Thoughts on the Nature of Emotions

Jill Littrell, PhD

I recently finished reading Joseph LeDoux’s wonderful book Anxious: Using the Brain to Understand and Treat Fear and Anxiety.  LeDoux has written numerous books and articles on fear over many decades now, with an accessible that makes neuroanatomy and neuroscience easy to understand.  LeDoux studies the brain, but readers of this site would want to know that he is dubious about drugs being the answer to ameliorating anxiety or fear.  He raises questions regarding which domains of behavior belong to the brain and which domains belong to mind.

A little background on Joe LeDoux is appropriate for those who have not followed his work.

Split Brain Research

Under his doctoral mentor Michael Gazzaniga, LeDoux worked with split-brain patients.  Persons with intractable epilepsy sometimes have axons connecting the two sides of cortex severed, so that seizure activity can no longer spread from one side of the brain to the other.  For most functions of daily life these patients are fine.  However, the fact that the right brain does not know what the left is doing leads to some interesting phenomena.  In fact, language – that is the ability to comment on what one is doing – is housed in the left side of the brain in most of us.  Information from the right field of vision goes to the left brain where it can be commented on.  Information from the left field of vision goes to the right side of the brain, where it can be acted upon but not commented on.  It is possible to set up screens so that visual information only goes to one side of the cortex.

Numerous experiments have been conducted in which stimuli presented to the right brain induces an action and then the left side of the brain is asked “why did you do this?”  LeDoux and Gazzaniga reflect on the fact that no one is ever puzzled by the question.  Rather, the left brain comes up with some plausible explanation for the motivation driving the behavior which, apparently, people believe.  Of course, LeDoux knows that the left brain’s explanation is not correct, because LeDoux knows what the right brain saw.

For Gazzaniga and LeDoux these findings raise the question of whether anyone ever really knows why he/she did anything.  People, for Gazzaniga and LeDoux, are effectively almost in the position of being observers of their own behavior – just as another person observes our behavior and guesses at our motivation.  In some cases, we can only guess at why we did what did, in the same manner that others might guess about the motivation driving behavior.

It should be noted that Gazzaniga and LeDoux were not the first psychologists to discover this.  Gazzaniga and LeDoux basically confirmed what social psychologists Nisbett and Wilson came up with years prior to their work: under particular circumstances, none of us can definitely know why we behave as we do.  We can only piece together some plausible explanation based on observation of what we have done in the context of particular environmental contingencies that we have consciously processed.

More About LeDoux and Fear Conditioning

After establishing an independent career in the 1980s, LeDoux embarked on the study of where in the brain fear conditioning occurs.  (“Fear conditioning” refers to the response an organism forms in response to otherwise neutral environmental stimuli when they come to be associated with harmful stimuli.)  LeDoux identified those neurons in the amygdala associated with information about the co-occurrence of a light (the conditioned – or neutral – stimulus) with shock (the unconditioned – or harmful – stimulus). He then identified the parts of the brain to which the amygdala sends the output.  Given a danger-associated stimulus, the output from the amygdala increases cortisol levels in the blood (the stress hormone), induces an increase in heart rate and respiration, and the animal freezes. (Think: deer in headlights. For the anatomical details, the reader should consult LeDoux’s book.)

Emotion Entails a Conceptual Narrative

What will interest visitors to this web site is that LeDoux argues that the animal’s freezing, the increase in blood pressure, and the rise in stress hormones is not anxiety.  LeDoux characterizes freezing, an increase in stress hormones, and increased heart rates, as hard-wired defensive programs.  When under attack, we all have hard-wired “defensive programs” which will be elicited.  According to LeDoux, these defensive programs are not emotion.  Emotions in general and, in particular here, anxiety, are characterized by subjective self-report.   Self-report of emotions (feelings) are concepts: stories that people tell themselves.  To state it alternatively; when deciding how you feel you are constructing a narrative that integrates physical sensations and your concept of yourself responding to your environment.  Thus, self-reports of emotion are, in part, a statement about one’s self-concept.

This of course returns us to the old debate between William James and Walter Cannon in the early 1900s.  Walter Cannon argued that “I’m scared, so I run from the bear.”  William James argued “I see myself running from the bear, so I decide I’m scared.”  In fact, a lot of data support William James’ position.  Emotions are as much a product of self-observation as they are of awareness of internal events.  If people are induced to behave consistent with a particular emotion or their facial expressions are manipulated by the experimenter to be consistent with a particular emotional expression, their self-report of emotion is greatly enhanced.  When discussing these rather novel ideas with my students, I always ask the mothers in the class, “who did your two-year old look at after falling down to decide whether he/she should cry?”  Most little kids look to see whether mom is horrified before they decide if they’re hurt.

The idea that emotions are constructs raises issues about self-reports of depression.  In an earlier post, I presented the data supporting the case that depression involves systemic inflammation and inflammatory hormones in the brain.  Since a virus or bacteria will induce a physical state equivalent to one induced by stressful circumstances, it’s equally valid for persons with systemic inflammation to decide they are depressed as to decide they harbor a virus.  The question is; which explanation enables a faster recovery.

Caveats Regarding Trauma-Informed Psychotherapy

Assuming that self-report of emotion entails a conceptual narrative carries implications for talk therapy.  Currently, trauma-informed care, and screening for trauma, is in vogue.  A problem with this approach is the implication that if I have experienced a trauma, I should be traumatized. “Traumatized” is a concept.  It’s a narrative incorporating the concept of who the person is in relationship to an event.

Unfortunately, it’s not a narrative of resilience.  Just as psychiatrists look at physical manifestations (e.g., low threshold for a startle reflex) and decide it’s evidence of a brain disease (PTSD), are those who screen for experience of traumatic events in the past making the analogous mistake of finding evidence of an unfortunate event in the past (my mother was very shaming) and deciding that the client is “traumatized”?  Saying that my diseased brain caused my current distress, or my past caused my current distress, leaves no room for personal choice.  Could we instead be screening for evidence of strength in the client and helping them to find a narrative of resilience?  (“Yea, mom was shaming, but that was about her and not about me.  I’ll write my own narrative.”)

With the emphasis on trauma-informed care these days, I’m wondering if anyone remembers the last time we collectively went down that path.  In the 1980s, everyone was searching for repressed memories of child sexual abuse.  If a child was shy, many therapists asked who might have abused them.  Therapists frequently defined themselves as doing a good job, when a client came up with another memory.  Competent women who recalled their traumatic pasts would be hospitalized for extended periods of time with the diagnosis of borderline personality or multiple personality disorder.  Treatment consisted of processing the memories.  This all ended rather abruptly when a prominent psychiatrist lost his license and insurance companies began prosecuting for insurance fraud, a felony offense.  The history of this trauma-centered approach is recounted in Mistakes Were Made But Not by Me, by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson.  (Yea, talk therapy can do a lot of damage too.)

Are “How” Questions More Important Than “Why” Questions?

My social work students all want to explore why a client comes in with a particular problem.  Perhaps it’s human nature to ask “why?”  Those of us with a physiology bent ask about diagnosis, and evidence of heredity.  The social science people ask “what happened to you?”  These days some of us might ask about diet (see my last post).  What I try to impress on my students is that in any particular case, we will actually never know “why.”  There are just too many potential causes.  In line with the late Jay Haley’s suggestion “define the problem in such a way that you can solve it,” perhaps the more important question is “how do we get from where we are now, to where we want to be?”  Oftentimes, how one got there has little to do with how one moves on.

* * * * *


Donovan, L.  (December 8, 1999).  Controversial psychiatrist suspended: recovered memory case spurs state move.  Chicago Tribune

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  1. Excellent points raised. It is indeed very true that the way our brain processes an experience may be very different from how *we* define that experience, the latter of which can be heavily influenced by the ethos in the mental health community these days of creating “disorders” where there may not be. The anxiety example given in this article is perfect. Our body and mind are programmed to send an alert in given situations to protect us from harm. The question is how we interpret that alert- we can simply heed the body’s guidance and move on, or label the experience and perhaps even other experiences we link with that one in our minds as evidence of our nervousness and unease. Moreover, one may even define himself based on his/her interpretations of his/her reactions to external stimuli. A lot of subjectivity here, which the article accurately points to.

  2. He raises questions regarding which domains of behavior belong to the brain and which domains belong to mind.

    This doesn’t seem to make much sense. The brain is a material thing, the concept of mind is an abstraction. We might say they are functions of one another, the brain being the medium for mind expressing itself in a material/physical framework. All behavior can probably be defined as a product of the two working in tandem, but to say that some behavior originates with the body and some with the mind just doesn’t resonate with me. Am I missing something here?

    • Some lines of thought view the mind as something larger than and non-reducible to the brain.

      For example the brain is made up of atoms none of which show signs of being conscious or having any degree of free will. But somehow the whole brain-structure performs in surprising ways which are not possible for its constituent parts.

      Some would argue that for example the experience of free will, planning, thinking, creativity etc. does not solely rely on brain structure but requires a brain embedded in a wider network: social, physical, spiritual, cultural, informational etc. It follows that you cannot understand the mind by looking only at the brain.

      Some types of signalling can be described at brain level – for example a neuron firing – but other mental phenomena – such as experiencing fear – cannot be fully explained by a brain-only explanation.

      Yeah, well – that’s my take on it anyways 😉


      • For the sake of speculation — Mind inhabits a time & space-free reality; the brain is limited by the material conditions which sustain it. By no means is the mind reducible to the brain nor would I mean to imply so.

        On the other hand I believe that atoms do reflect consciousness.

  3. Of course, LeDoux knows that the left brain’s explanation is not correct, because LeDoux knows what the right brain saw.

    Could this perhaps be because brains are not meant to have one side pitted against the other? (A question, not a conclusion.)

  4. both/and – not – either/or … both our bodies and what happened to us and then a whole lot of other stuff too…yes, you’re right, we will never know why…holding everything in that light is good. I think it’s good to understand ourselves as beings impacted by everything about being in this animal body on this planet. Flip flopping from one extreme to another doesn’t get us anywhere. Neither will denying that our physiology (or alternately our traumatic histories) are meaningless. It all matters and none of it is meaningless and we will also never really know exactly what is going on. Everyone finds their way through the maze in different ways…sometimes underscoring one thing more than another by necessity…because that is all any one person can handle at a time. Respecting how an individual finds their way is the most important thing it seems. There are as many paths to wholeness as there are human beings.

  5. William James argued “I see myself running from the bear, so I decide I’m scared.”

    That is a very important idea. In fact other studies indicate that consciousness does not really play a role in decision making but rather comes up with rationalizations after the decision has already been taken. It is a great mystery why we need the consciousness at all (or even if we do) to function. But these questions will never be fully answered by neurobiology even if it can provide great insights.

  6. I’ve been thinking about this a lot. I agree that emotions are constructs. You know in Buddhism and in most mind/body therapies now (many of which do, indeed, take trauma seriously) they talk about not attaching to the story line. I talk a lot about how helpful it is to reframe one’s story. Ultimately the goal is to let go of the story because, yes, not only are the emotions constructs, but so it our very sense of self! And then, yes, at a certain point no-self can certainly let go of the concept of trauma as well.

    Timing, however, is critical.

    One needs to respect people’s processes and what they actually believe at any given time because that is how one heals too…by respecting themselves…in my experience it seems there are many windows in to this human experience and they all have validity at the right time and place…more or less depending on who is evaluating them.

    thanks for the article!

  7. Thank you for a fascinating article.
    I’m trying to understand what it sounds like to me, that the left brain “wants” to make sense of the world and will do so regardless of truth. I came across something perhaps a little similar with my husband, who is convinced that he was being monitored by hidden cameras because of the “evidence” that he found – overheard snippets of conversation etc. that he interpreted as being connected to his life. Right now he believes that the cameras have “stopped.” I gently try to suggest from time to time that his impressions of being monitored or not depend quite a lot (well, totally, but I don’t say that) on his state of mind at the time, but he so far refuses to accept it. I think it’s also scarier for him to think that he is “crazy” rather than that he is an innocent victim of surveillance.
    I’d appreciate any advice on how to help him, as all the “experts” I’ve consulted with have been almost totally useless or worse. Thank you