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Joseph LeDoux: Putting Emotion into the Science of Consciousness


The scientific study of consciousness is in a golden age. Despite the fact the emotions are the amongst the most significant of our conscious experiences, theories of consciousness have been relatively silent about emotions, either ignoring them are assuming that they are innately programmed in subcortical circuits, and thus different from the kinds of experiences that are of primary interest to consciousness researchers.

I have long taken a different view, arguing that emotions are products of the same general cortical circuits that generate other kinds of conscious experiences, with the difference being that the circuit receives different inputs in emotional and non-emotional situations, and different inputs for different kinds of emotional experiences. Consider fear. From my perspective, fear is not, a, as is commonly assumed, a product of the amygdala. It is instead a cognitively constructed state in which one is personally aware of personally being in harm’s way.

The amygdala contributes to the extent that it generates behavioral and physiological signals the amplify the intensity of the state, but these do not define the quality of the state. The quality depends on the kind of information the individual has stored about fear throughout life, and that provides a template (schema) for understanding and experiencing fear. Several conclusions follow: (1) behavioral and physiological responses are controlled by different circuits than those that generate conscious feelings (fear, the conscious feeling, is constructed by cortical cognitive circuits, whereas freezing, flight and supporting physiological responses are products of innately programmed subcortical circuits); (2) innately programmed circuits that control behavioral and physiological response generate non-conscious signals that influence but do not determine conscious experience; (3) the idea of unconscious emotion is an oxymoron (regardless of how I look and act, if don’t feel fear, I am not afraid); (4) because emotional experiences are based on personal criteria (schema), they are incorrigible (if I feel fear I feel fear, regardless of how I look and act).

[Video and text source: Copernicus Center for Interdisciplinary Studies YouTube channel]