian-lit-critic/sociologist friends totally captivated by marine insects and the hunting strategies of wild dogs. [read the full post here]

My first post is about a handful of art/science events at the WSF, one of which includes the vision researcher Margaret Livingstone, whom I’ve written about before on this site.

Some of our greatest triumphs as a species have come from those who saw little difference between being a scientist and being a humanist. From Leonardo’s visionary notebooks to Herschel’s lunar poetry, science has provided a necessary resource for some great art; and art has, in many cases, compelled the progress of scientific research. For Santiago Ramon y Cajál, considered the father of modern neuroscience, it was a childhood spent sketching the branching structures of trees that later reverberated in his pioneering staining techniques of neurons in the brain, yielding some of the most detailed and beautiful scientific imagery of our nervous system to date. [read the full post here]

Check out the WSF site for the full lineup of next weekend’s events.

Rocking the Brainwave Series to its Finish

[ 5 ] April 24, 2010

Neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux + Guitarist Lenny Kaye of the Patti Smith Band in the conclusion of the 2010 Brainwave Series.

Lenny Kaye (L) of the Patti Smith Band joined neuroscientist and rocker Joe LeDoux at the final 2010 Brainwave event.

Lenny Kaye (L) of the Patti Smith Band joined neuroscientist and rocker Joe LeDoux at the final 2010 Brainwave event. (Photo: Michael J. Palma for the Rubin Museum)

It was a Monday evening, and the last night guests would file in for the 2010 Brainwave series at The Rubin Museum of Art in New York City. On one side of the stage were the familiar armchairs that have seated such guests as Philip Glass, Charlie Kaufman, Brian Greene, and Mark Morris, among many others in this edition of the series. To the other side of the stage, a new addition caught the eye: two microphones perched on stands in anticipation of this evening’s esteemed guests.

Neuroscientist and bestselling author Joe LeDoux and guitarist Lenny Kaye of the Patti Smith Band split their Brainwave event between thoughtful discussions and performances of LeDoux’s original songs written for his band The Amygdaloids, as well as some classics selected by Kaye that played on the central themes of the evening: the mind and brain, fear and memory.

LeDoux’s research at NYU focuses on the mechanisms of fear memory in the brain using rat models, and has lent important insights to our understanding of the amygdala, the almond-shaped component of our deep-seated, evolutionarily older midbrain (we’ve previously covered LeDoux’s work in a podcast and a recent article). With Kaye providing some mind-bending solos, LeDoux performed several brain-themed tunes, both from past Amygdaloids recordings as well as from their upcoming album due for release this June, which will feature Rosanne Cash.

LeDoux and Kaye’s discussion moved from guitar to armchair, tracing a line of inquiry through our evolutionary understanding of the fear response (the most basic emotion, necessary so that we can avoid peril and enjoy the better things in life) to music theory and history, of which Kaye, the author of You Call It Madness: The Sensuous Song of the Croon is particularly well versed.

Kaye and LeDoux rock out onstage at Brainwave to one of LeDoux's tunes written for his band The Amygdaloids.

Kaye and LeDoux rock out onstage at Brainwave to one of LeDoux's tunes written for his band The Amygdaloids. (Photo: Michael J. Palma for the Rubin Museum)

“What is it about music that gets so deeply into our brains?” asked Kaye.

“Music does have an ability to glue our past and present together in a way that not much else can,” LeDoux replied.

LeDoux then quoted a line Kaye wrote for the liner notes of the Amygdaloids’ upcoming album:

“Driven by the flash of neuron and receptor, much as the telepathic transference of audio emotion between musician and audience, music is the most mysterious of arts, one of synaptic and sympathetic overtone and vibrato, encompassing memory, language, self-definition, mirrored understanding—a central experience that is as much of our human cognition as is the need for relationships, hunting, gathering, nurturing and love.”

It was art and science dancing around the same issues, searching for truth with all the tools present. As one of LeDoux’s lyrics goes: “Mind over matter/It’s something I’ve been trying to do/break down space and time/be together with you.”


The 2010 Brainwave series, produced by Tim McHenry, brought a wonderful array of artists and scientists to the stage for unscripted dialogues over the past months that ranged from the neuroscience of feng shui to the possibility of life on other planets. There was something to be learned at each night of this brilliantly curated program: some nights the conversation produced something vastly more than the sum of its participants; other nights the individual expertise and insights of the presenters alone carried the evening along. The unscripted nature of the evenings always lent a particular sense of excitement to the proceedings—an excitement that will now linger until the next iteration of Brainwave opens the doors to the Rubin’s basement auditorium.

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