Joseph LeDoux, like many notable neuroscientists today, approaches his work from a simple standpoint. The idea that the mind in its entirety comes from the material brain, that is to say what we humans experience as the mind is a result of the activity from the hundred billion neurons that constitutes the human brain. It is from this materialist understanding that LeDoux has approached the research that has ultimately culminated in his book, “The Emotional Brain.” He articulates his beliefs about emotions plainly for his readers,
“I view emotions as biological functions of the nervous system. I believe that figuring out how emotions are represented in the brain can help us understand them. This approach contrasts sharply with the more typical one in which emotions are studied as psychological states, independent of the underlying brain mechanisms, Psychological research has been extremely valuable but an approach where emotions are studied as brain functions is far more useful” (12).
Prior to the emergence of the very new field of neuroscience which has provided the evidence LeDoux bases his book upon, modern society had generally walled off emotions from the realm of “logic,” attaching to it a connotation of corruption. “Psychological research has been extremely valuable” in that it has provided us with our current conceptions of emotions. However, the research LeDoux reviews and presents, shows that understanding how emotions are represented in the brain is the most crucial part of understanding emotions themselves. LeDoux patiently recaps the history of brain research regarding emotions and explains his own research in order to prove his basic theories of emotion. His work is a modest reminder of the generations of grunt work, exchanges, and exhaustive research in which the science community is perpetually entrapped.
At the same time his work is limited. This is not aimed at belittling his discoveries or a criticism of his scientific method. If anything it is an appraisal of his work. As a neuroscientist, LeDoux must protect his scientific validity, sticking to his empirical discoveries and facts all made relevant to the scientific community (and the layman interested in the general science). However, the implications of his work stretch far and beyond the scientific community. His work, amongst many others in the field, has huge socio-political implications which challenge foundational beliefs of society that have been upheld and defended by the ruling classes. Were LeDoux or other prominent neuroscientists to take the time to extrapolate upon the sociopolitical implications of their discoveries, one could expect to see their grants for research promptly pulled. As a materialist thinker, I have taken it upon myself to suggest some of these implications from a very new field of science. I believe this work significantly alters our perception of consciousness. LeDoux’ research in particular illuminates the hugely important role emotions have in this process. In reconstructing this perception of emotional awareness I believe new attitudes towards human interaction will follow. I hope to show why these new discoveries are particularly relevant to political organizers in the left today.
The left, constantly developing new strategies to raise political consciousness, has invented a plethora of perspectives on the human mind. From each flows a specific practice of interaction , or “praxis”, for political organizers adhere to. These practices, almost by definition, tear through the oppressive fallacies the ruling class constructs for the oppressed to internalize and accept. However, in the historical period we now live in, we in the left lack a unified theory that is indisputable– something we can regard as basic truth all camps can agree on and build upon. At large, we have a recycling of the old. This lack of unity, progression of theoretical knowledge, and practical application of theory in the left is not the result of organizers’ failures in the past. We in the left are experiencing this vacuum of unity merely because the next path forward has been elusive; waiting to be uncovered by new information which can serve as a stable foundation for new approaches.
We have had only the traditions of the past to look to– the heroes and organizations of past generations. The foresight of these courageous men and women unfortunately has only stretched so far. Far enough to help us define ourselves as the working class, to understand our oppression, to understand the workings of the imperialist system we live in today. But it has not provided us with concrete steps for action. The figures we look to today have only the information discovered during their lifetime. We in 2011 must incorporate the lessons of the past with the information available to us today. This is the essence of historical materialism– as Marx said “it is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but, on the contrary, their social existence that determines their consciousness.” The theories and ideas generated by figures of the past are a direct result of the resources available to them during the time of their existence.
What relevance does this have to LeDoux’ book? His studies amongst many others are new resources that stem specifically from the scientific capabilities of our generation: The brain imaging technology of the 21st century, the decades of psychological theoretical battles between schools of thought, and centuries of collected medical case studies. Part of Marx and Engel’s genius insight was their being privy to the influence of the social environment on the development of men and women. However, because they did not have the devices of modern science available to them to “prove” the effects of society on the brain or their theories of development they could not explain the fundamental processes of the human mind outside of the context of the larger socio-political environment. They could not explain why we functioned the way we did in society; they could not explain what otherwise normal thinking abilities were being abused and maladjusted. This is not a shortcoming of their many potently intuitive theories, this is simply an objective assessment of their theoretical abilities at the time This is where neuroscience comes in. It lends concrete credence to their theories. It provides us with the ability to establish a reliable lens into humanity. Let’s begin.
Diagnosing the ailments of society has historically stemmed from a psychological perspective. What needs to be brought to the forefront of our thinking is that neuroscience is rapidly challenging many psychologically accepted conceptions and understandings about the mind. Emotion is the main subject of study for LeDoux as it is this fundamental quale (experience of the mind) of our consciousness that enables us to feel. As we will find out, feeling cannot happen without emotion. This capacity allows us to feel joy and pain. Without emotion oppression would be a non issue. Humanity would feel indifferent and lifeless, about itself and its environment. It is emotion that inspires the left to search for the cause of it’s pains. It is emotion that causes us to become aware agony’s source; our oppressors. Understanding this biological compass is the focus of “The Emotional Brain.”
LeDoux introduces the general themes of his book:
Several themes about the nature of emotions will emerge and recur. Some of these will be consistent with your commonsense intuitions about emotions, whereas others will seem unlikely if not strange. But all of them, I believe, are well-grounded in facts about the brain, or atleast in hypotheses that have been inspired by such facts, and I hope that you will hear them out.
1) The first is that the proper level of analysis of a psychological function is the level at which that function is represented in the brain. This leads to a conclusion that clearly falls into the realm of bizarre at first– that the word ’emotion’ does not refer to something that the mind or brain really has or does. ‘Emotion’ is only a label, a convenient way of talking about aspects of the brain and its mind. Psychology textbooks often carve up the mind into functional pieces, such as perception, memory, and emotion. These are useful for organizing information into general areas of research but do not refer to real functions. The brain, for example, does not have a system dedicated to perception. The word ‘perception’ describes in a general way what goes on in a number of specific neural systems—we see, hear, and smell the world with our visual, auditory, and olfactory systems. Each system evolved to solve different problems that animals face. In a similar vein, the various classes of emotions are mediated by separate neural systems that have evolved for different reasons. The system we use to defend against danger is different from the one we use in procreation, and the feelings that result from activating these systems—fear and sexual pleasure—do not have a common origin. There is no such thing as the ’emotion’ faculty and there is no single brain system dedicated to this phantom function. If we are interested in understanding the various phenomena that we use the term ’emotion’ to refer to, we have to focus on specific classes of emotions. We shouldn’t mix findings about different emotions all together independent of the emotion that there findings about. Unfortunately most work in psychology and brain science has done this (16).
Here LeDoux explains why his approach contrasts so sharply with psychology’s view of emotions. Understanding emotion as a function in the brain means understanding that the word “emotion” does not actually correspond to any space in the brain. Our word “emotion” is only relevant when planning out methods of research. His bottom line in this theme is that using “emotion” as a blanket statement is grossly inappropriate when actually referring to the many individual emotions and their functions in the brain despite this practice being made habit in the world of cognitive science. Why is this relevant? While LeDoux hasn’t yet built up to his central point about emotions, his assertion about the inaccuracy of psychological perspectives on emotions is important to note. This means that to move towards a truly materialist understanding of our own internal forces we must examine some recent objective assessments of how these emotions are generated within.
He states the second theme of his book:
2)A second theme is that the brain systems that generate emotional behaviors are highly conserved through many levels of evolutionary history. All animals, including people, have to satisfy certain conditions to survive in the world and fulfill their biological imperative to pass their genes on to their offspring. At a minimum, the need to obtain food and shelter, protect themselves from bodily, harm, and procreate. This is as true of insects and worms as it is of fish, frogs, rats, and people. Each of these diverse groups of animals has neural systems that accomplish these behavioral goals. And within the animal groups that have a backbone and a brain (fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals, including humans), it seems that the neural organization of particular emotional behavioral systems—like the systems underlying fearful, sexual, or feeding behaviors– is pretty similar across species. This does not imply that all brains are the same. It instead means that our understanding of what it means to be human involves an appreciation of the ways in which we are like other animals as well as the ways in which we are different(17).
This also marks a necessary ingredient for a materialist understanding of the brain. LeDoux requires the reader to acknowledge humanity’s biological origins. Fundamentally we share a purpose– a biological imperative– for living with all of our relatives in the vast animal kingdom. These shared imperatives are the result of generations of evolution where systems for generating these emotional behaviors have been conserved. The similarity of our basic drives for fear, sex, and feeding is indicated within similarity of the neural organization of these behaviors across species. Flowing from this perspective, LeDoux incorporates a scientific truth about the nature of emotions and their function in animals (humans included in this category) in his third theme.
3 ) A Third theme is that when these systems function in an animal that also has the capacity for conscious awareness, then conscious emotional feelings occur. This clearly happens in humans, but no one knows for sure whether other animals have this capacity. I make no claims about which animals are conscious and which are not. I simply claim that when one of these evolutionarily old systems (like the system that produces defensive behaviors in the presence of danger) goes about its business in a conscious brain, emotional feelings (like being afraid) are the result. Otherwise, the brain accomplishes its behavioral goals in the absence of robust awareness. And absence of awareness is the rule of mental life, rather than the exception, throughout the animal kingdom. If we do not need conscious feelings to explain what we would call emotional behavior in some animals, then we do not need them to explain the same behavior in humans. Emotional responses are, for the most part, generated unconsciously. Freud was right on the mark when he described consciousness as the tip of the iceberg (17).
Here marks yet another fundamental notion in understanding emotions concretely. LeDoux suggests that the experience of feeling an emotion is a privilege possessed only by animals with consciousness–that from each of these feelings of emotion flows consciousness and behavior in the brain. As previously stated living things share a biological imperative marked by identical tasks necessary for life. LeDoux enriches this point by stating that these basic behaviors can be and are executed without awareness of our emotional drive; without feeling emotion. He states that unconsciously processing these emotions is overwhelmingly the rule rather than the exception in the animal kingdom. Our human emotional responses are “generated unconsciously.” He drives home the implications of this theme explicitly in the fourth section.
4)The fourth theme follows from the third. The conscious feelings that we know and love (or hate) our emotions are red herrings, detours, in the scientific study of emotions. This will surely be hard to swallow at first. After all, what is an emotion but a conscious feeling? Take away our subjective register of fear and there’s not much to a dangerous experience. But I will try to convince you that this idea is wrong– that there is much more than meets the mind’s eye in an emotional experience. Feelings of fear, for example, occur as part of the overall reaction to danger and are no more or less central to the reaction than the behavioral and physiological responses that also occur, such as trembling, running away, sweating, and heart palpitations. What we need to elucidate is not so much the conscious state of fear or the accompanying responses, but the system that detects the danger in the first place. Fear feelings and pounding hears are both effects caused by the activity of this system, which does its job unconsciously—literally, before we actually know we are in danger. The system that detects danger is the fundamental mechanism of fear, and the behavioral, physiological, and conscious manifestations are the surface responses it orchestrates. This is not meant to imply that feelings are unimportant. It means that if we want to understand feelings we have to dig deeper (18).
This point gets at the heart of why we need a neurological analysis of our emotions. Our subjective interpretations of our emotions are in no way indicative of the actual causal properties of our emotional systems. They are “red herrings.” We must obtain a concrete understanding of these systems if we are to progress our dialectical understanding of humans; the members of society. These processes themselves are counter-intuitive to the cognitive experiences we call feelings.
His fifth theme justifies his scientific method of research of the brain based on “the ways in which we are like other animals as well as the ways in which we are different”:
5) Fifth, if, indeed, emotional feelings and emotional responses are effects caused by the activity of a common underlying system, we can use the objectively measurable emotional responses to investigate the underlying mechanism that is primarily responsible for the generation of conscious feelings. And since the brain system that generates emotional responses is similar in animals and people, studies of how the brain controls these responses is similar in animals and people, studies of how the brain controls these responses in animals are a pivotal step toward understandings the mechanisms that generate emotional feelings in people. Studies of the neural basis of emotion in humans vary from difficult to impossible for both ethical and practical reasons. The study of experimental animals is, as a result, both a useful and a necessary enterprise if we are to understand emotions in the human brain. Understanding emotions in the human brain is clearly an important quest, as most mental disorders are emotional disorders.
His next theme aims to dispel the mystery that is often thought of when it comes to understanding feelings:
6) Sixth, conscious feelings, like the feeling of being afraid or angry or happy or in love or disgusted, are in one sense no different from the other states of consciousness, such as the awareness that the roundish, reddish object before you is an apple, that a sentence just heard was spoken in a particular foreign language, or that you’ve just solved a previously insoluble problem in mathematics. States of consciousness occur when the system responsible for awareness becomes privy to the activity of perceiving red is not the system that represents the conscious content (fear or redness) but the systems that provide the inputs to the system of awareness. There is but one mechanism of consciousness and it can be occupied by mundane facts or highly charged emotions. Emotions easily bump mundane events out of awareness, but nonemotional events (like thoughts) do not so easily displace emotions from the mental spotlight—wishing that anxiety or depression would go away is usually not enough (19).
Here LeDoux focuses the reader’s understanding of conscious feelings by comparing them on equal footing with the “other states of consciousness”. Deconstructing conscious feelings appears to be a far less intimidating subject to approach if emotions truly are no different from a function as simple as recognizing a red apple’s redness. He reveals that our consciousness is largely dictated by emotions, that our emotions essentially hold the reigns of human awareness. Consciousness flows from our emotions, not the other way around. Now this fact is important. If “emotions essentially hold the reigns of human awareness,” they must be of primary importance to the left if our duty is to raise conscious awareness of the many manifestations of oppression in society. We’ll return to this point later.
7) Seventh, emotions are things that happen to us rather than things we wish to occur. Although people set up situations to modulate their emotions all the time—going to movies and amusement parks, having a tasty meal, consuming alcohol and other recreational drugs—in these situations, external events are simply arranged so that the stimuli automatically trigger emotions will be present. We have little direct control over our emotional reactions. Anyone who has tried to fake an emotion, or who has been the recipient of a faked one, knows all too well the futility of the attempt. While conscious control over emotions is weak, emotions can flood consciousness. This is so because the wiring of the brain at this point in our evolutionary history is such that connections from the emotional systems to the cognitive systems are stronger than connections from the cognitive systems to the emotional systems (19).
This is fundamental. This gets at the primary cause of our cognition. Emotion comes first. It is the precursor of our feelings and, ultimately, the behavior that follows.Our behaviors are essentially a response to our emotions. LeDoux wisely notes that the goal of some of our behaviors is to create a situation which can alter our emotional states where, “external events are simply arranged so that the stimuli automatically trigger emotions…”. We will later apply this to some basic methods of creating organizing spaces in the left.
His final theme before setting out to prove them all is;
8 ) Finally, once emotions occur they become powerful motivators of future behaviors. They chart the course of moment-to-moment action as well as set the sails toward long-term achievements. But our emotions can also get us into trouble. When fear becomes anxiety, desire gives way to greed, or annoyance turns to anger, anger to hatred, friendship to envy, love to obsession, or pleasure to addiction, our emotions start working against us. Mental health is maintained by emotional hygiene, and mental problems, to a large extent, reflect a breakdown of emotional order. Emotions can have both useful and pathological consequences (20).
Here he concedes the control emotions have over our bodies and consciousness, but also elucidates their capacity for troubling us. His term “emotional hygiene” I believe is especially potent. As leftists we are committed to disillusionment. We are compelled to understand the source of our frustration. However as the answers accumulate, our stress load also increases because of our capacity for empathy. We must not only be aware of how our engagement in the struggle affects ourselves and our comrades, but also what we must struggle for in order to prevent the furthering of emotionally damaging and oppressive behaviors and systems.
LeDoux’ next step is to define what he calls the “Cognitive Unconscious.” He makes a point of distinguishing this clearly from the “Freudian Unconscious” with which we all have some degree of familiarity,
Like Freud before them, cognitive scientists reject the view handed down from Descartes that mind and consciousness are the same. However, the cognitive unconscious is not the same as the Freudian or dynamic unconscious. The term cognitive unconscious merely implies that a lot of what the mind does goes on outside of consciousness, whereas the dynamic unconscious is a darker, more malevolent place where emotionally charged memories are shipped to do mental dirty work…[The Cognitive Unconscious] consists of processes that take care of the mind’s routine business without consciousness having to be bothered (29-30).
Indeed, the processes LeDoux studies are largely unconscious. Simply put, what this means is,“Just because your brain can do something does not mean that ‘you’ know how it did it” (31). For example,
“Speech, consciousness’ favorite tool, is also the product of unconscious processes. We do not consciously plan the grammatical structure of the sentences we utter. There simply isn’t enough time. We aren’t all great orators, but we usually say things that make sense linguistically. Speaking roughly grammatically is one of the many things that the cognitive unconscious takes care of for us” (31).
Here I would like to introduce one of my ideas about the mind of the leftist and some possible causes of sectarianism as we know it. I base this political analysis on the same fact LeDoux basis his analysis of the mind. That emotions and consciousness are fluidly interconnected, the latter stemming from the former. LeDoux elaborates on why this is so:
…I will summarize several key points that justify my belief that emotion and cognition are best thought of as separate but interacting mental functions mediated by separate but interacting brain systems.
-When a certain region of the brain is damaged, animals or humans lose the capacity to appraise the emotional significance of certain stimuli without any loss in the capacity to perceive the same stimuli as objects. The perceptual representation of an object and the evaluation of the significance of an object are separately processed by the brain.
-The emotional meaning of a stimulus can begin to be appraised by the brain before the perceptual systems have fully expressed the stimulus. It is, indeed, possible for your brain to know that something is good or bad before it knows what it is.
-The brain mechanisms through which memories of the emotional significance of stimuli are registered, stored, and retrieved are different from the mechanisms through which cognitive memories of the same stimuli are processed. Damage to the former mechanisms prevents a stimulus with a learned emotional meaning from eliciting emotional reaction in us, whereas damage to the latter mechanism interferes with out ability to remember where we saw the stimulus, why we were there, and who we were with at the time
-The systems that perform emotional appraisals are directly connected with systems involved In the control of emotional responses. Once an appraisal is made by these systems, responses occur automatically. In contrast, systems involved in cognitive processing are not so tightly coupled with response control systems. The hallmark of cognitive processing is flexibility of responses on the basis of processing. Cognition gives us choices. In contrast, activation of appraisal mechanisms narrows the response options available to a few choices that evolution has had the wisdom to connect up with the particular appraisal mechanism. This linkage between appraisal process and response mechanisms constitutes the fundamental mechanism of specific emotions.
-The linkage of appraisal mechanisms with response control systems means that when the appraisal mechanism detects a significant event, the programming and often the execution of a set of appropriate responses will occur. The net result is that bodily sensations often accompany appraisals and when they do they are a part of the conscious experience of emotions. Because cognitive processing is not linked up with responses in this obligatory way, intense bodily sensations are less likely to occur in association with mere thoughts(69-70).
Political development within an individual, as I’ve seen, involves rationalizing one’s subjective experience with environmental stimuli that has most gripped them emotionally. This is the brain obtaining an “emotional meaning” of the stimulus so that the conscious “perceptual systems have fully expressed the stimulus.” We become aware of various instances of oppression because they invoke an emotional response. Our political rationalizations are merely our perceptual systems making sense of these responses. It is by seeking a political analysis of these experiences that an individual comes to rationalize them. However more often than not under imperialism most of these elaborations merely consist of narrow focuses on symptoms of dysfunction in society rather than true causes of oppression. Because the distinction between symptoms and causes are rarely if ever posed outside of the revolutionary left, the individual comes to log these symptoms as causes and so finds movements which “fight”against them.This is where “the brain mechanisms through which memories of the emotional significance of stimuli are registered, stored, and retrieved…” The emotional responses that make instances of oppression important are attached to our memories and our understanding of those same instances. There is emotional affirmation prevalent in these movements. The process of meeting like-minded individuals is deeply comforting. For this reason, I believe, the political rationalizations of our emotionally charged memories are reinforced.
Regardless of a particular movement’s efficiency in working against these symptoms, the individual’s emotions (and beliefs about these emotions) are thoroughly molded by the experience. A sense of urgency and purpose enters their life. They come to recognize people with allegedly “counter-posed” beliefs voicing their brand of political outrage which compels the individual towards debate, disgust, and other answers to their emotional response. These responses are now tinged with politics. They are stained with a political and emotional meaning that will now enter our consciousness when we feel them. This drives us to fight against the causes of our negative emotions–what we come to understand as oppression.
At the same time this basic process of development applies to the left as well. In fact the political programs of the left are far more complex. It is important to note that the more complex and elaborate a political theory is and the process of development it entails, the more its followers are emotionally cemented in that particular worldview. I suggest when attitudes of sectarianism form for entirely abstract reasons such as a politically charged speech, a critical article, or even a casual conversation between members of different “camps,” the mere jargon of a political program can invoke negative responses and interpretations to a member of a different belief set. This is because our brains remember the original “emotional appraisals” of past stimuli. In this case the past stimuli is everything an individual comes to learn about when he or she begins to study a political perspective. Some mere words, which would fly under the radar for most, could invoke disgust in another revolutionary. Consider the strange diversity in Marxist interpretation within the left–these are essentially projections of meaning, projections of what a person means when they communicate. I believe these projections can apply to more than just words, I believe they apply to tactics, concepts, the very stuff of a political analysis. It applies to everything the mind can respond to as a stimulus.
We in the left are familiar with sectarianism but I believe the danger becomes far more potent when we dissect our responses to one another. When we understand that they stem directly from our individual praxis, our emotional experiences within the left. It is important to note that these compulsions towards hostile responses against each other are the result of unconscious processes, emotional and verbal, at root. We must approach these differences carefully and with an attitude of empathy, knowing that everyone’s belief is the result of a dialectical process.
This is not to say that some political differences are not justified. Some people do truly hold reactionary beliefs, some people are violently hostile to certain political programs and are to be avoided. However, regarding sectarianism where leftists with very similar goals refuse to work with and vilify each other, this unconscious process of emotional processing plays a large role, blinding us to our similarities and possible opportunities for collaboration. Thus marks a reason for deconstruction of political differences through NeuroPolitics. By engaging in a calm dialogue where an individual’s reasons for believing what he or she believes and their first impressions of another person’s political program is revealed, we can deconstruct what would otherwise fuel political hostility.
I believe we must study to become more aware of how we come to determine political comrade from enemy. To bring this point home, LeDoux speaks on “the mental health of machines,”
…subjective emotional states, like all other states of consciousness, are best viewed as the end result of information processing occurring unconsciously. Just as we can study how the brain processes information unconsciously in perceiving visual information to guide behavior, we can study how the brain processes the emotional significance of stimuli unconsciously and uses this information to control behaviors appropriate to the emotional meaning of the stimuli.
With regard to political development, I believe the process I suggest is a possible materialist understanding of how “the brain processes the emotional significance of stimuli unconsciously and uses this information to control behaviors appropriate to the emotional meaning of the stimuli.” The stimuli in this case is the socio-political environment and everything that entails.
To crystallize his thesis on emotions LeDoux concludes;
Emotional feelings result when we become consciously aware that an emotion system of the brain is active. Any organism that has consciousness also has feelings. However, feelings will be different in a brain that can classify the world linguistically and categorize experiences in words than in a brain that cannot. The difference between fear, anxiety, terror, apprehension, and the like would not be possible without language. At the same time, none of these words would have any point if it were not for the existence of an underlying emotion system that generates the brain states and bodily expressions to which these words apply. Emotions evolved not as conscious feelings, linguistically differentiated or otherwise, but as brain states and bodily responses. The brain states and bodily responses are the fundamental facts of an emotion, and the conscious feelings are the frills that have added icing to the emotional cake (302).
So what is to be done with this information? We in the left must integrate this information with our materialist understanding of oppression. This starts by restructuring organizations in a way that allows anyone spurred by their own emotional reigns into the struggle to explore, emote, and express their individual experience and desires.
In Part 2 I will synthesize what we have learned here with Paulo Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed.” In Part 3 I will propose 4 neuropolitical principles for leftists organizations.
Until then, I leave you with a quote from Freire on the topic of science…
The inhumanity of the oppressors and revolutionary humanism both make use of science. But science and technology at the service of the former are used to reduce the oppressed to the status of ‘things;’ at the service of the latter, they are used to promote humanization. The oppressed must become subjects of the latter process, however, lest they continue to be seen as mere objects of scientific interest.