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An Interview with Joseph LeDoux, Ph.D., on the Synaptic Self and Memory Reconsolidation

David Van Nuys, Ph.D. Updated: Dec 15th 2010

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Joseph E. LeDoux, Ph.D. Entering psychology by way of marketing, Dr. LeDoux chose to study animal brain mechanisms of fear after becoming disenchanted with the overly broad concept of the limbic system and frustrated by the difficulties associated with the study of human brains in that era (e.g., modern brain imaging techniques did not yet exist). He applied an information processing approach to this work (wherein mental processes like memory and attention are attended to; not emotion or other subjective mental contents). He became well known after demonstrating that auditory signals indicating danger were independently transmitted by the thalamus (a sub-cortical switch of sorts) in parallel to both the auditory cortex and the amygdala. Because the route to the amygdala is physically shorter, animals are thus able to respond to danger signals before becoming consciously aware of the danger. Dr. LeDoux's more recent contributions include authoring several excellent books such as Synaptic Self, which introduce lay people to neuroscience concepts in accessible language, and conducting important work in memory reconsolidation, a recent advance in the understanding of the nature of how memory functions, which has enormous promise as a therapy for PTSD and other conditions which revolve around problems involving emotion and memory. The interview winds up with discussion of Dr. LeDoux's rock/pop band the Amygdaloids which has recently put out a new CD, "Theory of My Mind".

David Van Nuys: Welcome to Wise Counsel, a podcast interview series sponsored by, covering topics in mental health, wellness, and psychotherapy. My name is Dr. David Van Nuys. I'm a clinical psychologist and your host.

On today's show, we'll be talking with Dr. Joseph LeDoux about his work in neuroscience and how he's translating that into his interest in music. Joseph E. LeDoux, Ph.D., is a neuroscientist and a Henry and Lucy Moses Professor of Science and professor of neuroscience and psychology at New York University. He is also the director of the Center for the Neuroscience of Fear and Anxiety, multi-university center in New York City, devoted to using animal research to understand pathological fear and anxiety in humans. He received his Ph.D. in 1977 at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

Dr. LeDoux's research interests are mainly focused on the biological underpinnings of memory and emotion, especially the mechanisms of fear. Joseph LeDoux received the Distinguished Scientific Award from the American Psychological Association for work on emotion and fear, and he appeared on the Charlie Rose Brain Series, Episode 8, which aired May 26, 2010. Among his many publications, Dr. LeDoux is the author of the 1996 book, The Emotional Brain: the Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life, and the 2002 book, Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are. In addition, he was the editor of The Self: from Soul to Brain, and co-editor of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: Basic Science and Clinical Practice. Joseph LeDoux is also a singer and guitarist in the science-themed rock band, The Amygdaloids.

Now, here's the interview.

Dr. Joseph LeDoux, welcome to Wise Counsel.

Joseph LeDoux: Thank you.

David: You've had a very distinguished career as a neuroscientist. Scouring the Web, I learned that you got your Ph.D. from the SUNY at Stony Brook, but I couldn't find out what you got that degree in. Was it psychology or some other field?

Joseph LeDoux: Right, it was basically psychology and the department had a specialization in what was called psychobiology, and so that's what the degree's officially in, I guess.

David: Oh, good. Well, yay for our team, being a psychologist myself.

Joseph LeDoux: Okay.

David: Now, what drew you into this field of study in the first place? I guess, first, to psychology and then into the sort of neuropsychology.

Joseph LeDoux: Right. Well, I have a pretty checkered background, so I have two degrees in marketing and wasn't that interested in it while I was studying it, but what sort of grabbed my attention in the field of marketing and business was consumer psychology and why people are motivated to buy the things they do.

David: Oh, fascinating. That's an interest I share because I actually am a market research consultant in addition to everything else.

Joseph LeDoux: I see.

David: But go ahead.

Joseph LeDoux: Yes, so this is the late '60s and I was interested in being a Nader's Raider - that's when Ralph Nader was a good guy - so I was pursuing that line of research: how to find out what people - what their motives are for buying things and so that we could somehow help them become better, more informed consumers. And so, from that, I got more and more interested in the experimental aspects of psychology, and, ultimately, that just took me to the brain.

David: Okay. Well, much of your work has focused on the biological underpinnings of memory and emotion, especially the mechanisms of fear. I wonder if you could possibly take us through some of the high points along the evolution of your thinking and research on these topics.

Joseph LeDoux: Sure. Well, I started out being interested in the big topic of emotion when I was a graduate student, and at that point I was actually studying split-brain patients who have had this surgery for epilepsy. And we did one little study on split-brain patients that kind of got me interested in the topic of emotion, and so I decided I wanted to pursue that.

And then I also decided from that experience that it was going to be very hard to get into the details of how the brain works by studying humans. I mean there were no imaging techniques or anything like that at the time, so it was all based on people who had brain damage of one kind or another; and usually that's a pretty crude tool in terms of trying to understand how the brain works because the lesions are variable and they're usually pretty large and so forth, so I decided I wanted to take a shot at this through studying animals.

And there'd been, of course, a lot of animal research on emotion and other related topics, but I felt it hadn't really kind of come to any conclusion about what was really going on. The dominant idea at the time - and often today still is - the limbic system theory of emotion, and as I got more and more into the way the limbic system works and what it's supposed to do, I came to realize that concept was so all-encompassing and so broad that it really didn't explain anything. It was too broad, really, to be useful.

You know one of the problems with the limbic system theory is that almost immediately after the limbic system was proposed to be the brain system for emotion and not cognition, the hippocampus become implicated, which is the centerpiece, actually, of the limbic system at the time. The hippocampus was implicated in cognitive memory in patient H.M. who lost his ability to form new memories as a result of damage to one of the most important limbic areas. So, right away, the idea that the limbic system was key to emotion and not cognition sort of went by the wayside.

But as you looked over the research on the limbic system over the years, what became apparent pretty quickly was that almost all of the research had involved fear of one form or another - aversive behavior - and almost all of the research on fear had implicated the amygdala in the fear response, the amygdala being another limbic area. So, to me, that led to the conclusion that a lot of what we were calling the limbic system was being carried by results based on the amygdala. And what that suggested was that the limbic system concept was really being carried conceptually by studies of fear and the amygdala.

So I decided that I needed to pursue that; in general, that we needed to step back from the general concept that we could explain all aspects of all emotion with one system in the brain, and instead take a more simplistic approach where I was going to study one well-defined emotion, one at a time. Just focus on fear as the paradigm example - paradigmatic example - of an emotion, primarily because there were good tools for studying fear and less good tools for studying other emotions in animal models.

So I decided to really just take off on fear, and I guess originally, when I started studying fear, I was still kind of in the mindset that I was going to use the fear of task to study emotion in general, but I pretty quickly evolved into the idea that - my thinking evolved into the idea that if we're studying fear, we're studying fear and not necessarily everything else. So it was all sort of happening at the same time, where I was beginning to reject the limbic system idea and reject the idea that one behavioral task, studying one emotion, could tell you something about emotion in general. So that's kind of how I got into all of this.

David: So you began to kind of hone in on the amygdala. What have we learned about the amygdala during the course of your study? Why is that tiny organ, if you will, so important?

Joseph LeDoux: Yes. A lot of people who have read my books or have just read the popular press think that I discovered the amygdala, and it's not at all the case. That the amygdala was in the brain long before I was born, obviously, and it was known to be involved in emotion, and including fear, long before I got involved in this research. My first major contribution, though, was to figure out how the outside world comes into the amygdala and activates all of the fear responses, and how learning begins to take place, and the result on the basis of these outside inputs into the amygdala.

And the way I did that was by starting with a very simple behavioral paradigm, which we call fear conditioning, where a rat is exposed to a tone, and that tone is paired with a mild electric shock, and as a result of that, the rat becomes afraid of the tone. Now, I want to say right from the start, we don't do this because we like torturing rats or we want to make rats afraid or anything like that; it's because we think that this has some value in understanding not only the rat brain, but also the human brain, and especially what goes wrong in disorders that are centered around fear and anxiety, which are the disorders that take people to mental health professionals more often than any other set of conditions. So it's socially important, useful research to understand how all of this works.

David: Sure.

Joseph LeDoux: So what we discovered very early was that in order for the sound to trigger a fear response, and even for the sound to be learned about as a danger signal, the sound travels through the sound system or the auditory system from the ear and makes its way to the cortex. Now, that's the standard way of thinking of any sensory system: it goes through the peripheral receptor, in this case the ear, all the way to the cerebral cortex, the auditory cortex. But our big discovery at that point was that the sound did not have to reach the auditory cortex in order to elicit a fear response and to learn about this stimulus being a trigger of fear. It took a kind of detour at the level of the thalamus.

Now, the thalamus is a subcortical structure that is the way station to the cerebral cortex, to the sensory cortex like the auditory cortex. So the sound is travelling up towards the cortex, and when it gets to the thalamus it goes - sure enough, it does go to the cortex, but it also goes directly to the amygdala. The important thing is that the amygdala and the auditory cortex are getting the signal at the same time.

Now, what that means is that, because the cortex is required for you to be consciously aware of what the stimulus is, the conscious parts of the brain are getting the stimulus at the same time that the subcortical structure, the amygdala, is getting the stimulus. And the amygdala, in other words, is being triggered by the stimulus before or, in the worst case, at the same time that your auditory cortex is. And in order to be conscious of that stimulus, the auditory cortex has to take it to the prefrontal cortex, and that's going to take a lot more time.

So to give you some numbers: it takes 12 milliseconds in a rat brain for a sound to get from the outside speaker to the amygdala by way of the thalamus. It takes two, three - at least two or three - times longer to get to the amygdala by way of the auditory cortex. So there's a tremendous processing savings in terms of time because if you're, say, walking along a path, and all of a sudden your brain detects a curved object on the ground, and you freeze so that you don't step on it, that's all happening in the subcortical pathways. Your brain is being triggered into a fear response before you know that that's either a snake or a stick. Cortically you can then evaluate whether that's a snake or a stick and either go back, run away, keep walking, whatever, depending on what's appropriate. But your brain has already detected that danger and protected you.

David: So that really resolves a question that was hanging around in psychology for a long time, I think going back to William James, right? About whether which comes first: do you get afraid because you run, or do you run because you're afraid?

Joseph LeDoux: Well, no, it doesn't really get to that because we're talking about rats here, and so we don't know what they really feel, what they're conscious of and so forth.

David: Okay.

Joseph LeDoux: And I think one of the contributions that I've made to the study of emotion is to kind of remove feeling from the causal chain of events where that's something that has to be explained before you go any further. Let me give you example. In the late 19th century, psychologists were very interested in using introspective reports; in other words, a psychologist would basically look into his or her own mind to analyze the contents of consciousness. Now, of course, the behaviorists didn't like that. They objected to that approach and said we have to focus on objective, observable behavior rather than internal states.

And then the cognitive revolution came along and said, well, let's bring the mind back; but the mind that the cognitivists brought back was not the mind that the behaviorists got rid of. The behaviorists got rid of the subjective mind where we have our conscious experiences; the cognitive scientists brought back the mind as an information processing device.

Now, you mentioned William James, and James was very important because he made a distinction between the content of consciousness, which is what the introspectionists were into, and the processes that make that content possible. And so what the cognitive scientists were really studying is the process by which information is taken through the brain and evaluated and has consequences in terms of behavior.

So a scientist studying the sunset, cognitive scientist studying the sunset, might be able to tell you a lot about the redness of the sunset - in other words how the brain processes the color and shape of the sun, the circular, red object that you see - without necessarily having to first explain how you experience the sunset. And that has allowed a tremendous amount of research to get done. It hasn't solved the big problem of how we experience the sunset, which is still there waiting to be solved, but it's allowed us to understand a lot about the visual system without being hung up or sort of held back by that mind-body problem.

So I think that one of the things I was able to do was to bring that logic to the study of emotion as well, where we can study the way the brain detects and responds to danger without having to first solve the problem of how the brain feels fear. And by focusing on detection and responding to danger, I can study that in a human or a rat or any other animal that is able to detect stimuli and respond; you know even a bacteria can detect harm in its environment and move away from it. So this is a fundamental characteristic of basically being alive: being able to detect danger and to respond to it; because you can't stay alive even a day if you can't do that in the wild.

So, by focusing on this information processing approach to emotion, we've made a lot of progress in understanding this detection of danger and responding to danger, even though we still don't quite understand how fear the feeling comes about, and that's what James was trying to make a distinction between. So I haven't solved the James problem, though we've made some progress anyway.

David: Okay. Well, I've been reading in your book Synaptic Self, and I was intrigued that you make reference to the fact that the long-standing nature-nurture controversy is in some respects a false dichotomy, especially when looked at from the perspective of the brain. Can you say a little bit about that?

Joseph LeDoux: Sure. Well, first of all, most dichotomies turn out to be two extreme points on a continuum where the true answer is somewhere in the middle, so nature-nurture's no different. The first thing to note is that, whenever we're talking about mind and behavior in the brain, what we're talking about is synaptic communication in the brain. The unique feature of a neuron from, say, a heart cell or any other kind of cell in the body is that neurons can communicate with one another by way of electrical transmission down axons, which then release neurotransmitter, and the transmitter bonds to the next neuron, and that triggers an action potential there.

So it's this massive amount of electrical and chemical transmission between neurons in the brain underlying the simplest activity of raising your finger or standing up and saying hello to someone. That really makes neurons unique. And so this ability of neurons to communicate with each other across these gaps, which is what the chemical does - the transmitter crosses the gap synapse - is the basis of all behavior - all aspects of mental processing and all aspects of behavior. So, in order for us to benefit from the environment, what we have to do is - what our brain does - let me start that over. In order for us to benefit from environmental experience, what we do is take in information through our sensory system, and it crosses multiple synapses on its way into the brain, to ultimately control behavior by output synapses that connect up to the muscles

So synaptic transmission is essential for environmental influences to both trigger behavior, and in order for us to learn about the environment, we have synaptic plasticity, so synapses are modified as a result of external experience, and it's through those modifications that we learn, store information, and then use that information in the future.

So synaptic transmission and plasticity are the key to the environmental or the nurture influences, but they're also key to nature's influence. In order for nature or genes to have any effect at all on behavior, it has to do that by way of the wiring of your synaptic connections during your development in early life. So nature and nurture are not two different things, but two ways of doing the same thing, which is connecting up your synapses and using your synapses to control behavior.

David: Yes, it all happens in the synapses. And, as you point out, we don't directly perceive or even know sort of what's "out there" in nature; rather, we have this activity in our brain that we learn to code in certain ways so that a certain kind of stimulation we call it "red," but we don't really know what's out there.

Joseph LeDoux: Yes. But the problem is sometimes called the Cartesian theater - this is after, of course, Descartes - where Descartes described consciousness as the place where all our mental activities take place in our brain. And so the problem there is that it creates this little man or little woman inside your head that's watching a screen where the world is playing out, and this is all taking place in your head. But there's no little man in there; there's just one neuron receiving an input from another neuron, which is receiving an input from another neuron, and that's happening in parallel all over millions and millions of neurons and trillions of synaptic connections all the time.

David: In The Synaptic Self you tackle the very challenging question of self-identity or our sense of a stable self, personality, or whatever. Yet with all we've learned about the brain in recent years, there doesn't seem to be a self center in the brain as with some other functions; rather, the self is distributed. Do I have that right?

Joseph LeDoux: Well, yes. One way to think about the self is that it's a reflection of your overall brain activity. In neuroscience we've been very good at understanding specific systems, specific components of the way the brain works, like the visual system, or the motor system, or the memory system, or the fear system. But as a person, an entity of some kind of cohesion, that entity reflects the activity of all of those systems working together, and it's - we just don't have an understanding of the overall activity of the brain at this point. We need much more research on the interactions between systems rather than the function of a given system. We need to understand how the systems work together because our self is a product of the whole brain, in a way.

David: I'm way out of my depth here, but I recently read reference to research suggesting that mirror neurons in the frontal lobe may be involved in self-representation. So, how do mirror neurons fit into your own understanding of the self?

Joseph LeDoux: Well, I wrote The Synaptic Self in - I don't know - 2001 or so it was published, I think - 2002. And mirror neurons had not been discovered at that point, as far as I know, so it's not certainly not part of the theory that I developed in that book.

David: Yes, I looked for it in the index, so that explains that.

Joseph LeDoux: Right. But if I were writing that book today, obviously I would want to incorporate that concept. I mean basically mirror neurons are neurons that respond to movements by others, and so it's kind of like neurons that are modeling brain activity on the basis of inputs coming, say, from other people in your surroundings. So I think they probably definitely have some role in self and self- - I won't say self-awareness because we don't really know how any kind of awareness comes up in the brain, much less self-awareness.

And in Synaptic Self, one of my main points was that the self is not necessarily the self that we're aware of - or that's one aspect of the self. But there are many unconscious aspects self and personality that are just there, that we don't necessarily have introspective insight into. And it's often been said that - I think William James may have said this himself - that external observers are more accurate in judging personality traits and characteristics and emotions and things like that than the introspecting person, because they have the advantage of being able to watch your behavior and see how your behavior patterns are coming out in certain environmental situations; whereas, from the point of view of your conscious mind, you may be ignoring a lot of the movements and other characteristics that you have.

There's an interesting study that was published I think in The Journal of Science a number of years ago where various people were hooked up with little tiny lights, LEDs, at their various joints in their body. And so then they were allowed to walk in the dark so that observers could only see very faint lights that would be made by the movement of the LEDs as a person walked through a dark space. And so the observers, if they knew the person, were able to identify who the person was on the basis of this. So we have these characteristic ways of moving that we don't think about and we don't really have conscious access to but that other people know about us. I think that's true of a lot of our behavior. Others maybe know more about who we really are than we do through our internal states, because we only observe through consciousness a very small part of our brain activity.

David: Okay, let me shift focus to some of your recent and potentially very important work on memory reconsolidation. Tell us a bit about that.

Joseph LeDoux: Well, memory reconsolidation is actually an old concept that was kind of revitalized by Karim Nader, who was a postdoctoral fellow in my life at the time, and he was aware of research that had been done both in the 1960s and then again in the 1990s, but all of this research had been a little imprecise in terms of what was going on in the brain.

The basic idea is that we know that when we form a memory, protein synthesis is involved in the establishment of the synaptic connections that underlie that memory. What the reconsolidation research was suggesting was that protein synthesis and related molecular processes are also involved after the retrieval of the memory. So the idea is that, when you retrieve a memory, the memory becomes a bit unstable after the retrieval, and it's during that time you're allowed to incorporate new information into it.

So let's say we meet at a restaurant tonight, and that's our first meeting, so we form memories of each other. And then later, maybe two weeks later, someone tells me something about you, David, that I didn't know, and so as the person is telling me your name, that's retrieving the memory of the experience, the original experience in the restaurant, but now he's telling me something new, and so now my memory of who you are is being changed, and it's a new memory, and because it's a new memory, it has to be restored, and because it has to be restored, protein synthesis has to be involved. So it's a kind of updating mechanism in the brain.

Well, if you disrupt that updating mechanism, the fascinating thing is that you disrupt the survival of the memory. So it's not that you simply update memory and then kind of add to it; it's like you create a new memory, and if you disrupt the formation of that new memory, the old one is gone. So the bottom line is - if we take this to the extreme - your memory is only as good as your last memory of that same event or situation or person.

So I think a real-life example of this would be a person who goes to court to testify about a crime, and then rather than elaborating on what they gave as the police testimony at the scene of the crime, they incorporate or they start talking about information that they only learned about later by reading the newspaper. But they don't realize that that's where the information came from. The memory of the event has now incorporated or used that information to form a new memory, which now becomes the memory that they use in court.

David: Now, I understand that you've done work on post-traumatic syndrome, and so what are the implications of your memory reconsolidation research for the treatment of PTSD?

Joseph LeDoux: Well, we've done a little bit of work with some PTSD patients, but I haven't personally applied the reconsolidation work to PTSD. But there are big implications that we're trying to begin studies on, and there is actually some research on this that's already in existence that suggests that it may be very useful in the treatment of PTSD.

So basically what you do is you have the patient retrieve the traumatic memory in the presence of some kind of treatment, say a drug, that prevents the re-storage of the memory. And if all goes well, then the troubling memory is weakened, perhaps even erased. Some people talk about erasure of memory. I think that's a bit strong in terms of what the scientific results suggest, but it's not out of the question.

So it's a potentially a very powerful way to alter, especially, the emotional impact of a memory as opposed to the cognitive content of the memory. So far, most of the research suggests that when you do these kinds of things, you don't eliminate the memory itself; so you still remember the traumatic memory, the event itself, but it's no longer as emotional as it was because you've dampened the emotional part of that memory.

In other words, when we form memories, there are lots of systems in the brain that work simultaneously. One of them involving the hippocampus forms these cognitive memories. The amygdala forms unconscious, implicit memories - emotional memories that involve the autonomic arousal and release of hormones and all of that sort of stuff that feeds back to the brain and has all sorts of consequences there. So if you can dampen the emotional memory mediated by the amygdala, you can have the cognitive memory and still have that information you may not want to lose for whatever reason. You may not want to - let's say you have PTSD because of some horrific death of someone you really cared about, so you don't want to obviously lose the memory of the person, or even of their death necessarily, but you don't want it to be quite so troubling. And if this technique works the way the animal research suggests it should, this is exactly what might happen.

And I said there's a little bit of research in humans on this so far, and it's not perfect because there are some missing controls and so forth, but it does suggest that the autonomic and implicit aspects of the arousal are dampened, but the memory itself survives.

David: You might be interested to know that there's a California psychotherapist by the name of Bruce Ecker, who I've interviewed a couple times in this series, and he's developed a psychotherapeutic approach some years back that he calls Coherence Therapy. And he's of the opinion that your work on memory reconsolidation provides empirical support for the effectiveness of his approach which involves helping therapy clients to dig down into the emotional implicit memories, retrieve into direct experience the negative emotional learnings at the root of unwanted moods, behaviors, and thoughts, and then to juxtapose these learnings with a vivid experience of contradictory knowledge. And the result of this process is that clients frequently - he reports - will frequently report that the original learnings have lost, just as you said, all the emotional power and associated symptoms.

Joseph LeDoux: Well, that's very interesting because we also recently published a paper in the journal - well, actually two papers: one in Science and one in Nature, the first in rats and the other in humans. These are not clients or patients or anything but just normal college students going through an experiment, and what we're able to do is to behaviorally alter memory as well, so we don't always need drugs. So it would be more comparable to what you're describing in this approach, where through behavioral manipulations you can change the ability the memory to alter the - or to elicit - the emotional responses.

David: You know, there are a couple of non-mainstream therapies - I don't know if you've heard of them - but they make me wonder if memory reconsolidation could explain the good results that they report; because sometimes they just report amazing success, and I don't know that it's been submitted to scientific investigation. But two techniques that I'm thinking of here: one is called EFT or Emotional Freedom Technique, which involves having the person - say somebody with PTSD or some other symptom - recalling the memory and, while they're recalling it, they're doing self-tapping on their acupuncture points. And I'm just thinking, well, maybe that's disrupting that process -

Joseph LeDoux: Right.

David: Just the tapping. Now, they have a different theoretical explanation, but it seems to me that memory reconsolidation might account for it. The other one is EMDR, Eye Movement Desensitization.

Joseph LeDoux: Right. I'm familiar with that.

David: You are familiar with that, where the person is instructed to move their eyes from side to side, again while bringing up emotionally charged memories, and so, that gets me to thinking.

Joseph LeDoux: Yes, I think we don't really know a lot yet about how reconsolidation works, and I don't think we know much about how EMDR works or this other technique you're talking about, so it's possible that there are some common mechanisms. I mean the common idea is that some external behavioral manipulation can alter the way the memory is processed and stored and accessed, so I think that that's a promising line of research that should be pursued.

David: Okay, now really shifting ground: I understand that one of your current passions is the Amygdaloids. With your strong interest in amygdala, you've got the Amygdaloids, a music group that you formed with some other neuroscientists. Tell us about that. What are you up to there?

Joseph LeDoux: Well, all together, we've got two CDs - the second one just came out a couple months ago - and we sing music about mind and brain and mental disorders. I know that doesn't sound very rock-ish, but these are just rock/pop songs that have little nuggets of information about how mind and brain and mental disorders work.

If you think about a lot of rock songs, they're all about love and life and situations that like, and so why not throw a little bit of the brain into love and life, and try and explain how things work? So we have a lot of songs that are based on my research or the research of my colleagues. One of the songs on the first CD was called "All in the Nut." You know the word "amygdala" is from the Greek word for almond, and so the amygdala is a nut in your brain, and this is just kind of a funny little song about why do we feel so afraid; it's all due to a nut in your brain.

But we have songs about the mind-body problem - a number of songs about the mind-body problem. The song called "My Body Problem" itself is - well, the lyrics say it all: it's "my body wants you so, but my mind says no." It's about a girl that wants to come back to the guy and the guy doesn't know whether he should take her back. So you get the idea; there's a lot of humor in these songs, and we try to bring up tough concepts like mind and body and dualism and materialism and all that in an interesting and fun context.

So the new CD, though, is based on the same basic principles that - mind, brain, mental disorders - but I think the songs have matured a bit, because when we did the first CD that was really my first attempt to write music. I'd been playing it for all my life; I hadn't been writing music that much. And on the new CD, which is called Theory of My Mind - this is a take-off on the theory of mind concept in psychology, which is also very important in the area of autism - and we have a very special musical guest on the CD, Rosanne Cash, daughter of Johnny Cash.

David: My goodness! How did you get her?

Joseph LeDoux: Well, we were introduced by a common friend. Actually, we share a book editor at Viking, and he introduced us, and I asked her if she'd sing on my record, and she said okay. And I don't know if she knew what she was getting into, but she did - she sang two songs with me. One's called "Crime of Passion," which is kind of interesting because, as I was writing that, I was sort of thinking of Johnny Cash. It's kind of a deep, dark country-ish song about someone who's committed a murder. He's caught his wife with someone else in bed, and he's committed this crime of passion, and now he's stuck in the jail about to be executed. It's a really dark song. And Rosanne agreed to sing on that song, so I rewrote the lyrics to make it into a call-and-response kind of song, where I sing a line and she responds to it, and then she joins me in the chorus and so forth. So she did a beautiful job on that. It's a very nice song if you like country music.

And she also sings on a song which is more kind of modern, contemporary song called "Mind Over Matter." And this is a song about - it's kind of a funny song for a scientist to write because it's about how you can just hopefully use your mind to connect with someone who's no longer with you. Either they've moved to a different part of the world or perhaps they've died or whatever, but you want to use your mind to overcome space and time and be together with this person again. And, again, Rosanne does a beautiful job in singing that.

David: Well, let's listen to that cut right now - "Mind Over Matter." I'll play that right now.

Joseph LeDoux: [Music begins]

Mind over matter,
That's something I'm trying to do.
It's just a little physics.
That keeps me apart from you.

Mind over matter.
That's something I'm trying to do.
Break down space and time
And be together with you.

I'm trying to will you here,
Find you wherever you are.
Locate your body and soul,
Pull you in from afar.

Are you still in my time?
Or have you slipped away?
Have you gone forwards or back?
Living in another day?

Where, oh, where might you be?
Different continent or on the sea?
In the air, flying free
Or in a place heavenly?

Wherever you are now
I'll use my mind to find.
No amount of space or time
Can keep you from being mine.

Mind over matter.
It's something I'm trying to do.
I guess it's only physics
That keeps me apart from you.

Mind over matter.
That's something I'm trying to do.
Break down space and time
And be together with you.
Be together with you.
Be together with you.
Be together with you.

David: Okay, well, I will be sure to put a link on our website so that people can find not only "Mind Over Matter," but how they can buy your CDs. And as we wind down, is there anything else that you'd like to say?

Joseph LeDoux: Well, I think we've covered a lot of territory, so hopefully it'll make sense when you put it all together.

David: I think it will, I certainly do. So, Dr. Joseph LeDoux, I really appreciate your spending this time with us. Thanks so much for being my guest on Wise Counsel.

Joseph LeDoux: Thank you very much.

David: I hope you enjoyed this conversation with Dr. Joseph LeDoux. You can also find a video clip of him talking about memory reconsolidation on YouTube. Just go to YouTube and do a search there on Joseph LeDoux. And you can find more information about his neuroscience rock group on the web at In addition, I believe you can find that very wonderful episode of The Charlie Rose Show, in which Dr. LeDoux appears with other notables. Just go to, and you're looking for Charlie Rose Brain Series, Episode 8, that showed on May 26, 2010.

You've been listening to Wise Counsel, a podcast interview series sponsored by If you found today's show interesting, we encourage you to visit, where you can add a comment or question to this show's web page, view other shows in the series, or simply page through the site, which is full of interesting mental health and wellness content. Access the show's page and show archive information via the podcast box on the home page.

If you like Wise Counsel, you might also like Shrink Rap Radio, my other interview podcast series, which is available online at Until next time, this is Dr. David Van Nuys, and you've been listening to Wise Counsel.

Links Relevant To This Podcast:

About Joseph E. LeDoux, Ph.D.

Joseph E. LeDoux, Ph.D.Joseph E. LeDoux, Ph.D. is a neuroscientist and the Henry and Lucy Moses Professor of Science, and Professor of Neuroscience and Psychology at New York University. He is also the former director of the Center for the Neuroscience of Fear and Anxiety, multi-university Center in New York City devoted to using animal research to understand pathological fear and anxiety in humans. He received his Ph.D. in 1977 at the State University of New York at Stony Brook.

Dr. LeDoux's research interests are mainly focused on the biological underpinnings of memory and emotion, especially the mechanisms of fear.

Joseph LeDoux received the Distinguished Scientific Award from the American Psychological Association for work on emotion and fear. He appeared on the Charlie Rose Brain Series, episode eight, 5/26/2010.

Among his many publications, Dr. LeDoux is the author of the 1996 book, The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life and the 2002 book, Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are. In addition, he was the editor of The Self: From Soul to Brain and co-editor of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder: Basic Science and Clinical Practice.

Joseph LeDoux is also a singer and guitarist in the science-themed rock band The Amygdaloids.

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