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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Review for The Emotional Brain, 26 Nov 2010
This review is from: The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life (Paperback)
In Joseph LeDoux's book, The Emotional Brain, he tries to track down which part(s) of the brain emotions come from. The book was intended to be easily accessible for both beginners and those that have experience in the subject. Unfortunately, Mr. LeDoux only partially succeeds in that goal. He uses technical terms in discussing the brain, and for the most part, defines the terms the first time they are used. However, regardless of his attempts to make his book accessible to the average reader, his discussion of the history of research into the brain can still seem rather intimidating and complex at times. Adding to the confusion of discussing current theories in a historical context are his tangents. In one instance, Mr. LeDoux was discussing "working memory." He does a good job of concisely explaining what working memory is, but then goes on unnecessarily for half a page about the discovery of working memory.
The beginning of The Emotional Brain is almost exclusively about the research, experiments, and theories of other scientists and facts that have already been proven about the brain. Many times, the theories he discusses have already been disproven, making it rather pointless to be telling the reader. When discussing other theories, Mr. LeDoux is very inconsistent with discussing both its merits and drawbacks. When he disagrees with a theory, he discusses both its strengths and its weaknesses in great detail. However, if Mr. LeDoux agrees with a theory he tends to discuss its strengths in detail, but glosses over the weaknesses. It isn't until about the fifth chapter that the reader finally gets to read about Mr. LeDoux's own opinions, theories, and research. Even then, the chapters tend to begin with a history of how that particular topic was covered, so Mr. LeDoux only talks about his own experiments and opinions in the second half of the chapter. When he does talk about his experiments though, he goes into great detail so the reader can follow exactly what he did and why it proved his theory right or how it led to a discovery.
Regardless of the length of time it takes for Mr. LeDoux to start discussing his own opinions, when he does, he makes it very clear what theories he believes to be true. Mr. LeDoux says that emotion is primarily an unconscious phenomenon, therefore "there is more to an emotion than what we can glean from our introspections about it" (68) and that it must "be viewed from an evolutionary perspective" (99). He also believes that emotions are not all mediated by the same system in the brain, rather that each emotion is separate in the brain from all the others. Fear, Mr. LeDoux says, is the easiest emotion to study, mainly because it is prevalent in both humans and other animals. Therefore, most of his own studies center on that one emotion in the hopes that when he discovers where fear comes from, it will lead him to finding the areas that other emotions come from.
The theory that Mr. LeDoux feels is the strongest is that the amygdala is the originating point for emotion in all mammals (including in humans). Through his research, which he takes the reader through in great detail, he has discovered that many mammals seem to hear sounds and see sights before their forebrain registers the events. This, he says, is necessary for the survival of an animal in the wild, however can be detrimental to humans who do not tend to need to react instinctively and immediately to every potential threat. Mr. LeDoux explains, "it seem[s] that the auditory stimulus might travel from the thalamus to the lateral nucleus of the amygdala. To test this hypothesis, I made lesions in the lateral nucleus. Like central amygdala lesions, these interfered with fear conditioning" (159).
The book is very well structured. Each of the nine chapters (named rather abstractly) could be its own book. They all connect, but don't need the preceding or following chapters as support. Yet when Mr. LeDoux mentions an idea that has been previously discussed or will be discussed in a later chapter, he never fails to let the reader know in which chapter they can find the elaboration on the idea. In addition, each chapter is broken up into sub-chapters of about 2-10 pages long, making the book much easier to read. Unlike the abstract titles of the chapters, like "Souls on Ice"(22), these sub-chapters have titles that hint to the reader what Mr. LeDoux will be discussing next, like the title, "The Fear System and Specific Anxiety Disorders" (252).
The writing style Mr. LeDoux uses throughout the book is an attempt to pull the reader in by having them be able to relate with what he is saying. One method he uses is to put in examples that human beings are able to relate to when he discusses both his and other scientists' theories. He also has interesting quotes at the beginning of each chapter from well-known people such as Woody Allen, Emily Dickinson, and Leonardo da Vinci that somehow create a link to the upcoming chapter. After the quote, the chapter always begins with a very general and easily understandable comment about either science or aspects of life (which in turn, lead to something about science). All these aspects of the book help the reader to remain engaged with what Mr. LeDoux is saying.
Overall, I found the book to be very informative for an intermediate audience, but not for beginners. The book was structured well, but the thoughts tended to be slightly scattered. In order to be clearer to his audience, Mr. LeDoux should have gotten rid of his tangents and, since the book was not intended to be a history of the emotional mind, included less historical background. He did do a very good job of explaining the experiments in detail that could be easily followed by the reader. In the end, I found that The Emotional Mind by Joseph LeDoux is a good book with clear ideas, but can be slightly difficult to follow.
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