Heavy Mental: The Message is in the Music

Fear and anxiety are contagious. This is why fear works so well as a political tool. The result is that anxious people make up anxious societies and cultures. We need to teach societies as well as individuals to regulate their emotions.
07/24/2007 03:46 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

You know the old saying, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." For many people, though, it is broken, and we need to fix it. What's broken is the brain, especially the emotional brain, and the consequence is a life dominated by mental suffering.

Emotions monopolize brain resources. That's a good thing when you're trying to stay alive in the face of a bloodthirsty beast or other life threatening dangers, but not so good when unwanted emotions intrude and persist, and disrupt daily life. Emotions are what make life worth living, but they also make life difficult sometimes.

Key components of the emotional brain are not that different in humans and other mammals. You'd guess that we'd be OK--that we could just use our highly advanced thinking brain, which is unique in the animal kingdom, to control our emotions. But that doesn't work so well. At this stage in our evolutionary history there's not much in the way of connectivity that makes it possible for the thinking brain to control the emotional brain with ease. That's why there are so many therapists. Their job is to help people find ways of connecting thoughts and emotions, and changing behavior, from the outside, since the brain systems involved are not well integrated inside.

There's another problem with the thinking brain, a kind of side of effect of one of its best features -- its capacity to anticipate the future. Predicting the future is good, except when we worry excessively about what might happen and are unable to function in the present because of our anxiety about the future. We can even be worry and be anxious about things that are unlikely, and also physically impossible. No other animal has a brain that can do this, at least not to the extent we can.

Of the many kinds of emotional problems that humans have, fear and anxiety are especially interesting and important. For one thing, the fear and anxiety disorders together make up the most commonly experienced psychiatric conditions. More than 40 million Americans suffer from problems related to fear or anxiety, at a cost of $50 billion per year. Nevertheless, anxiety is often not taken that seriously as a medical problem, at least not as seriously as some other conditions. The debilitating effects of anxiety are more subtle than many other conditions, since anxious kids usually stay in school and anxious adults often remain in the workforce. But the diminished capacities that result can have profound implications for their ability to interact with those around them and be productive.

Living under constant fear and anxiety, under stress, is really bad for the brain. Brain cells in key areas involved in memory and thinking suffer under prolonged stress, and can even die. A little anxiety is a good thing. It gives you a competitive edge. But as the level of anxiety rises, memory and thinking falter, and negative emotional states begin to dominate. While we all suffer from anxiety to some degree some of the time, some people aren't able to cope well. For the millions who have anxiety disorders, help is needed.

The good news is that much has been learned about the brain mechanisms of fear and anxiety through animal studies. This is one of the most advanced areas of brain science. The leap to anxiety disorders is beginning to be made, but is not quite there. In contrast to schizophrenia, autism or depression, which are extremely complex, it would not take much of a research push (a dedicated pool of funds) to make substantial progress on fear and anxiety disorders. Fear and anxiety are what you might call "low fruit" in the world of psychiatric disease--they are hanging there waiting to be picked. The fact that the fear system of the brain is one of the ones that is not that different in humans and other mammals makes it possible to learn a tremendous amount about an important human disorder from animal research. By building on the progress that we've made through animal studies we could easily get to the next level in understanding the emotional functions and dysfunctions of the human brain.

I've recently begun setting up an Emotional Brain Institute (EBI). My collaborator in this partnership between New York University and New York State is Dr. Harold Koplewicz, Chair of Adolescent and Child Psychiatry at NYU. Our goal in the EBI is to take on questions about how fear and anxiety work in the brain. We will be hiring new researchers to take on this challenge. We are especially interested in how fear and anxiety develop in early life and we plan to examine the contributions of both genetics and individual learning experiences. One of our long range goals is to initiate programs that will teach children how to regulate their emotions early in life, so that they can use these skills as they face social and academic stress in their school years, and also in later life. We should make stress reduction a way of life from the beginning rather than a desperate move after one is already afflicted. We need more research to make this practical. But it is an achievable goal.

Fear and anxiety are contagious. This is why fear works so well as a political tool. The result is that anxious people make up anxious societies and cultures. In a global world where we are digitally informed of events instantaneously, and fear motivates political decisions, anxiety becomes a way of life. Al Gore discusses the politics of fear in his new book, and builds on some of my research findings about the fear system in doing so. We need to teach societies as well as individuals to regulate their emotions.

Speaking of books, I've written a couple that share research in my field with the lay public. But recently I've come to believe that music is a novel and fun medium for teaching about how the brain works and what goes wrong. I'm in a band called The Amygdaloids, named after the part of the brain that I work on, the amygdala, which contributes to fear and other emotions. We Amygdaloids are all NYU scientists and we play music about mind and brain and mental disorders. We call our music "heavy mental." The other band members are Tyler Volk (guitarist and Professor of Biology and Environmental Sciences), Daniela Schiller (drummer and cognitive neuroscience postdoctoral fellow), and Nina Curley (bass player and graduate student in cognitive neuroscience).

It's amazing how you can communicate the gist of a scientific point in a three-minute song. A person who reads a chapter in one of my books before dozing off at night gets the gist of the chapter, but so does the person rocking to the sounds of The Amygdaloids in a dark Greenwich Village cafe. Guess who has more fun.

We've just about finished our CD, Heavy Mental, which should be ready by September 2007. In the meantime, some of the songs from the CD can be heard here. Our signature song is "All in a Nut," named for the amygdala (from the Greek, meaning almond). So why do we feel so afraid? It's all in a nut. As we all know, "An Emotional Brain" is a hard thing to tame. Listen to the song to know why. Philosophers have long argued about the relation of mind to body. The protagonist of "Mind Body Problem" faces this deep dilemma. His ex-girlfriend, after jilting him, wants to come back--his body wants her so but his mind says no. Another philosophical point is Descartes' idea that we have privileged access to our own thoughts, and that no one else can be in there. As "Inside of Me" explains, "you can't see inside of me, that's a place, only I can be." Past lovers often leave strong and enduring memories. "A Trace" tells a story about this. Memory researchers in the know will figure out that the scientific theme underlying this song is the dominant trace theory. Sometimes we have memories that we can't get rid of. In post-traumatic stress disorder, these can be debilitating. We've done research in rats showing that a specific memory can be deleted by carefully timing the retrieval of that memory with a drug, a so-called "Memory Pill," hence the name of that song. "Extinction" is a different sort of thing. It was written by Tyler Volk, the other guitar player. Tyler's a biologist with a strong interest in the environment, but is a closet cognitive scientist. His song blends these interests, telling the story of human extinction, and our replacement by androids, hairless and brainless cyborgs that rule the earth with their superior electronic minds. In a nutshell, that's Heavy Mental.

Some relevant websites:

For those who would rather read, or who might want to add a little extra meat to the music, check out:

Joseph LeDoux (1996) The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life (Simon and Schuster, New York).

Joseph LeDoux (2002) Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are (Viking, New York).