The Young Brainiac
LeDoux is the hippest nerd I know. His salt-and-pepper hair is smartly slicked back, and a soul patch crowns his chin. He's wearing flip-flops, black jeans and an embroidered lime-green shirt with its square-cut shirttails untucked. The rockabilly look is fitting when you learn that he spends most of his spare time jamming with his band, The Amygdaloids, playing guitar, singing, and writing lyrics. Of course, one can only be so hip: Most of their songs are about neuroscience.
We're sitting at a round conference table in his office on the 11th floor of NYU's Center for Neural Science, where LeDoux is giving me the Fear 101 primer. The 58-year-old's Cajun accent, though refined, still lingers from an upbringing in Eunice, Louisiana, where he raised prize-winning cows, bulls and horses and aimed to become a priest. "I went to Catholic school, and the nuns thought of me as their pet project," he recalls. "I made rosaries and was the alter boy. I used to hold mass in my bedroom by myself, just to practice. But in eighth grade, the hormones kicked in and I started thinking more about girls than religion."
He first started tinkering with brains at his father's butcher shop. "In those days, they would slaughter the animal by shooting it," he says. Pops tasked the young LeDoux with digging through cow brains, a local delicacy, to retrieve the bullet, because "you wouldn't want to chomp down on a piece of lead." While poking around in the mush, LeDoux remembers pondering its purpose. "I'd reach in there and would always be thinking about what each part does."
LeDoux was one of only three people from his 1967 graduating high-school class to leave the bayou for the big city-Baton Rouge. He enrolled at Louisiana State University and begrudgingly obliged his parents' desire for him to study marketing. After all, they were paying the tuition. But his budding interest in the mind led him to study consumer psychology, where he mused about how it might be handy for understanding consumer behavior. (At one point, LeDoux wrote a letter to B.F. Skinner asking the eminent psychologist what he thought of the concept. Skinner replied, scolding it as unethical. Today you'd be hard-pressed to find a single major ad agency that doesn't have a consumer psychologist on staff.)
LeDoux went on to get a master's degree in marketing. But a course he took taught by LSU psychologist Robert Thompson that examined the roots of memory convinced him to become a lab scientist. He applied to Ph.D. programs in biological psychology-12 in all, to ensure that he got accepted somewhere. (His grades weren't stellar, LeDoux says: "I got hooked up with people in college who showed me the good life.") He ended up at the only school that accepted him, the State University of New York at Stony Brook.
At that time, scientists scoffed at the idea that emotions and fear dwelled in some kind of tangible neural mesh hidden in the brain. They believed that emotions were complex psychological phenomena that, for the most part, had little to do with what LeDoux imagined as rogue bits of brain circuitry. But he suspected that he could understand human emotions by starting small. Because fear was easy to isolate-a raw and universal emotion that spanned all species-it seemed like a sensible thing to tackle first.
In the 30 years since grad school, as a professor at Cornell University Medical College and later at NYU, LeDoux has become the undisputed King of Fear, having written two acclaimed books and published dozens of groundbreaking studies based on the simple premise that memory and fear are, in fact, inextricable soulmates.
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.