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Surprising Science

Joseph LeDoux, Neuroscientist and Musician

New York University neuroscience professor Joseph LeDoux has a passion for understanding the inner processes of memory. But he’s also really into rock music. And, luckily, he’s found a way to combine the two. LeDoux and NYU biology professor Tyler Volk are part of a band called the Amygdaloids, whose songs are all about the mind, brain and and mental disorders. Their newest album, “Theory of My Mind,” was released this week.

In his Big Think interview, LeDoux also talked about where emotional memories come from. The neuroscientist calls these instances “flashbulb memories,” or very vivid strong memories of a particular experience. Are flashbulb memories more accurate than other memories? Not at all, he says. They’re simply more vivid. The truth is, memories are often reconstructed when they’re retrieved. At that point of retrieval, memory has the opportunity to be changed. 

LeDoux and his colleagues are currently working to figure out the different ways that the mind changes memories when they are retrieved. “If you block protein synthesis after retrieval you can also disrupt the stability of the memory later,” he says. “This is triggered a whole wave of research now on the possibility of using this as a treatment for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder because theoretically we can have the people come in, remember their trauma, give them a pill and the next time the cues about the trauma come along, they won’t have the emotionally response to it.”
LeDoux also talked about where certain fears and phobias come from. Often you don’t know what’s making you anxious at a specific moment. Here’s the example LeDoux gives to help you understand your fears: “Let’s say we were having lunch one day and there’s a red and white checkered table cloth, and we have this argument. And the next day I see somebody coming down the street and I say, I have this guy feeling about this guy, he’s an SOB and I don’t like him. And maybe what’s going on there is that he’s got a red-and-white checkered necktie on. Consciously, I’m saying it’s my gut feeling because I don’t like the way he looks, but what’s happened is that the necktie has triggered the activation of the amygdala through the thalamus, the so-called low road, triggered a fear response In me, which I now consciously interpret as this gut feeling about not liking the guy. But in fact, it’s being triggered by external stimuli that I’m not processing consciously.”

Finally, LeDoux played the Amygdaloids’ new song, “Mind Over Matter,” for us, unplugged.  It’s a song about “love and loss and longing for someone who’s not there but you kind of use your mind to conquer the space and time that separates you from that person,” he says.


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