52 in 52 Book Summaries

Book Summary: The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life by Joseph Ledoux

The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life by Joseph Ledoux

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The Essence

The emotional brain argues that the feelings that we subjective identify as emotions are merely markers for underlying somatic and neuro mechanisms. In other words, what we feel is the byproduct of evolutionary selection for things our sensory systems are exposed to and unconsciously harness. The Amygdala (Fear system) is given special attention as it is the lens that LeDoux uses to study emotions mechanisms. LeDoux reports how our brains memory system can imprint synaptic patterns that help explain psychological disorders. Further, the brain’s tendency to wire towards plasticity calls for mental health practitioners to provide assistance in ways that stimulate parts of the brain that scientist like LeDoux has helped identify. 

The Emotional Brain Journal Entry Notes:

This is my book summary of The Emotional Brain. My notes are a reflection of the journal write up above. Written informally, the notes contain a mesh and mix of quotes and my own thoughts on the book. Sometimes, to my own fault, quotes are interlaced with my own words. Though rest assured, I am not attempting to take any credit for the main ideas below. The Journal write up includes important messages and crucial passages from the book.

  • The core of an emotion is not an introspectively accessible conscious representation. Just because your brain can do something does not mean that “you” know how it did it.
  • Flashbulb Memory: A memory that is made especially crisp and clear because of its emotional implications. For example, the moments before car crashes tend to be vivid when recalled.
  • The cause of an emotion can be very different from reasons we use to explain the emotions to ourselves or others after the fact.
  • Hot Dog metaphor. When distinguishing between the lateral and medial portions of the brain.
    Toasted part = outside part of the cortex.
    Pried open = two hemisphere buns (untoasted) signify the middle parts of the cortex.
  • The multiplicity of memory systems: The brain has multiple memory systems, each devoted to different kinds of learning and memory function. E.g. long term, short term, explicit, implicit, declarative, procedural, episodic, semantic.
  • A shift from reaction to action. Cognition is a useful part of our mental arsenal because it allows for this shift.
  • We have more fears than we need, and it seems that our utterly efficient fear condition system, combined with an extremely powerful ability to think about our fears and an inability to control them is probably at fault.
  • From Amygdala activation to emotional experience.
    Direct amygdala influence on the cortex
    2. Amygdala-triggered arousal
    3. Bodily Feedback
  • Anxiety disorder reflects the operation of the fear systems in the brain. If stress persists too long, the hippocampus begins to falter in its ability to control the release of stress hormones, and to perform routine functions.
  • Chronic psychological stress causes apical dendritic atrophy of areas of the hippocampal. Therefore, mild stress may enhance memory, but over time the prolonged modulators start to adversely affect memory. The same may be the case for the prefrontal cortex.

Themes about the nature of emotions

  • The proper level of analysis of a psychological function is the level at which that function is represented in the brain.
  • Brain systems that generate emotional behavior are highly conserved through many levels of evolutionary history.
  • When these systems functions in an animal that also has the capacity for conscious awareness, then conscious emotional feelings occur (From what we know this is only observable in humans).
  • The conscious feeling that we know and love (or hate) our emotions by are red herrings, detours, in the scientific study of emotions. Said another way, the features we commonly associate with feelings we experience are distractions from the study of their biological mechanisms.
  • If emotional feelings and emotional responses are effects caused by the activity of a common underlying system, we can then use the objectively measurable emotional responses to investigate the underlying mechanism, and, at the same time illuminate the system that is primarily responsible for the generation of conscious feelings.
  • Conscious feelings, like being afraid or angry, or happy, etc., are in one sense no different from other states of consciousness (All phenomenological projections).
  • Emotions are things that happen to us rather than things we will to occur.
  • Once an emotion occurs they become powerful motivators for future behaviors.

If you liked what you saw. Here are 3 titles that I recommend based on what was discussed in The Emotional Brain.

  1. Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions by Jaak Panksepp
  2. Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain by Antonio Damasio
  3. Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are by Joseph LeDoux

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