I’m delighted to be writing this blog on the brain for Psychology Today. The field of neuroscience has never been more exciting. Technical advances have made it possible to understand the brain’s cells, molecules, synapses, circuits, and systems in ways that were unfathomable just a decade or two ago. There is now more an expectation, rather than merely a hope, that neuroscience will reveal a detailed understanding of how the brain perceives, thinks, remembers, and feels, and will offer new treatments to lessen the impact of neurological conditions, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s Disease, and psychiatric disturbances, like schizophrenia, autism, depression, and anxiety.
Along with these scientific advances has come tremendous public interest in neuroscience--people want to know how the brain works. Unfortunately, the effort to help quench this thirst for brain facts has sometimes led to oversimplified descriptions and interpretations of data. Claims that dopamine is the chemical of pleasure, the right hemisphere is the well-spring of artistic creativity, serotonin makes us sad, or that the amygdala is the seat of fear, are commonly accepted as scientific truths. On the contrary, these conclusions, while based on scientific findings, are not facts but instead are interpretations.
My m.o. in writing for the general public has always been to try to communicate in a way that is comprehensible to non-scientists, but that is also scientifically correct. In short, my goal is to help people understand scientific findings and their implications, without sacrificing the connection of the implications to the data. There’s nothing wrong with speculation, so long as speculations are not presented as facts.
Those of you who know something about me may be expecting to hear a lot about how the amygdala makes our feelings of fear. As I indicated above, the amygdala is not the seat of fearful experiences. Although this idea is often attributed to me, as I explain in my new book, Anxious: Using the Brain to Help Understand and Treat Fear and Anxiety (Viking, 2015), it is wrong.
Anxious, is, in part, an effort to correct this misunderstanding about the amygdala, but it is much more. In it, I offer a new conception of fear and anxiety, and of emotion in general, parsing the topic in a different way than is currently popular in psychology and neuroscience.
The first few posts of this blog will explain what the amygdala does and doesn’t do, and introduce you to some of the key ideas in Anxious, chapters of which discuss the relation between fear and anxiety, evolution of defensive systems, the nature of consciousness, the role of memory in consciousness, the way feelings of fear and anxiety emerge in the conscious brain, how threats simultaneously but independently give rise to protective defensive reactions and feelings of fear or anxiety. The final three chapters explore implications of my ideas for understanding and treating fear and anxiety disorders.
I will also use this blog to unpack new studies, and especially the way they are portrayed in the popular press. This will, I hope, help readers understand differences between the findings and the interpretations applied to them.
When I’m not writing books and articles, I write songs for my band The Amygdaloids. Our lyrics touch on topics related to mind and brain and mental disorders, and we call our unique genre, “heavy mental.” I will sometimes discuss the relation our songs have to mind and brain science in this blog. The title I chose for the blog, “I Got a Mind to Tell You,” is taken from a song from All in Our Minds, The Amygdaloids’ third CD. “I Got a Mind to Tell You” can be streamed by clicking this link.
FYI. Anxious (the book) has a musical companion, Anxious (the CD), that explores some of the same themes as the book, but through music. The songs from Anxious are freely available by way of a download code in the book’s Preface, or by streaming from The Amygdaloids’ website.
Until next time...