Posts Tagged ‘LeDoux’

The Seat of all Passions

March 9, 2018

The title of this post is the title of a section in Daniel Goleman’s book “Emotional Intelligence.” In humans the amygdala (from the Greek word for “almond’) is an almond -shaped cluster of interconnected clusters perched above the brainstem, near the bottom of the limbic ring. There are two amygdalae, one on each side of the brain nested toward the side of the head. Our amygdalae are relatively large compared to that of any of our closest evolutionary cousins, the primates.

The amygdalae and the hippocampi (there is also a hippocampus on each side of our brains) were the two key parts of the primitive “nose brain” that gave rise to the cortex and the neocortex. These limbic structures do much or most of the brain’s learning and remembering; the amygdalae is the specialist for emotional matters. If the amygdalae is severed from the rest of the brain, the result is a striking inability to gauge the emotional significance of events; this condition is sometimes called “affective blindness.”

Here please indulge a digression by HM to one of the projects he did as a graduate student. It involved conducting surgeries and implanting electrodes into the amygdalae of rats. These rats were deprived of water for 24 hours and then given an opportunity to drink. An electric current was applied to the amygdalae of some rats when they drank the water. The control rats were not shocked. The following day, the rats that had been shocked refused to drink, whereas the control rats, of course, drank. If you find this study troublesome, so does HM. But it did provide definitive evidence regarding the role of the amygdalae.

A fellow human had his amygdalae surgically removed to control severe seizures. He became completely uninterested in people, preferring to sit in isolation with no human contact. Although perfectly capable of conversation, he no longer recognized close friends, relatives, or even his mother, and remained impassive in the face of their anguish at his indifference. Absent the amygdalae, all recognition of feeling as well as any feeling about feelings is lost. Life without the amygdalae is life stripped of personal meanings.

All passion depends on the amygdalae. Animals that have their amygdalae removed or severed lack fear and rage, lose the urge to compete or cooperate, and no longer have any sense of their place in their kind’s social order; emotion is blunted or absent. As the amygdalae were not destroyed in HM’s rats, the stimulated rats returned to normal.

Tears, an emotional signal unique to humans, are triggered by the amygdala and a nearby structure, the cingulate gyrus. Being held, stroked, or otherwise comforted soothes these same brain regions, and stops the sobbing. Absent amygdalae, there are no tears of sorrow to soothe.

Goleman writes, “the workings of the amygdala and its interplay with the neocortex are at the heart of emotional intelligence. When impulsive feeling overrides the rational—the newly discovered role for the amygdala is pivotal. Incoming signals from the senses let the amygdala scan every experience for trouble. This puts the amygdala in a powerful position in mental life, something like a psychological sentinel, challenging every situation, every perception, with but one question in mind, the most primitive: “Is this something I hate? That hurts me? Something I fear?” If so—if the moment at hand somehow draws a “Yes”—the amygdala reacts instantaneously, line a neural tripwire, telegraphing a message of crisis to all parts of the brain.”

“When it sounds an alarm, it sends urgent messages to every major part of the brain: it triggers the secretion of the body’s fight-or-flight hormones, mobilizes the centers for movement and activates the cardiovascular system, the muscles, and the gut. Other circuits from the amygdala signal the secretion of emergency dollops of the hormone norepinephrine to heighten the reactivity of key brain areas, including those that made the senses more alert, in effect setting the brain on edge. Additional signals from the amygdala tell the brainstem to fix the face in a fearful expression, freeze unrelated movements the muscles had underway, raise heart rate and blood pressure, slow breathing. Others rivet attention on the source of the fear, and prepare the muscles to react accordingly. Simultaneously, cortical memory systems are shuffled to retrieve any knowledge relevant to the emergency at hand, taking precedence over other strands of thought.”

The extensive web of neural connections of the amygdalae allows them, during an emotional emergency, to capture and drive much of the rest of the brain—including the rational mind.

Research by LeDoux showed that sensory signals from the eye or ear travel first in the brain to the thalamus, and then—across a single synapse—to the amygdala; a second signal from the thalamus is routed to the neocortex—the thinking brain. So the amygdala can respond before the neocortex, which mulls information though several levels of brain circuits before it fully perceives and finally initiates its more finely tailored response.

LeDoux concluded, “Anatomically the emotional system can act independently of the neocortex. Some emotional reactions and emotional memories can be formed without any conscious cognitive participation at all.” LeDoux conducted an experiment in which people acquired a preference for oddly shaped geometric figures that had been flashed at them so quickly that they had no conscious awareness of having seen them at all. Nevertheless, our cognitive unconscious will still have formed an opinion as to whether we like it or not, not just the identity of what we’ve seen. Goleman notes that “our emotions have a mind of their own, one which can hold view quite independently of our rational mind.”

© Douglas Griffith and, 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


Attendance at 27th Annual Convention of the Association for Psychological Science (APS)

June 9, 2015

I attended the first meeting of APS (although it was called the American Psychological Society then) and gave a poster presentation.  I haven’t attended all of these meetings, but I have attended some of them, and I’ve found that they don’t disappointment.  Nor did the 27th meeting.

The Keynote Address at the Opening Ceremony was given my Michael Posner.  It was titled “Fostering Attention for Human Needs.”  Posner is one of the leading researchers of attention, and attention is central to human cognition, human behavior, and human health.  At least one additional post will be done on Posner’s work.

One of the first session was titled “Cognitive Capital:  Causes and Consequences.”  The researchers were relating the economic success of different countries to what they called cognitive capital.  To do this they needed measures of cognitive capital, which they produced.  The notion of Cognitive Capital is an intriguing, one which will be addressed in subsequent posts.

Another session was on the “Biased Processing of Political Information.”  This is an important topic and is one of the obstacles to an effective democracy.  Some interesting reach was presented that suggested that judges and lawyers process information different that we lay people.  Obviously, they have biases also, but within these biases the evidence suggests that legal minds think differently.  This session also included a paper on the topic of why historical misconceptions endure, such as the holocaust being a myth, or that 9/11 was a tragedy done by the United States to the United States for nefarious purposes.  Unfortunately, there was no information on how holders of these misconceptions can be disabused of their misconceptions.  People’s biases simply blind them from facts.

There were many papers on how cognition works, and on the neural structures underlying cognition.

Michael Gazzaniga gave a presentation that I was unable to attend, but I think it was similar to the presentation he gave at the 2013 meeting of APS that was reviewed in this blog.

LeDoux presented his new concepts on the differences between fear and anxiety.

Angela Duckworth, who is a 2003 MacArthur Award recipient gave a presentation on Grit, which she defined as staying engaged to overcome frustration.  There will be a post devoted to her work that will includes some tips for fostering grit.

A highly worthwhile session was given on the “Other Side of Positive Psychology.”  There have been prior healthy memory blog posts on Positive Psychology.  Instead of debunking Positive Psychology, this session provided some very useful advice on “fine tuning” Positive Psychology.  There will be blog posts on this topic.

There was an interesting session of false confessions that will be covered in subsequent healthy memory blog posts as well as on a session on the “Central Park Five.”

The work on Timothy Wilson was covered in the Healthymemory blog post, “Strangers to Ourselves.”  He gave a presentation expanding on this topic.

Franz B.M. de Waal gave the Bring the Family Address titles “Humans and Animals:  Politics, Culture and Morality.  It was very interesting and highly entertaining.

There was a very interesting presentation on Free Will.  I shall be discussing a book, in a future healthy memory blog titled “Free Will” by the philosopher Mark Balaguer.   I informed the presenter about this book as they have similar views to Balaguer.  They were grateful for this information.

As always, there were too many interesting presentation to attend.  And even when one was able to attend presentations, there was too much information to absorb.  These conventions leave me physically and mentally depleted, but with the knowledge that I have learned much.

© Douglas Griffith and, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Douglas Griffith and with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.