Joseph LeDoux

March 27, 2024

Official Story

Joseph LeDoux received undergraduate and master’s degrees from Louisiana State University (1971 and 1974), and a PhD from what is now known as Stony Brook University (1978). He spent ten years in the Neurobiology Lab at Cornell Medical school, and in 1989 joined the new Center for Neural Science at NYU as the first outside hire. Currently, he is a University Professor and Henry and Lucy Moses Professor of Science at NYU in the Center for Neural Science and Psychology. He is also a Professor of Psychiatry and Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at NYU Langone Medical School. His work is focused on the brain mechanisms of emotion, memory, and consciousness. LeDoux has received international awards for his research and is also an elected member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is the author of several books, including The Emotional Brain, Synaptic Self, Anxious, The Deep History of Ourselves, and The Four Realms of Existence, and co-author of The Integrated Mind (1978) and is a co-author of Against Happiness (2023). LeDoux did his PhD studying consciousness in split-brain patients. Although was particularly interested in emotional consciousness in humans, the tools available for studying the human brain were quite limited in the late 70s and early 80s. As a result, chose to study how the brain controls emotional behaviors in rodents using Pavlovian fear conditioning as a tool for tracing neural circuits. Although he had a large role in shaping the “amygdala fear center” idea, late in his career he rejected this notion and offered an alternative view in which defensive behaviors occur in parallel to cognitively constructed conscious feelings of fear. He closed his lab at NYU in August 2023 and will officially retire in August 2025.

Unofficial Story

My father, Boo LeDoux, rode bulls as teenager during the Great Depression, and then, after a back-damaging fall from one of the beasts, he returned to Eunice, a small town in the region of southwest Louisiana known as Cajun Country, and took over has father’s meat market. Much of his life was shaped by his notion of himself as a cowboy, which he truly was. At the age of 60, he took up bull riding again for several years, stopping only because my mother, Pris, the face of the business and the accountant, threatened to divorce him. To the extent that I had a job in the market it was to peel away the tough, inedible sheet of tissue covering the brain and remove the lead bullet with my tiny fingers—customers did not fancy chomping down on lead when they ate sautéed brains. It was intensely satisfying to pull the two halves of the brain apart, exposing a tennis-racket-looking structure and its wrinkly decoration. Later in life, I learned the tough tissue is the dura mater, the bullet was lodged in the prefrontal cortex (PFC), the tennis racket is the brainstem, and its wrinkly decoration is the cerebellum. That had no impact on my career choice, but it certainly gave me a leg up when I became a neuroscientist. I never aspired to be a scientist. And no one who knew me in Eunice would’ve guessed that I'd end up in that line of work. I was a decent student, but not a great one, and science was neither one of my better nor favorite subjects. The main thing I cared about was music. There was Cajun and country music galore in Eunice. But as long as I can remember, I loved pop music. In high school I was in rock ‘n’ roll bands, was a DJ, and dreamed of being a musician. In college, other than a “physics for dummies’” kind of class—an elective for non-majors— I took no other science courses. That was easy, since I majored in business administration, and then proceeded to get a master’s degree in marketing. Yet, less than four years later, I had a PhD for discoveries I made about human consciousness in the brains of neurological patients. After that, I spent the rest of my career working on the brain mechanisms of emotion and memory in rodents to better understand human emotional behavior. In my late 50s, my success as a neuroscientist made it possible for me to actually become a musician and even a song writer. That may seem like an odd consequence of being a neuroscientist, but that’s what happened. In 2006, I formed a band with Tyler Volk (Professor of Biology) on lead guitar, Daniela Schiller (post-doc) on drums, and Nina Curly (Daniela’s research assistant) on bass. I played rhythm guitar and wrote songs about mind and brain, a genre that came to be called “heavy mental”. We mostly played for lab parties. But one thing led to another, and we started playing in clubs in NYC and decided to record our music. The title of the first album was, of course, Heavy Mental. The Amygdaloids really caught on. In the early days, we were written about widely in the popular press the New York Times, Salon, and the Huffington Post and PNAS even had a news story titled The Amygdaloids. Our music videos have been viewed many times (one about ninety thousand times) on The Amygdaloids YouTube channel. Often when I am asked to give a lecture, the hosts request the band. I offer instead Colin Dempsey, the band’s current bass player, and my partner in the acoustic duo, So We Are. We have played acoustic versions of The Amygdaloids heavy mental catalog in Rome, Mexico City, Stockholm, and many other places. Our next gig is in Rio in June 2024. The band’s second album, Theory of My Mind, was produced in 2010 by an organization called Knockout Noise. In 2017, they decided to follow up with a documentary about my early life in South Louisiana Cajun country, my research, and my musical career. Featured were neuroscientists (Mike Gazzaniga, Eric Kandel, Daniela Schiller, Liz Phelps) and musicians (Rosanne Cash, Lenny Kaye). It can be seen on Amazon. During that same time, Lynne Kaufman, a San Francisco playwright, wrote to me saying she was working on a musical about a PTSD therapy group session and came across my research on traumatic memory reconsolidation and my music. She thought that my song Map of Your Mind might be a good fit and asked if she could use it. I told her she could use as many of my songs as she liked. As a result, lyrical content of fifteen of my songs were used to create the narrative arc of the musical. We did a staged reading in San Francisco and are currently working on a performance in New York.