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. 2012 Feb 23;73(4):653-76.
doi: 10.1016/j.neuron.2012.02.004.

Rethinking the Emotional Brain

Free PMC article

Rethinking the Emotional Brain

Joseph LeDoux. Neuron. .
Free PMC article

Erratum in

  • Neuron. 2012 Mar 8;73(5):1052


I propose a reconceptualization of key phenomena important in the study of emotion-those phenomena that reflect functions and circuits related to survival, and that are shared by humans and other animals. The approach shifts the focus from questions about whether emotions that humans consciously feel are also present in other animals, and toward questions about the extent to which circuits and corresponding functions that are present in other animals (survival circuits and functions) are also present in humans. Survival circuit functions are not causally related to emotional feelings but obviously contribute to these, at least indirectly. The survival circuit concept integrates ideas about emotion, motivation, reinforcement, and arousal in the effort to understand how organisms survive and thrive by detecting and responding to challenges and opportunities in daily life.


Figure 1
Figure 1. Circuits Underlying Defense Reactions Elicited by Unconditioned (Unlearned) and Conditioned (Learned) Threats
Abbreviations: ABA, accessory basal amygdala; BA, basal amygdala; CEA, central amygdala; LA, lateral amygdala; LH, lateral hypothalamus; MEA, medial amygdala; NAcc, nucleus accumbens; VMH, ventromedial hypothalamus; PAGd, dorsal periaqueductal gray region; PAGv, venral periaqueductal gray region; PMH, premammilary nucleus of the hypothalamus.
Figure 2
Figure 2. Multiple Roles for a Conditioned Stimulus
A CS functions as a survival circuit trigger (by activating a specific survival circuit related to the US that was used during conditioning), and as a conditioned incentive and a conditioned reinforcer (by way of connections from the survival circuit to motivational and reinforcement systems). Other routes by which a CS might influence motivational and reinforcement circuitry are not shown.
Figure 3
Figure 3. Consequences of Survival Circuit Activation
When a survival circuit trigger activates a survival circuit, a number of consequences follow. (1) Innate behavioral responses are potentially activated, as well as autonomic nervous system (ANS) responses and hormonal responses. These each generate feedback to the brain. (2) Neuromodulator systems are activated and begin to regulate excitability and neurotransmission throughout the brain. (3) Goal directed instrumental behavior is initiated by the motivation system. (4) Sensory, cognitive, and explicit memory systems are also affected, leading to enhanced attention to relevant stimuli and the formation of new explicit memories (memories formed by the hippocampus and related cortical areas) and implicit memories (memories formed within the survival circuit).
Figure 4
Figure 4
Ingredients of Feelings in a Cognitive Workspace. An emotional feeling is hypothesized to be a representation of a global organismic state initiated by an external stimulus. The representation includes sensory information about the stimulus and the social and physical context, information about the survival circuit that is active, information about CNS arousal, body feedback information, and mnemonic information about the stimulus situation and the state itself. When such a global organismic state is categorized and labeled a conscious feeling of a certain type (e.g. a feeling of fear, pleasure, disgust, etc) results. To the extent that any of these components differ in human and non-human species, the nature of the resulting state would differ as well.

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