There is a new book out on the neuroscience of emotions, Anxious: Using the Brain to Understand and Treat Fear and Anxiety, by Joseph LeDoux, to which modern Stoics should probably pay attention. The following commentary is based on a review of the book by Simon Wolfe Taylor in The Nation.
LeDoux is a leading neuroscientist, who did his doctoral work under the supervision of the pioneering Michael Gazzaniga at Stony Brook University (where I was a faculty in the Ecology & Evolution Department for five years), and he has been interested in nonconscious processing of information by the brain for a long time (he wrote a highly successful book on the so-called fear center, the amygdala, entitled The Emotional Brain).
The bit of the review by Taylor of interest to us discusses a major point made by LeDoux in his new book: there is a crucial distinction between an emotion in the scientific sense of a particular nonconscious process underpinned by specific neural correlates on the one hand, and the psychological, conscious state of experiencing an emotion on the other hand. This, I maintain, is pretty much the Stoic distinction between “impressions” (which are unavoidable) and “assent” (which is the result of our conscious judgment).
To be more specific, LeDoux points out that when scientists talk about, say, fear (which apparently is the major focus of his book, despite the title), they refer to the evolved, presumably adaptive, nonconscious neural system that allows us to detect threats and to react to them. The classical fight-or-flight response is an obvious example, and the neural machinery that makes it possible is in fact located in the amygdala.
Now, the amygdala does, of course, create the basis for the conscious feeling of what we call fear, the emotion. But it is important not to confuse the two (as, according to LeDoux, even a number of neuroscientists tend to do): emotions are better understood as “cognitively assembled conscious feelings,” which means that they are the result of an active, conscious, construction of the human mind. This construction takes place out of a number of building blocks, only one of which is the non-conscious, amygdala based, threat detection and reaction mechanism.
What are the other components? They are derived by our understanding of the context in which we are experiencing the reaction, including the social context, as well as from our past judgments of similar situations, our expectations about them, and so on. In other words: conscious deliberation arriving at a judgment, the human use of what Marcus Aurelius famously called the ruling faculty.
Here is how LeDoux puts it: “The amygdala circuitry … does not make fearful feelings; it detects threats and orchestrates defensive responses to help keep the organism alive and well.” As Taylor further elaborates in the article: “Fear, in short, is the emotional response, not the process by which a given stimulus is identified as a threat. Prior to our being consciously aware of a threat … we cannot meaningfully describe what is taking place as fear.”
In fact, LeDoux strongly advises us (and his colleagues) to restrict the use of terms like “fear” (or “anxiety”) for the conscious judgment, not to confuse them with the nonconscious reaction system that is only one component of them.
There is an interesting evolutionary twist to this: the nonconscious threat detection and reaction mechanism carries an obvious survival advantage. Not so fear, however: “Fear, as an emotion, is considerably less useful to an organism’s survival than the system that identifies and responds to threats in the first place. As many soldiers have reported, the hesitation and indecision that can result from the conscious awareness of, and reflection upon, a dangerous situation often serves as an impediment to survival. A survival circuit is exactly that: a system that aims to keep an organism alive in the face of a variety of threats. How the organism feels about those threats (or anything else) is not only irrelevant to this aim; it is a fundamentally different kind of question.”
Indeed, and it is to the latter question that Stoics addressed themselves: I do perceive a strong, unavoidable, impression of something, but is my voluntary assent to that impression rationally warranted or not?
This has broad practical impact at both the individual and the societal levels. As Taylor correctly points out: “When scientists design pharmacological solutions to anxiety disorders, they primarily target the nonconscious brain system, leaving the subjective feeling of anxiety largely untouched … Americans spend almost $10 billion a year on antidepressants alone.”
This is no counsel against medication per se (when needed, which is likely much less often that the pharmaceutical companies who benefit from its sales would like us to believe), but it stresses the fact that the human mind and its emotions are a lot more complicated than a series of automatic, machine-like responses to external stimuli.
It would appear that Epictetus was right: “So make a practice at once of saying to every strong impression: ‘An impression is all you are, not the source of the impression.’ Then test and assess it with your criteria, but one primarily: ask, ‘Is this something that is, or is not, in my control?’” (Enchiridion 1.5). Current neuroscience agrees, so long as we understand the distinction between the conscious emotions and the nonconscious systems that (partially) make them possible.