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A Not-So-Short Circuit?

As neuroscientists look to the future of their field, they are beginning to delve into more complex factors that define our emotions and intentions.

Fifteen years after writing the influential book The Emotional Brain (1996), on the neurobiology of emotion, New York University neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux is rethinking his approach. “I’m not even using the word emotion anymore,” he says.

LeDoux and some of his contemporaries have instead shifted to studying the neurophysiology behind behaviors that are central to an organism’s or species’ existence. “I think it’s wrong to study joy or pleasure,” says LeDoux. “Those are abstractions of things that are happening at a much more basic level.” He’s more interested in asking questions like, “What’s in the brain that’s keeping the rat alive?” LeDoux argues that survival instincts—such as the desire for food or sex—are strongly conserved across species. Humans alone have abstracted these desires into words like love or hurt, which may not reflect the underlying biological impulse. “Behaviors are species-specific, but the fundamental function of the [neural] circuit is general,” says LeDoux. He thinks that studying these conserved circuits will be more helpful in revealing how we process the needs that we express as feelings. “I think we’ve only scratched the surface of emotion in the brain,” he says.

When Columbia University neuroscientist Eric Kandel went looking for the neurological circuit for memory in sea slugs, he turned to the defensive reflex of learned fear—one of the strongest and most easily made memories. His Nobel Prize-winning work to define the neural circuit involved in that behavior became a model for many others. But researchers are now beginning to look beyond the circuit.

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