Mind games

The Emotional Brain

Joseph Le Doux <em>Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 384pp, £18.99</em>

Joseph Le Doux is a practising neurologist, and this book is, to use the old Soviet expression, "fundamental science". Those seeking advice on how to get the better of office feuds are advised to look elsewhere - Le Doux does not simply present his conclusions; he leads the reader through the history of experimentation and reasoning that lies behind them. Like a termite's nest, the house of psychological theory is constructed out of particles of data amassed by thousands of busy drones in laboratories across the world. Neurologists, behaviourists, evolutionists, philosophers of mind, cognitive scientists, even the suspect psychoanalysts - they all contribute their share. The Emotional Brain is the work of a termite queen, welding these myriad nuggets of information into a tight and elegant structure.

But for all his eclecticism, Le Doux has a definite agenda. He is opposed to the attempt of cognitive science to treat emotion as a special kind of thought, a form of judgement upon a situation. His own approach is, broadly speaking, behaviourist; he belongs to the electric shock school of psychology. He treats emotions - and in particular the emotion of fear - as a Pavlovian response, either instinctual or conditioned, to an external stimulus. Le Doux differs slightly from the classical behaviourists in not completely disregarding the subjective aspect of emotion, the "feeling" of being afraid or in love. But he considers it a kind of neurological embellishment, an ornament of human evolution. The basic mechanism that mediates between stimulus and response is located in a part of the brain inaccessible to consciousness, and is essentially identical in human beings and animals. This explains why emotions are so hard to bring under the control of reason. Being told that spiders are harmless does not help the arachnophobe, because his fear was not founded on belief in the first place, but on a subconscious neural mechanism. Knowing that your boyfriend is a louse does not make it any easier to stop loving him. Emotions have causes but not reasons, and when we supply reasons for them we are merely indulging in rationalisation.

Le Doux's insistence that emotions originate in the unconscious connects him with Freud, and he is happy to acknowledge his illustrious antecedent. But the resemblance between the two psychologists is superficial. Keynes described Newton, the founder of modern physics, as the last of the magicians, and one can similarly describe Freud, the founder of modern psychology, as the last of the dream-readers. His unconscious operates according to the poetic logic of dreams and myths. It is built around a system of arcane correspondences, in which "horse" equals "phallus" and "gold" equals "shit". It has the cunning and tenacity of a demon and, like a demon, it thrives in darkness.

Le Doux's unconscious is, by contrast, a dull affair, deriving from solid laboratory research. Thousands of brain-damaged mice testify to its existence. Freud's symbolic system of correspondences has been replaced by a mechanical system of stimulus and response. The unconscious mind has been naturalised, subordinated to the universal laws of causal determination. It has become, in a sense far more radical than that intended by Freud, an id - an "it".

These differences between Freud and Le Doux have important therapeutic implications. If the unconscious is a symbolic system, then it is not wholly alien to the conscious mind. It can, through psychoanalysis, be brought to consciousness, and thereby robbed of its demonic power. Like Dracula, it dies on exposure to sunlight. Freudian psychology thus contains the possibility of a leap into freedom, a secular form of grace. Le Doux holds out no such hope. Phobias and other disorders are "indelibly burned" into the physical structure of our brains. There is no reason to think that understanding them will make them magically disappear. The most we can hope to achieve by understanding our disorders is to keep them under some sort of control.

The Emotional Brain testifies to a growing tendency within psychology to see human beings as the passive victims of neurology rather than agents of their own fate. This tendency is reflected in the popular metaphor of "damage" - a word that implies something both physical and irreversible, like a crack in a vase. The natural corollary to this trend is the use of psychiatric drugs such as Prozac. If mental problems are ultimately material then their remedy must also be material. Chemical palliatives are all that remain of psychiatry's original promise. There is something cynical and sad in all this. Freud inherited the religious conviction that the truth would set us free. Le Doux concurs with Spinoza's gloomy doctrine that as insight into the causes of our actions deepens, so does awareness of our own unfreedom.

This article first appeared in the 11 December 1998 issue of the New Statesman, Plato rules, OK?