Connected \\ October 25, 2017

Joe Ledoux explains fear

Why are we drawn to horror movies? In his essay in the exhibition catalog for It's Alive! Classic Horror and Sci-Fi Art from the Kirk Hammett Collection, renowned neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux quotes Emily Dickinson’s poem “While we were fearing it, it came.” It's a line that could be overlaid on a horror movie trailer to build's also the topic of some of LeDoux's most complex research.

Professor LeDoux is the Henry and Lucy Moses Professor of Science at New York University in the Center for Neural Science and directs the Emotional Brain Institute of New York University and the Nathan Kline Institute. Like Kirk Hammett, LeDoux plays guitar in a band. Called The Amygdaloids, their lyrics, mostly written by LeDoux, are based on neuroscientific, psychological and philosophical themes. Albums have included All in Our Minds, an EP in which all songs had “mind” in their title and Anxious, a companion to LeDoux’s book with the same title.

There are certain things that our brains are wired to respond to, says LeDoux, and filmmakers of the horror genre have figured out just how to capitalize on these triggers, such as sudden noises. We caught up with the busy neuroscientist to answer some of our burning questions about why we fear fear and why that scares us...

Q: Why is the unknown and the imagined more terrifying and exciting than reality?

A: The human brain's greatest asset and flaw is its ability to anticipate the future. This allows us to do amazing things, but also allows us to worry. Emily Dickinson was supposedly a very fearful and anxious person.  In her case, she found the worry to be more disruptive than the actual eventuality.  Personally, I always found horror films where the bad stuff was all the anticipation much more terrifying than the current approach where it all ends up in your face.

Q: In your work, you mention the possibility to change a memory every time it is recalled. With this in mind, could one place fear into previously benign memory? If so, is it safe to experiment with this idea? How do we then reinterpret what is real and what was constructed?


Courtesy The Center for Neural Science at New York University

A: Every memory is in fact a kind of reconstruction based on bits and pieces of the experience that are stored and retrieved. This allows us to update memories in light of new experiences. But the price for that advantage is that sometimes the memory changes in ways that are unfaithful to the original experience. And yes, a memory of something benign can become bad; if you meet someone and they are perfectly nice, but then you find out some disturbing thing about their past, you may come to treat them with caution later.

Q: Is there a way to “hack” your brain to overcome or drive out certain fears?

A: We are trying to find tricks like this. The recoding of memory after retrieval is an example. Other things are in the works. But most of this is not ready for prime time. Probably the best thing that we can all do is find ways to gradually acclimate to bad things. This is how exposure therapy works. For little things you don't need a therapist. You can self expose. But if you are really having a problem, professional help is best.

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Unleash your own fearful imagery at the poster creation station the It's Alive! exhibition. Photo credit Bob Packert/PEM

Q: Emotions like fear and have distinct soundtracks. How does your band The Amygdaloids use your additional knowledge about how the brain perceives emotion to its advantage?

A: We started out by doing covers of songs about mind and brain and mental disorders (Manic Depression, Mother's Little Helper, 19th Nervous Breakdown.) Then I just sort of said, hey we can write songs like that. Six or so albums resulted.

Q: If you and The Amygdaloids had to write a neuroscience-laden song about your experience writing for the It’s Alive! catalog, what would you call it? Does a lyric come to mind?

A: Zombie Love.


To read an interview with Steve Almond, who also wrote an essay for the It’s Alive! exhibition catalog, please go HERE. The exhibition runs through November 26, 2017.

Jennifer Juan participated in PEM’s 2017 Native American Fellow program in the museum’s public relations department. She has worked as a Museum Specialist at the Tohono O’odham Nation Cultural Center & Museum for the last 12 years. Juan’s work has focused on educational programs and exhibitions for the tribal community and the general public. She has been published in the Journal of Folklore and Education. Her coauthored article, Native Eyes: Honoring the Power of Coming Together was highlighted in the AAM Center for the Future of Museums blog (December 2016). She is currently completing her Museum Studies program at the Institute of American Indian Arts.

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