The ‘anxious’ side of fear

The anxious science of fear

Society’s list of fears continues to grow. From the fear of terrorist attacks and natural disasters to that of darkness or the fluctuating stock market, anxiety and fearfulness have become a characteristic of daily life. Altogether, anxiety disorders prevail as the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 18 percent of the population that roughly translates into 40 million adults aged 18 or older.

Anxious: Using the Brain to Understand and Treat Fear and Anxiety” authored by neuroscientist Joseph DeLoux, is not a typical self-help book that talks about overcoming fear. It is an extremely detailed and elaborate analysis of the brain function, supported by extensive research and theory.

LeDoux, director of the Emotional Brain Institute at NYU, explains that anxiety is fear in the absence of obvious danger. The modern day individual encounters lesser significant dangers, but due to the brain’s ability to anticipate threats including those that may never happen makes up for it. It is emphasized that fear results from brain structures that even though produce no feelings by themselves, can still detect danger and generate defensive responses that ensure survival. “Anxious” introduces a new viewpoint of emotions, anxiety and fear in particular. Both these emotions are intricately entwined, calling for the need to be understood separately and in combination. Dismissing much of the research from animal studies, DeLoux stated that it is vital to distinguish between what animal studies mean and what they do not mean for the human brain.

Consciousness being the key factor in his work, DeLoux focuses on fear and anxiety as essentially being conscious feelings. Hence, several chapters of the book are associated with the understanding of consciousness in neuroscience, psychology and philosophy. Instead of being viewed as naturally-occurring states released from the brain, fear and anxiety are rather gradually collected cognitive experiences. Treatment of these problems must encompass both their conscious manifestations and the non-conscious processes. While knowledge about how the brain works will help formulate new medications, LeDoux argues that the greatest breakthroughs may come from using brain research to help reshape psychotherapy.

“Drawing on years of research, neuroscientist LeDoux delves into the subject of anxiety and fear, depicting both emotions as cognitive constructs. Consciousness is key to his framework, which presupposes that to be either fearful or anxious about something is to be aware of it. This book’s sheer heft might be anxiety-provoking in its own right for some readers, but for the interested and informed it will open up new worlds of thinking and feeling,” stated Publishers Weekly in its review of the book.

“[Anxious] helps to explain and prevent the kinds of debilitating anxieties all of us face in this increasingly stressful world,” said Daniel J. Levitin, author of “The Organized Mind” and “This Is Your Brain On Music”.

About the author

Joseph LeDoux is the professor of science at NYU in the Center for Neural Science, and directs the Emotional Brain Institute at NYU and at the Nathan Kline Institute.

His work is focused on the brain mechanisms of memory and emotion and has authored “The Emotional Brain” and “Synaptic Self”. LeDoux has received a number of awards, including the Karl Spencer Lashley Award from the American Philosophical Society, the American Psychological Association Distinguished Scientific Contributions Award and the American Psychological Association Donald O. Hebb Award among many others.

LeDoux is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the New York Academy of Sciences, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and a member of the National Academy of Sciences. He is also the lead singer and songwriter for the rock band, The Amygdaloids.

Leave a Comment

Scroll to Top