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  • NYS Writers Institute

Neurobiologist / musician Joseph LeDoux on anxiety and fear

In this age of anxiety about COVID-19, we checked in with neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux, preeminent authority on the neurobiology of fear and anxiety.

Joseph LeDoux, authof of "Anxious"

LeDoux visited the Writers Institute at UAlbany in 2016, with lessons that are relevant today for understanding our biological responses to fear.

Joseph “Boo” LeDoux
Joseph “Boo” LeDoux

Even before LeDoux got his PhD from SUNY Stony Brook (where he worked with pioneering cognitive neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga), he already had considerable experience in the subject. His father was self-described "swamp-cowboy" Boo LeDoux, a rodeo bull rider who rode at the age of 60 just to prove he could.

A Louisiana native, Joseph LeDoux grew up in “swamp pop” and Cajun musical traditions, and is cofounder, guitarist, and lyricist for the band The Amygdaloids, which explores neuroscientific subjects through music. You can check out one of their music video for the track "Map of Your Mind" on YouTube.

The Amygdaloids released an album, Anxious, as a companion to the book which brought LeDoux to the NYS Writers Institute, Anxious: Using the Brain to Understand and Treat Fear and Anxiety (2015).

He is currently the director of the Emotional Brain Institute (EBI) at New York University. EBI is a partnership between the university and the State of New York that explores the impact of emotions on our behavior.

Joseph LeDoux's "The Deep History of Ourselves"

Q: Any fresh news from your life?

My new book, The Deep History of Ourselves: The Four-Billion-Year Story of How We Got Conscious Brains, came out in August 2019. The book explores the entire history of life for the purpose of trying to understand how behavior, cognition, and eventually reflective self-awareness arose.

It had a great start, and I approached 2020 with optimism. The "virus" has hurt so many, and seems it will impact many more before it is over. Life became so different so fast!

Q: How should we think about and manage fear in the age of COVID-19?

One of the surest things about fear is that it is contagious. Another is that it's useful. But of course we can have too much of a good thing, and it's not easy to find the sweet spot. I find it useful to watch or listen to guided sessions on deep breathing or on simple meditations. They seem to help slow down the Indy 500 of scary thoughts running through my mind.

Q: Is there any action you would like us all to take at the present time?

I think Governor Cuomo has stepped up to the plate emphasizing that we keep our distance as long as it takes, and it may take a while. We're lucky to have him in control in this situation, and hopefully he can compensate for the incompetence of [others in power]. But beyond staying physically isolated, we should remain as socially connected as possible. There are so many digital options to stay in touch with friends and support each other.

Q: Is there anything you'd like us to share from your work?

My favorite part of my new book, The Deep History of Ourselves is the Epilogue. I think it really pulled the book together and extended the implications of the future of humans, and whether we will have one.

Q: Any words of wisdom for us?

A couple of weeks ago I came across a quote by Roland Barthes, who said something like "it is language which speaks, not the author." I sort of feel that way, and I claim no wisdom in my writing, as it is driven by my non-conscious thoughts. Those thoughts are part of me, but not the me that is conscious of what I am doing. All of which is to say, I am very happy with the book that my non-conscious thoughts generated. I hope they are working on another right now!


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