A Neuroscientist Who Makes Music
Joseph LeDoux is a professor and a member of the Center for Neural Science and Department of Psychology at NYU. His work is focused on the brain mechanisms of emotion and memory. In addition to articles in scholarly journals, he is author of "The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life" and "Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are." He is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a fellow of the New York Academy of Science, a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Science, and the recipient of the 2005 Fyssen International Prize in Cognitive Science. LeDoux is also a singer and songwriter in the rock band, The Amygdaloids.
Professor LeDoux is a Big Think Delphi Fellow.
Question: Why did you first start playing music?
Joseph LeDoux: Well, I think in the early ‘60s, everyone had a folk guitar. I grew up in south Louisiana where music is very big, Cajun music and so forth. Of course, I wanted nothing to do with that when I was growing up, but the folk revolution had taken place and so everybody had folk guitars, they were learning Simon and Garfunkel. I had just got a Facebook message from someone I had went to high school with asking me if I remembered the day we played at the school auditorium where we played “Sounds of Silence” and I did remember that because I could never play that B flat cord with my young hands at that point.
So, yeah, I started then and then I was taking a bath and had a transistor radio one night and “I Saw Her Standing There” came on the radio and that kind of like changed my life, the “Beatles” had come to town and so then we threw away our acoustics and go electric guitars, formed a band and started playing around town. We had a couple of bands. There was my band and then this other group. We kind of tended more towards the more bluesy “Rolling Stones” kind of stuff and the other band was actually better and they could play all the “Beatles” songs and sing them. We couldn’t actually achieve that, so we said we’re going to be more authentic. We’re going to be more bluesy and these other guys can be just “Beatles” copies, but they were much better.
I’m actually in touch with a couple of the guys from the other band, again through Facebook and things. So, yeah, I always loved music. I became a disc jockey in the local town in this Louisiana, I think my senior year in high school and had a radio show and I think Friday nights and Sunday morning something like that. And then went off to college and had one little brief band thing there, which is kind of prophetic in the sense that we called ourselves “Cerebellum and the Medullas.” At that point I was studying marketing and business and I had no inclination of being a scientist. It wasn’t like I was into that whole brain thing at that point, but at some point I did switch gears. I got a masters in marketing and while I was doing that, I became interesting in psychology and started studying psychology and took a course with a guy studying the brain, and just threw all the other stuff away. I wasn’t that into the marketing anyway. And the brain just seemed like an amazing thing to study, so I said, "That’s what I want to do."
But you know, for the rest of most of my adult life, I didn’t play guitar. I had it around but I didn’t do much with it. And at some point I just picked it up again and started taking lessons and started getting more into it. And started picking around with Tyler Volk, who is a biology professor at NYU, and we used to just get together and jam and you know, dream about having a band someday.
And then in the fall of 2006, I got an invitation to give a lecture at the Secret Science Club in Brooklyn, it was held in the basement of the Union Hall in Park Slope, a tiny little room. So, I gave the lecture and they said, well we’ll get some entertainment. And I said, well I’ll bring the entertainment. And so Tyler and I decided to go off and try this out and so we recruited Daniela Shiller who is the post-doc and we knew she played drums, and she had played with us on a couple of occasions at parties and stuff. And she happened to have a research assistant named, Nina Curley, who played bass. So, you know, we practiced a couple of times, headed out to Brooklyn, and Amygdaloids were born at that moment.
Question: What is your newest album about?
Joseph LeDoux: Both of our albums, the songs are about research. They’re all mind, brain, mental disorder related songs. So, the first album, the kind of signature song and kind of the band theme song is “All in a Nut,” which is a tribute to the amygdala is the almond in your brain. Amygdala means almond, it’s a Greek word for almond. So, that was one. We wrote a song called, “An Emotional Brain,” which is a takeoff on “The Emotional Brain,” which is all about different kind of mental disorders and facial expressions of emotions, things like that. We had this pretty good song called “My Body Problem,” which is a tribute to Descartes. All our songs are love songs really, so the “Mind Body Problem” is “My body wants you so, but my brain says, no.” “Inside of Me,” is another Descartesian song where it’s about you can’t see inside of me, it’s a place I can only be because, you know, Descartes' view of the mind, only you can know your own mind, and you can’t know the mind of anyone else directly. And we also had a song called “Memory Pill,” which is about erasing memory through drugs and so forth, and that is related to all of this research I was just talking about. So, then we did that in sort of a vanity press kind of album, at least we paid for it ourselves, and it came out really well.
And then we met some folks who were interested in using music as a therapeutic device, and they came across me and my research and music and they decided that they wanted to do a CD with the band and their company is called Knock Out Noise, they’re a small record production company. And so we talked about concept and so forth and over time, we came to terms and they produced the second CD. It took a couple of years to kind of do the whole thing. It was ready much earlier than that, but we did a lot of post-production cleaning up and stuff, and added some songs at the last minute that we didn’t have originally on it. And the original idea for that CD was going to be to call it “Brain Storm,” but then we decided to change it to something else that had a more of serious scientific edge to it, so it’s called “Theory of my Mind.” It’s based on theory of mind idea, which is that in order for us to have social interactions, we have to have a theory of what’s in the other person’s mind so we can anticipate their behavior on the basis of what we know about them and their emotional responses and so forth.
And I was in Cambridge, England on sabbatical last spring where Simon Baron Cohen is. He’s the main guy of “Theory of Mind in Autism.” And so I actually recorded Simon on bass and one of his colleagues, Bishma on tabla, and layered that on top of the recordings that we have of the “Theory of My Mind,” it sounds really good. So, it’s “Theory of My Mind” which is like in a love song, "You don’t understand me, you don’t have a theory of my mind," and blah, blah, blah.
So that’s the title song of the CD. We’re really fortunate on this CD to have Rosanne Cash singing two songs with me as my backup vocalist, not bad. And she sings on “Mind over Matter,” which is my favorite song and everyone who hears it says, if we have a hit, this is the one that would be a hit. It’s a really nice kind of airy song and that’s the one I’ll sing for you in a few minutes.
It’s 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. Another song on the CD that Rosanne sings on is, it’s funny that she sings on it because as I was writing it and kind of getting the music out for it, I was sort of in my mind imagining, channeling Johnny Cash, and it’s a song about a guy who’s in prison on death row. And the reason I wrote this song is, I’ve gotten a number of letters and emails from people on death row asking for help in their defense because something called the Amygdala Defense has emerged, which is: "I didn’t do it, my amygdala did." And unfortunately for them, I don’t think that the amygdala can actually commit a crime. I think it’s possible for crimes to be committed or complex behaviors to be controlled unconsciously, but it’s not the amygdala that’s doing it. The amygdala is responding to sudden threats and producing automatic rapid responses, mostly innate hardwired response. So, I don’t think my expertise can really help them. But I do think that there is an argument can be made that a person can commit a crime of passion that’s outside of their control because either they’re under tremendous stress or the factors that cause them to do things that they wouldn’t ordinarily do.
Now, the bottom line problem is, how do you prove that in this particular case, that’s what went on, or is that just a convenient thing to say after the fact. So, that’s why I try not to get involved in legal things because I don’t’ think I could say one way or another in this particular case, or in any case, that this is definitely what was going on. But I do think the court should take that into account and be kind of hip to the fact that the brain can do things unconsciously and should weight that as part of the evidence.
So in “Crime of Passion,” the guy catches his wife with someone else and kills the other guy and so he’s kind of singing to the wife from prison saying, you know, "You’re not worth what I’m going through." And so it’s not a, "Oh I love you so much and how could you do this to me?" It’s about, "Why did I do this, you’re not worth it."
Question: How is your music related to your work as a neuroscientist?
Joseph LeDoux: The reason I’m doing what I’m doing now is I’m trying to integrate the science and the music into a kind of seamless whole, because music is such a powerful communicator. And I’ve written books like, “The Emotional Brain” and “Synaptic Self” that have been translated into dozens of languages each and they’ve been really good sellers, but I think we can reach a different audience with music. So, I’m not saying I can convey as much in a song as I can in a book, or even a book chapter, but I might be able to trigger an interesting spark or idea in someone that might not be prone to pick up a book. So, well, "What is the mind/body problem?” or "How do emotions come out of the brain?" or "Can a crime of passion really be committed?" And to pick up a book or do some research on the Internet and it’s kind of like raising awareness of the brain through music.
And so I do think that music is just really powerful, but personally, I’ve never been inclined to study it, I just haven’t been – It’s not what I’ve been doing and there are enough people that are doing that pretty well that I leave that to them. And so I just use the music as a vehicle or tool to convey the scientific information, although I’m not studying it myself.
Interviewed by Austin Allen
Joseph LeDoux talks about his band, the Amygdaloids, whose songs are about the mind and brain.
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