Hooked on a Feeling

January 14, 2022 Ellen Season 1 Episode 1
Hooked on a Feeling
Show Notes Transcript

When neuroscientists set out to study emotion, one logical question arose: Which human emotion would lend itself to a close, if hitherto untried, investigation?
American neuroscientist Joseph E. LeDoux began looking into the emotion of fear in the 1970s. LeDoux runs the LeDoux Lab at the Center for Neural Sciences at New York University.

We spoke to Joseph LeDoux about how fear manifests in us. What do we actually know about fear? What does the experience we call fear, tell us not only about the brain, but about the role of language in describing human emotion?

Then we interview the singular American jazz guitarist Pat Metheny. He tells us about improving his own hearing of music, and continually trying to sharpen the aspirations that musical creativity archs toward.  Pat Metheny reflects on both the unknowability of art's impact on people and the measurable returns of practice, practice, practice.

Producer and Host: Ellen Berkovitch
Co-Interviewer this episode: Iliyan Ivanov
Guests: Joseph LeDoux; Pat Metheny
Post-Production and Theme Music: Dennis Javier Jasso
Music Samples: All the Things You Are, Keith Jarrett on piano; Jack DeJohnette on drumsVibrophone player Gary Burton playing a Pat Metheny song, Falling Grace

STEAMPlant Team: Ellen Berkovitch, Mary Jo Vath, Iliyan Ivanov, Agnes Mocsy

(In)coherence podcast is funded by a STEAMPlant grant from Pratt Institute. 

Hooked on a Feeling
 The Neuroscience of Threat, The Mystery of Improvisation 

Joseph LeDoux- “So all of these things led us to the idea that one thing that happens in consciousness is we generate these narratives, these explanations and one of the systems we have to generate these explanations for might be our emotional systems ..” 

EllenBerkovitch- I’m Ellen Berkovitch and I’m the host and producer of (In)Coherence. This new podcast is funded by a STEAMPlant grant from Pratt Institute. And it finds me—a writer, journalist and documentary producer—teaming up with three colleagues—a painter/art historian, a psychiatrist/artist-musician, and a physicist-filmmaker to work on this show. 

What we have in mind is to dive deep into the question of whether neuroscience and the arts can really talk to, rather than at or past one another.
We want to host provocative conversations about the brain and consciousness, about creativity and the deep, aspirational uses of art in this time of ours. 

To do that we’re going to talk to a lot of different people. And, in this episode we’re going to talk to two leaders in their respective fields. 

JL- Hi, I’m Joseph Ledoux I’m a professor of neuroscience at New York University and I work on emotions and the brain. 

Pat Metheny— For me, again, all I can talk about is my own relationship to music and not just playing it because of course I am a musician and I play it. But the reason I’m involved with music at all is because I love music.  Maybe along with math, it’s the one true thing. 

- This is Pat Metheny . 

EB- Let’s start with Joe LeDoux and how he got started in neuroscience back in the 1970s— 

JL--I was a newcomer to the field. I had come from studies of split-brain patients and consciousness. And through the split-brain work got interested in the topic of emotion. And you know how emotions might generate unconscious behavioral and physiological responses that require some kind of cognitive interpretation or narration. 

EB- Before we let Joe Ledoux unpack that further, let’s take a pause for what we’re calling a mere mortal moment What’s a split-brain patient? 

JL- Yeah, these people have epilepsy and, that’s why the brain is split to prevent the seizures from jumping all over between hemispheres. But in this one patient, bc of the particular kind of epilepsy he had and the brain damage that caused, that can cause things to move around —so that things normally in one place might end up in an unusual place.
 So in this kid, he had the normal kinda language stuff in the left hemisphere where it is typically in most right-handed people—but in this kid’s right hemisphere, he had the ability to read even though he couldn’t talk. 

So he could read and comprehend spoken language and written language but he couldn’t talk about it. 

So.. we said .. ok, well let’s, here’s an opportunity to test whether it’s the presence of language that allows you to at least access whether a person is conscious or not. 

And so we put questions into the right hemisphere like who are you? And then gave him a set of Scrabble letters and the left hand connected to the right hemisphere would pull out the letters, you know.
P, A, U, L .

So this mute right hemisphere would seem to be kind of not very alert and alive was able to tell us what his name was—in other words he had a sense of self. 

EB: Joe LeDoux was doing this work with his mentor Mike Gazzaniga; they were working out of a VW bus and their patients would come there to be evaluated. 

JL-There were no good ways to study the human brain in the early-mid 1970s- late 1970s.. All you could do was wait around for a patient to be available that had a particular kind of brain damage and then you could study it, there were no great imaging techniques or anything like that 

EB: The brain imaging techniques we have today are only really 30 years old. There have been revolutions in brain imaging technology in that period. Before that researchers like JL had to use behavioral studies like the one with the patient Paul. And with others who demonstrated that the left hemisphere would make up explanations for things the right hemisphere was doing, even though the two hemispheres had been surgically disconnected. 

JL: All of these things led us to the idea that one thing that happens in consciousness is we generate these narratives these explanations.. 

EB: A writer like me wants to fast forward and suggest that the idea of emotion as narration is both intriguing and disturbing in a way.
 Ledoux applied this experimentation to his lab rats. 

JL: I knew that we couldn’t every say what a rat was experiencing but at least we could study the underlying principles 

[FX:excerpt: Pavlov's aim] 

JL-In our study it was a bell, a sound and an electric shock—a mild and brief shock to the feet that caused the rat to then freeze, his blood pressure and heart rate to go up and so forth.
So the connection in the brain is that the tone and the shock somehow have to meet up somewhere in order for that association to be formed. 

What I discovered through research, was that the place where it all meets up was this brain area called the amygdala.

EB- And if you’re wondering how a rat compares to a human being? 

JL: So all of the same things happen to a rat as to a human in the presence of danger.. You have behavioral responses .. (etc.). It doesn’t tell us how we experience fear, bc the circuits involved are shared by all mammals including humans. 

EB: It turns out that the way that the brain distinguishes a survival threat to the organism it’s charged with protecting— the brain after all has to deal with keeping us alive— makes a very important distinction to the emotion we call fear. 

JL: The procedure was called fear conditioning and so over the years it kept being thought of as the way our conscious experiences of fear are being generated.
 I’d be introduced (as) someone who had discovered how we experience fear..over and over again. 

The amygdala became a cultural meme: The fear center.

EB: It’s the amygdala where the survival threat responses are generated..let’s take that one more time. Survival threat responses are distinct from fear. 

[FX: Fear scream] 

EB: So what happens when your heart starts to race or you freeze in place or you feel the urge to flee—an evolutionary behavior, at root. 

EB: So let’s just take another brief pause here—in other words, as all of us have probably experienced, the way things get communicated or miscommunicated can compound an error. And that mistake can get even more embedded in popular understanding by repetition.. 

JL: But I’m not guilt-free because when I got into this there was not a lot on the brain in Pavlovian fear conditioning. There was a very vibrant behavioral research program on that going on and had been since the 1940s so I was coming into a new field and was excited about starting all this technical, brain research, so I just called it what it was called and just proceeded. In The Emotional Brain* yes I talked about conscious fear as cognitive interpretation. .but in other parts of the book I’d talk about the amygdala and its role in fear. So I’m not guilt-free in any of this. and partly why I felt so compelled to introduce correction.. 

*Ledoux, Joseph. The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998.) 

EB: Things start to get complicated here.. as they will when we’re talking about the brain and neuroscience and consciousness. In part this is because in neuroscience like in many other fields — there’s a gap, some might even call it a gulf— between researchers and clinicians researchers being the ones working in labs, clinicians being the ones hearing the stories that patients come and tell them.. I asked Ledoux if neuroscience doesn’t really deal in problems of consciousness 

JL: It doesn’t? I do. You know, decades after I started all this like in 2012 or so I a published a paper Rethinking the Emotional Brain..in which I said we’re not getting very far with this research in helping people with fear and anxiety.. although this research is being applied to these problems all the time, it’s not being used very effectively..
 The problem was it’s not fear that’s being conditioned..
 The amygdala is not the answer to how fear occurs.
Fear and the amygdala have a semantic connection but not a literal one anatomically or physiologically.

EB: Let’s take that one more time. 

{Rewind FX} Fear and the amygdala have a semantic connection but not a literal one anatomically or physiologically. 

But some of my colleagues are not very happy about all this because they’ve worked on the idea that it was fear for decades, and they don’t want to give it up because so much of the conceptual basis of the field has gone in that direction. 

EB: Even writing this show’s narration I struggle to be clear, to find the correct words. Can it be re-stated that emotion is a story we tell others, or ourselves, or both? 

JL: It’s often said that fear is a universal emotion, that people around the world experience fear. Darwin said this as he looked at people’s facial expressions around the world, he concluded that fear was universal; must be an innate thing that we’ve inherited from animals. But the fact is (this is my fact so maybe it's not a fact but an interpretation) my interpretation is what’s universal is danger. Every culture has some form of danger that they encounter. So if it’s a linguistic culture, a verbal culture with a language, they’re going to have a word for things that are dangerous. 

Because there’s no life if you don’t get past danger. 

We take those words and we assume because we can translate them across languages that are representative of different cultures that everyone has the same experience but they don’t.
They have the same condition externally—danger.
 But what they experience is very different. We know that about cross-cultural research and emotions. 

Cultures experience emotions differently. That goes all the way to the individual. Each individual is a kind of sub-culture. Because my experiences are different from. your experiences, our schema for fear is going to be a little different.

Emotions in the cognitive subjective sense are both cultural and personal. There is no universality to it. 

EB: Ok so here’s where we’re going to insert our first (maybe) nod to interdisciplinarity which is that semiotics—the study of the meaning of signs and the way they’re used in society—-isn’t limited to humanities, philosophy and the arts— but maybe offers a spot-on explanation for some findings in neuroscience. 

JL: Where does the narration occur?
 I recently wrote a paper with a consciousness researcher* named Hakwan Lao.
[Link: *https://www.cell.com/trends/cognitive-sciences/fulltext/S1364-6613(19)30161-5] 

So, for example, the literary critic Roland Barthes said something like, the writer doesn't write, language writes.
 You have these structures and processes and systems in your brain You’re not conscious of the thoughts that you are writing. They just come out. That’s how conscious experience comes about. The narration is generated non consciously and it just presents itself into consciousness.. as the interpretation of what’s going on.  But all the work is going on non consciously. By non consciously I don’t mean Freudian unconscious or anything like that. It’s high-level cognition most of which occurs non consciously and some of it slips into consciousness. 

Every conscious thought up until the microsecond that it’s conscious is unconscious. It's as simple as that. 

[show music/transition] 

EB: We’re going to come back to Joe LeDoux in later episodes of this podcast. His and my conversation traveled through many vectors including his own life as a musician. I asked him about whether other emotions besides fear can be studied, and we’re also going to use a bit of a cliffhanger for that one and ask you to wait a little longer to hear about that. 

When it comes to neuroscience and the arts, my key point of connection in this project has been colleague Iliyan Ivanov. He is a neuroscientist and a child psychiatrist and the author of many papers, and also a musician himself.

 And at the beginning of our project, I remember him saying that there had been a neuroscience conference at which the musician Pat Metheny appeared to talk about creativity. And at the end, a stack of questions that had been written down were left on a table. And similarly to any good journalist anywhere, a friend of Iliyan’s nabbed that pile off the table and we’ll let Iliyan take it from here. 

Iliyan Ivanov: In early January, I interviewed the great jazz guitarist Pat Metheny, and this is a subject that he has spoken of at the 2018 Society for Neuroscience Annual Meeting, the biggest neuroscience meeting in the world. The audience provided a lot of questions to Pat. He addressed some of those and of course, many were left unanswered. And a friend of mine found a stack of questions after the keynote address. We thought maybe we can ask Pat to answer questions he didn’t ask at the 2018 meeting, and he agreed. 

II—So I found this fascinating and you sorta described yr position as a very attentive listener. I just thought maybe you could say a little bit about hyper-focusing if you will or extreme level of consciousness and then almost like Disassociation..Just to put this In neuroscience terms — when focusing, some people think focusing is just amplified connectivity between different brain regions. Disassociation may be just the opposite when you break down established connections and bring new ones.. 

So maybe you can tell us a little bit more ?

Pat Metheny: Well yeah. I mean the qualities of you know the mechanical or sort of grammatical aspects of what it is to be an improvising musician are pretty well-defined at this point and I was very lucky to be around a really great thinker about improvising when I was younger and that’s the great vibes player Gary Burton. He had a real influence on the way I think about what’s going on. {Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pJhmMqWVPQM}

And he was first guy I heard that sort of really did make the direct correlation between language and playing..
 I mean, you just asked this great question. It sounds like maybe English is not your first language but you’re quite fluent in English I understood everything you were saying. 

I’m 100 percent sure that while you were forming that question you were not thinking about what your tongue is doing..your tongue just did its thing. And you probably also were not thinking about I need to get a noun and I need to get a verb. You had an idea and you had enough together as an English speaker that you were able to quite coherently and clearly improvise that.

But if we had said beforehand tell me exactly what’s going to happen you wouldn’t be able to do that. However part of your job in all of this is to be prepared for exactly what’s going to happen. It’s kind of like that with musicians and we do enjoy a kind of exalted status particularly as improvising musicians and we go around, and people come and all that, but the truth is almost everything we all do all day long is some kind of improvising within a context.. 

Iliyan: You described what I was about to say in relation to even what you mentioned.
 Yes, I run some of it (this interview) in my head a couple of times but the minute we got on all this got out the window from there. So there is a question related to that issue you brought up of language and the analogy with music and other art forms. One person here actually wrote,
 “What is being communicated in music and by whom?” (laughs) 

PM: That’s a big one there. OK Let me think about that. That’s the musical version of what happens when we die?
And where were we before we were born 

That’s kind of like okay so what are we doing here? What exactly is this?
 And: Music in particular is such an odd condition {Laughs}  in our physical world right?
 I mean. It stands apart from everything else in the sense that there’s really no way to physically describe what music is. I mean, you know.

You can do the 2D renderings when we look at the waveforms we’re making right now that don’t tell you anything at all..You know, I mean, you can be the worst musician in the world or the best musician in the world and the waveform is not going to give you any indication of that. 

On the other hand Ok so, this person sitting in the third row is hearing exactly the same thing as the person in the fourth row, and for the person in the third row it’s total crap and for the person in the fourth row it’s the greatest thing that ever happened to them. So there’s all that too — the sort of beauty is in the eye of the beholder factor.
For me, again, all I can talk about is my own relationship to music.
Not just playing it because of course I am a musician and I play it.
 But reason I’m involved with music at all is I love music
 To me, maybe along with math, it’s the one true thing in the world
 It’s the thing.You can go anywhere in the universe and it adds up the same way.. 

There’s no mystery about it. It’s a true genuine currency that has actual value.. 

But I also tell musicians, every hour you spend on music, you’re going to get a thousand back It’s the most golden bank account of time in the world. You practice for an hour... you get infinity return on that.  Infinity is an operative word when it comes to music too.. It’s one of the places where you can really find it.
 You know.. obviously I have a very personal relationship with music that probably sounds a little religious or something.

That’s no coincidence either. To me there are connections that go beyond any of the things we can talk about in a music theory class or at a neuroscience convention.
 Yes, we can talk about all the things around it but eventually, there’s a place in the middle of it where we can’t exactly describe what that is.

II: That sounds like the X factor you mentioned in your talk.
 There’s a question here from some person who said,  “Are the factors that contribute to musical creativity--the soul, the X factor--the same as those that contribute to scientific creativity?” 

PM: Really interesting question.  The thing I’m always attracted to in almost every way is creativity however it manifests itself.. I do think we’re in an era right now where maybe people who might have been improvising musicians 80 years ago are the guys that are working on software right now—or the guys working to come up with new vaccines in such an amazingly short amount of time. 

And what does that individual need to do to get to the point of being able to realize that vision..that that person carries inside of them that will achieve a certain result?

For me as a player I would say right now I’m at about 20% of what I can hear of what I really want to be able to do..Which is great bc it used to be like 5%.

I can count on it a lot more now than I used to, and that’s why I get up at 4:00 every morning and start working on music, because I just can’t wait to try to get a little closer to that.
 I’m sure it’s the same across the board of people who are trying to bring whatever it is that they imagine into fruition through their own personal creativity and 

In music, we had John Coltrane. We had Charlie Parker. We had Bach. 

I mean just to get to the point where you can kind of hear what that is that’s like 10-15-20 yrs for almost any normal human and even then people like that come along, there’s one every 100 years or so. Those are the standards that have been set.
 And whether the culture acknowledges it or not is absolutely superfluous.

It doesn’t mean anything if anybody knows it or not. I mean, it is; it is. 

My dad always said play the odds. Try to be in a spot where you can pay attention to things that will have good outcomes. 

II: You actually jolted my memory when you mentioned the most important thing is for people to play music. How-much-auditory-information does it take to distinguish between a note or a sound and music? 

PM: I do honestly think that everything is music all the time including this. It's all music.
Every sound is a musical sound. Basically, what musicians are doing at our best is just trying to organize/present —a current word would be curate— that sort of vibrational activity into some form of expression that represents the things that we love about what it is to be on earth. 

You know, I can through a day and really hear everything as music.
 I remember. Two of my real heroes that are still on the planet are great drummer Jack DeJohnette, and the great piano player Keith Jarrett. They both started playing with Charles Lloyd when they were both really really young. {Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=76T6egQhfAQ}

And I remember Jack saying—and I know exactly what he’s talking about— that they would meet each other in the morning..and at breakfast they would say okay what tune are we going to play today?  And they would pick a standard like All the Things You Are [FX-All the things you are] 

And-Jack-would-go-1-2-1-2-3-4- [FX] 

and then all day long they would both keep that tune in mind. And go through the day, both thinking the form of the tune.. and every single thing that happened they’d look at each other.. like, okay, now we’re on the bridge.. with Jack and Keith, someone just dropped a suitcase on the hotel lobby floor, to them it was the downbeat of the 12th chorus of All the Things You Are that day. 

So what are we talking about here? That’s completely personal, internal.. It’s totally.. the beauty is in the eye of the beholder thing to infinity degree. But there we are at infinity again. And let’s not forget there are just 12 notes. 

There’s probably a number of possible mathematical melodic rhythmic harmonic combinations that could ever exist with infinity monkeys on planet infinity. It’s kind of a weird thing. I’m more and more thinking of music as a kind of a delivery system than as a thing.. it’s only the container. 

And that’s where it starts to get into some other territory that I honestly do not understand at all. But my favorite place to be where I really do not understand things.. 

II: Speaking of the known actually as you were talking about, even mathematics and hardcore science, there’s a glimpse of hope for me at least, There are a couple famous mathematical concepts.. One of them is the MCT theorem that suggests no system could be fully explained by math. There’s always some component that-would-remain unknown..I’m linking that to something you mentioned at the talk — the “units of human achievements” 

What is the balance between this practicing practicing practicing all the skills you need versus the talent component, which is I guess we just get born with that and it’s kind of a given? 

PM: It depends on what it is that you hope to be able to understand. I mentioned three before: Charlie Parker, John Coltrane and Bach . That’s several lifetimes right there
 I could practice 24 hours a day
 (Laughs) and barely be able to you know get to a point where I would hope to be able to aspire towards. And again — with the goal being not to do what they did but to do what they did. In other words, to achieve that level of reconciliation between my aspiration and an output that is representative of that aspiration 

II: Suppose one day we’re able to fully explain the musical experience in neurobiological terms. Can we create an implantable device that would let us experience the beauty of music without actually listening to it? And the question is, Do you have insights into why it might be possible or impossible to create such a device. And if that device exists would it subtract or take away from music’s nature as a form of art? 

PM: Wow that is such a great question and I have to admit I’ve never thought of it like that.. That question sort of forces you to think about the nature of music in a physical sense. By that. I often kinda joke around I play the guitar of course. Basically what I’m doing is moving a finger up and down a vibrating piece of metal to change the amount of vibrations per second. Really just manipulating vibrations in an infinitely complex way 

If we were to really see the math that’s going on while we’re playing
 Just imagine what it would be like
 You get sorta one trillionth of that in a midi file if you measure just pitches and And dynamics but it’s so much more than that
 In fact 

Is it the vibration itself the delivery mechanism or is it the step before that? 

What the question really suggests..
 What if you could sort of connect one person’s creativity directly to another person’s creativity. I mean that is so abstract as a concept. But on the other hand I also realize we are at the infancy of all this.. 

 When I met Charles Limb— https://twitter.com/ucsf/status/1233240165507878912 at first and he showed me what he was doing by putting Mike Pope in an MRI while he improvised. on blues..and what that suggests. And knowing we’re just at the very beginning of all of this technology. That could be 5 years from now, what we’re talking about.. Who knows? 

To me, the real meat of that question would be okay is it in fact the vibrations that are causing the effect of the music or is it something below that or above that, on some other spectrum? 

And man I gotta think about that one.. that’s a really good question.. 

(In)coherence Show Credits:
 Producer and Narrator: Ellen Berkovitch
 Show Guests: Joseph LeDoux; Pat Metheny
 Interviewers: Ellen Berkovitch, Iliyan Ivanov
 Funding: Pratt Institute STEAMPlant Grant
 Post-Production: Dennis Javier Jasso
 STEAMPlant team: Ellen Berkovitch, Iliyan Ivanov, Mary jo Vath, Agnes Mocsy Contact: eberkovi@pratt.edu