Joseph LeDoux Reports: Emotions Are “Higher-Order States”

LeDoux's new hypothesis is: "A higher-order theory of emotional consciousness."

Posted Feb 15, 2017

Sergey Nivens/Shutterstock
Source: Sergey Nivens/Shutterstock

Emotions are a cognitive process that relies on “higher-order states” embedded in cortical (conscious) brain circuits; emotions are not innately programmed into subcortical (nonconscious) brain circuits, according to a potentially earth-shattering new paper by Joseph LeDoux and Richard Brown

The February 2017 paper, “A Higher-Order Theory of Emotional Consciousness,” was published online today ahead of print in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

This paper was written by neuroscience legend Joseph LeDoux of New York University and Richard Brown, professor of philosophy at the City University of New York's LaGuardia College.

Joseph LeDoux has been working on the link between emotion, memory, and the brain since the 1990s. He's credited with putting the amygdala in the spotlight and making this previously esoteric subcortical brain region a household term. LeDoux founded the Emotional Brain Institute (EBI). He’s also a professor in the Departments of Psychiatry and Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at NYU Langone Medical Center.

Why Is This New Report From LeDoux and Brown Significant?

In the world of cognitive neuroscience, there's an ongoing debate about the interplay between emotional states of consciousness (or feelings) within cortical and subcortical brain regions. (Most experts believe that cortical brain regions house “thinking” neural circuits within the cerebral cortex. Subcortical brain regions are considered to be housed in “non-thinking” neural circuits beneath the 'thinking cap' of the cerebral cortex.)

In a statement to New York University, LeDoux said,

"We argue that conscious experiences, regardless of their content, arise from one system in the brain. Specifically, the differences between emotional and non-emotional states are the kinds of inputs that are processed by a general cortical network of cognition, a network essential for conscious experiences."

Some cognitive scientists believe that human emotions are innately programmed into subcortical brain regions and operate separately from cortical brain circuits. Based on this assumption, emotional states of consciousness are often treated differently than cognitive states of consciousness rooted in cortical circuits.

In the abstract of their recent report, LeDoux and Brown write, “In this paper, we challenge the conventional view, which argues that emotions are innately programmed in subcortical circuits, and propose instead that emotions are higher-order states instantiated in cortical circuits.”

After reviewing a wide range of existing scholarship on both cognition and emotion, LeDoux and Brown conclude that the architecture for emotions is more about "process" and less about structure. They argue that although emotional experiences may originate in subcortical regions—while nonemotional experiences may originate in cortical regions—both types of input are ultimately processed by cortical circuits in the cerebral cortex.

Therefore, LeDoux and Brown assert that both emotional and nonemotional conscious experiences (regardless of their content) arise from one brain system—or general cortical network of cognition—which is essential for all conscious experiences. In their latest paper, LeDoux and Brown write,

“Although subcortical circuits are not directly responsible for conscious feelings, they provide nonconscious inputs that coalesce with other kinds of neural signals in the cognitive assembly of conscious emotional experiences.

In building the case for this proposal, we defend a modified version of what is known as the higher-order theory of consciousness.”

Although emotional feelings have a profound impact on every aspect of our daily lives, until now, there’s been very little integration of ‘theories of consciousness’ and 'theories of emotion.’

Unlike present theories of consciousness, LeDoux and Brown view emotional states as similar to other states of consciousness. Their new hypothesis tweaks a well-known theory of consciousness called “higher-order theory.” LeDoux and Brown conclude: Emotions are "higher-order states" embedded in cortical circuits.

By expanding on existing models of consciousness to encompass the conscious emotional experiences that bubble up from nonconscious subcortical brain circuits, LeDoux and Brown are breaking new ground. This is exciting stuff! Stay tuned for more on this topic. 


Joseph E. LeDoux and Richard Brown. A higher-order theory of emotional consciousness. PNAS 2017; published ahead of print February 15, 2017, DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1619316114