Semantics and the Brain

Joseph E. LeDoux, ‘Semantics, Surplus Meaning, and the Science of Fear’, Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 21 (2017), 303-6.

LeDoux is bothered that the neuropsychology of fear, his own field, is a misnomer. There are subjective states, like fear, and there are ‘brain circuits that control them nonconsciously’, and there are links between them. However, if you call what the brain circuits are doing ‘fear’ then quite distinct things are being confused. This affects the popular reception of scientific research, and quite understandably scientists sometimes go along with it.
      LeDoux tells his own story: ‘The vernacular meaning of emotion words is simply too strong. When we hear the word “fear”, the default interpretation is the conscious experience of being in danger, and this meaning dominates. For example, although I consistently emphasized that the amygdala circuits operate nonconsciously, I was often described in both lay and scientific contexts as having shown how feelings of fear emerge from the amygdala.’
      Now he advocates only using fear to refer to the experience of fear — to the thing it inevitably evokes. The relevant bits of the amygdala are now called ‘a defensive survival circuit’. One of the important things LeDoux pushes against is the idea that the amygdala version of ‘fear’ is a more precise and concrete version of the subjective experience version of ‘fear’. They’re different things, he says, and the general use of ‘fear’ is suited to its task. He goes on to cite other similar terms: ‘motivation, reward, pain, perception, and memory’.
      It feels cheeky to write the phrase, ‘I have thought similar things myself before’, but I have. Especially about popular media reception of psychology, where they leap to tell us where love happens in the brain, and so on. On the other hand, I think that as long as the links between brain, mind, and world are made intelligently and with proper awareness, they are a source of good things too. I like the creative tension.

E-mail me at rtrl100[at]cam.ac.uk

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