I’m always being asked ‘what’s new in neuroscience’ and it isn’t often that big paradigm shifts happen.
However, a great researcher and writer have just released a paper that everyone should know about. The scientific paper itself is a little heavy to plod through – so I’ve pulled together this summary for you.
Do Joseph LeDoux (& Richard Brown) completely change what we know about emotions?
Not within the neuroscientific community – but within the general population, it is pretty revolutionary! This is in part at least because everything gets simplified to the nth degree. So much so what is being shared is no longer true.
In most organisations people ask me “Have you read the chimp paradox?” and go on to tell me that emotions come from the Chimp (the limbic region), which is an independent emotional thinking machine.
LeDoux & Brown challenge the conventional view. For years people have relegated emotions to being innately programmed in subcortical circuits (like in the limbic region). Most things in the brain are not that simple. They suggest that emotions are higher-order states that momentarily pass through cortical circuits. Modifications to the higher-order theory are offered to allow it to account for self-awareness and conscious emotional experiences.
The message is that conscious experience, regardless of their content, arises from one system in the brain.
Subcortical circuits do provide nonconscious input, which comes together with other neural signals to create conscious emotional experiences. This concept is approached from other angles in previous neuroscientific research – but for LeDoux to put it forward this clearly is brilliant.
The suggestion is that self-centered higher-order states are essential for emotional experiences. Check that against what you have been hearing or telling people – is it compatible?
It isn’t saying that, for example, defensive survival circuits play no part in the conscious experience of fear, indeed they modulate the experience, but are not directly responsible for it. The general networks of cognition process emotional experiences just as they do for any other conscious experiences.
How does this work you may ask? The brain mechanisms involve higher-order representations of lower-order information by these cortically based general networks of cognition.
The implications of this are quite vast and profound, as people who deeply study this stuff will see. Can emotions ever be unconscious? The mechanism behind the answer influences how we approach everything from decision making to mental health.