Above image via
Lawrence DeGeest attended the 2012 Society for Neuroscience Conference for Motherboard. Read his previous dispatches here.
Famous, dead academics are known for looking over researchers’ shoulders, waiting in the annals of science to prove new assertions wrong. Famous, living academics, on the other hand, are often known in their circles as rockstars. You are a rockstar if you publish frequently and well, if you lecture near and far, or if you are just plain brilliant and everyone knows it. You are a rockstar if colleagues compete for your attention at socials, or if assistants manage your email.
But what if a top scientist is also, you know, a rock star? I’m talking about NYU’s Joe LeDoux – one of the most cited neuroscientists on the subject of fear, lead guitarist and singer of The Amygdaloids, and all-around friendly guy. In fitting fashion, I ran into him in a bar in New Orleans, and one (or was it both?) of us was enjoying the absinthe-vibes of a Sazerac. LeDoux assured me a little bit of drink was nothing that would get in the way of an interview, and so we chatted about what it’s like balancing science with being the front man of New York’s most famous band named for a part of the brain.
Motherboard: How does it feel to be back in New Orleans? Visiting old haunts?
LeDoux: Well, I always know I’m home when I step off the plane and into air that’s thick as soup. Even though the weather was kind of nice this trip I kept waiting for it to thicken up.
Regardless of the weather, though, Louisiana is home, and I love to come back. But NOLA is only part of the way home. I’m from Eunice, deep in Cajun country, about 3 hours west. It’s a different world there. Very conservative thought processes. Still, I love visiting, and especially enjoy the food and music. No surprises there.
What came first to you: science or music?
I wasn’t very interested in science as a kid. I loved sports when I was really young, and then became obsessed with music as a teen. I was in a couple of bands in high school. First came the Deadbeats (which we were) and then the Countdowns (the space program was just blasting off). And I was a DJ at KEUN in high school. We hosted Percy Sledge at the National Guard Armory. My defining moment was doing shots of whiskey with Percy. I marched off to college and studied business. While doing a masters degree in marketing I took a course in psychology with a professor who was studying the brain. I fell in love with what he was doing and never looked back.
Can you compare doing research to writing songs? Is there an everyday-life-inspiration component to both?
Absolutely. In both you start with a vague idea, work hard to develop it into a concept, and then struggle to through ups and downs while you make it work.
Paul McCartney once said: “I’m not into ‘Hey, what’s your sign?’ or any of that. But, I mean, magic as in ‘Where did you come from? How did you become the successful sperm out of 300,000,000?’—that’s magic I believe in.” From your experience, do you believe in songwriting magic? Or could it somehow be figured out?
I’m reluctant to go there since Paul McCartney is in a different league. So I’ll leave his thought in his head and just say what my experience tells me. Anything is magical until you figure it out. I tried writing songs when I was a teenager but nothing came out. Now I do it all the time. Did I just figure it out or did the decades in between give me something extra? Maybe a little of both.
Lately I’ve been writing with Amanda Thorpe, who sings and plays bass in The Amygdaloids. That has been a wonderful experience. I write a draft song and then we get together. Something special (magical?) then happens when she sees my lyrics and music from another angle. I have to be willing to let go of some of my attachment to a song (which can be a very strong attachment) but when I do the result is always a fantastic transformation. But even then the song is just an infant. I has to be crafted, otherwise it falls short. So what am I saying? Some inspiration, some craft, and a lot of detail work. A lot like science.
“Map of Your Mind” has been stuck in my head for a week. Any science behind that?
Most of my songs are songs about love and life, with a touch of mind/brain stuff running underneath. “Map of Your Mind” is about trying to get inside the head of someone you care about and want to connect with in a profound way: “Made a map of your mind, I’ve charted my course. I’m sailing deep inside, I’ve got the winds of force. Got the heat of your heart, to keep me from the cold. Got the currents of will to take me to your soul.” People tend to really be drawn to this song. I think the the nautical metaphor works well. But the song also has a musical twist that seems to grab the listener— a 3/4 riff interspersed in a traditional 4/4 song. Just really works.
It’s a great tune. How did you write it?
I was up in the Catskills a couple of summers ago and that’s what came out. I usually start with some phrase about mind and brain and then try to build something from that. I got the idea “map of your mind” while thinking about cognitive mapping in the hippocampus. There’s a geeky undercurrent to most of my songs but I try to keep that part pretty implicit. Not always though. Our song “Brainstorm” is all about a psychotic breakdown, and “All in a Nut” is about the amygdala (which is from the Greek word for almond).
So you research fear. What is fear? What do we know, what don’t we know?
We know a lot about the circuits that detect and control responses to threats. That’s what most researchers who study fear study—detection of and responding to threats. Especially researchers who study animals. We know very little about how the feeling of fear, or any other emotion, or any other kind of conscious experience comes about. While the detection of threats is an ingredient that contributes to the feeling of fear, the former essentially occurs unconsciously and the feeling occurs when these and other unconscious processes invade consciousness.
What is your biggest fear?
I hate snakes. Grew up around them down in bayou country. I got to be an expert water skier as a result. Would start standing on the shore of the lake with my skis on and then jump in just as the rope tightened. At the end I’d ski right back onto land. But somehow this dissipated quite a bit over time. I still don’t like slithery slimy things but they no longer freak me out.
I can’t speak for the human race, but music has always helped me conquer some fears.
Music is a great way to help cope with problems.
We’re wrapping up SfN 2012, the world’s biggest science conference. What do you think will become of it in the future?
Everyone loves to trash SFN. It’s an out of control monster. I can’t say I disagree. I don’t go that often anymore. Mainly if it’s in DC (because it’s close) or NOLA (because its home). I don’t see how it can be broken up into pieces since everyone in the field does cross-disciplinary stuff. It is great for students and young scientists to get a whirlwind tour and meet people, and to hear some of the giants of the field speak. So it has a role. It’s just not the role it used to have when it was much smaller.
They should have a huge concert one night in the huge gallery where they hang posters.
That would get me to the meeting, even in San Diego.
This video just wanders around LeDoux’s NYU lab, which is really, really awesome
Would you ever quit your post at NYU to take The Amygdaloids on a world tour?
New York City is a pretty good place to be in the meantime. Do you have a favorite venue you like playing?
I used to love places like Banjo Jim’s and the Lakeside Lounge in the East Village. Kenny’s Castaway’s had so much tradition and was close to NYU so it was fun and easy to get an audience. But these bastions of the beat are all kaput. We did our last record release at Bowery Electric, which is a great place. And I also like the Sidewalk Café in the East Village. I live in Williamsburg and would love to do some shows there, but the club scene in that area is currently catering to a younger crowd. But I see it changing a little and we are hoping to make our way into some of the joints there.
If you could be in a band with any of your favorite scientists in history, who would they be and what would they play? Keep in mind Archimedes just went solo, so you can’t have him.
I wanted to do some 60s soul for a while, and always though The Platonics would have been a good name for a Motown boy band. We did a song called “Reminds Me of You” on our last record that has a Motown vibe. But I don’t know about Plato. But you were asking about scientists anyway.
I’m going to go out on a limb and pick someone who has been in disgrace for a long time. I think Franz Josef Gall had a good idea: phrenology. In fact the localization of function that he argued for is commonplace today. But he clearly went too far when he said you could make a map of one’s mind by feeling the bumps on their head. But this propensity to flirt with fantasy might have made him a killer song-writer. So in the hope the he would bring that magic that Sir Paul was talking about to The Amygdaloids, I’m resurrecting him for that world tour you asked about.