Why do we react the way we do when in danger? Why do we sometimes wrestle with levels of anxiety that don’t quite reflect the situation at hand? Until recently, research has focused on our physiological and behavioral responses (increased heart rate, freezing, flight, elevated hormones) to what we perceive as mortal danger.
Newer investigations now show that damage to the amygdala in humans (the brain’s center of the freeze–flight–fight responses) prevents those responses, but not the feelings that danger engenders. Emotions, or feelings, actually derive from our cortical circuits, unique human features not seen in other animals.
This finding has broad implications for how we approach our understanding—and in particular, how to treat—these often problematic emotions. Neurologist Joseph LeDoux, professor of science at New York University and author of Anxious: Using the Brain to Understand and Treat Fear and Anxiety and The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life, discusses the impact of this research and why it might change our current pharmacological and behavioral approaches to helping people reframe fear and its close relative, anxiety.
As part of the acoustic duo So We Are, LeDoux also shares his research through songs, with lyrics that showcase ideas about the mind and brain. After his presentation, he and Irish singer-songwriter Colin Dempsey perform some of their music, putting a new beat to their exploration of what makes us us.
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Metro: Smithsonian (Mall exit)