Neuroscience, Psychology and Personal Development

Learn about LeDoux & The Emotional Brain, Damasio & Descartes' Error
Read about the 3 parts of the brain - lizard, emotional and rational
Research free resources on neuroscience and book extracts
Personal development and psychology based on sound neuroscience

Psychotherapy, Counselling & Life Coaching from the author of this page, Tim LeBon is available now in Central London 

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The Emotional Brain,   according to Joseph LeDoux and  Antonio Damasio

The brain of lower animals, such as crocodiles and lizards, consists of just one part, the primitive brainstem. The brainstem deals on in primitive, instinctive, reflex actions – it doesn’t do emotion. Animals like cats and dogs additionally possess the emotional brain, the limbic system. Cats and dogs, unlike lizards, feel simple emotions like fear and anxiety. These feelings however are simple automatic responses to events, amenable to neither reason nor reflection. Moving further up the evolutionary tree, human beings have both a lizard and an emotional brain and also a thinking brain. It is this, the neocortex, which allows for more complex emotions like guilt and love and for the possibility of intelligent emotions.

In man, brain signals usually travel from the lizard brain – the brainstem -to the higher brain - the neocortex- and then on to the emotional brain, the limbic system. Were this the whole story, managing emotions intelligently would simply be a matter of catching thoughts associated with emotions and ensuring that they are realistic and appropriate, before they reach the limbic system. Cognitive therapy would be the answer 

However the work of two recent researchers, Joseph LeDoux and Antonio Damasio, suggests a more complex picture. Both LeDoux and Damasio stress the importance of one small part of the limbic system - an almond-shaped cluster called the amygdala. LeDoux’s research – which was based on observation of fear in mice - points to the existence of a ‘neural back alley’. Signals are sometimes sent to the amygdala before they reach the neocortex. So you sometimes feel and act before the neocortex even gets a chance to process the information. In time, the neocortex may refine your emotion but in some cases – which Goleman terms ‘emotional hijackings’ – the alarm generated by the amygdala is so strong that the soothing of the neocortex has little effect.

The amygdala responds quickly, but its logic is crude association. If you once had a nasty redheaded nanny, even now your instant reaction to redheads and nannies may be negative. Since many associations are formed early in life, Goleman thinks that your early years present a crucial ‘window of opportunity’ for emotional intelligence. Retraining in later life, according to Goleman, is no easy matter.

Antonio Damasio’s research has found that patients whose link between the amygdala and neocortex has been damaged exhibit extremely poor decision-making skills. The amygdala is a storehouse of emotional reactions. People without access to this storehouse are rather like a rambler without a compass; they can spot alternative paths, but they have no idea how to evaluate them. The amygdala can sometimes cause emotional dumbness, as with over-hasty actions and emotional hijackings, but Damasio’s research suggests that it is also required for emotional wisdom. We need to train and listen to the amygdala, not suppress it.

The 3 parts of the brain

            The three parts of the brain - lizard, emotional and rational - in a nutshell

Part of brain





Lizard brain

Brain stem

Lower animals (including reptiles), mammals and humans

Reflex action

No emotion, just instinctual drives and reactions

Emotional brain

Limbic system – including amygdala

Mammals including humans


Black and white, personalised, self-confirming

Automatic, fast, unreasoned, gut reaction e.g. lust

Can ‘hijack’ the neocortex.

Rational brain



Cause and effect,

Can think probabilistically

& take impersonal viewpoint

Relatively slow, reasoned emotional reactions e.g. love

Psychotherapy, Counselling & Life Coaching from the author of this page, Tim LeBon is available now in Central London 

Express your interest in  a consultation now


A talk with Joseph LeDoux

Management wisdom from a neuroscientist - LeDoux and  business

Joseph LeDoux's Amygdala Complex

Joseph Ledoux Home Page

Free extract from The Emotional Brain


Dan Dennett's review of Descartes' Error by Antonio Damasio

Some reviews of Descartes' Error by Antonio Damasio

Another review of Descartes' Error by Antonia Damasio

Review of The  Feeling of What Happens by Antonia Damasio

Read an extract from Descartes' Error by Antonio Damasio


Dyaln Evans The Emotions
A short, clearly-written book - a good place to start
Buy now from now from


Limbic System The Center of Emotions - good article on the three areas of the brain

NEUROSCIENCE an introduction for young students

Free pdf book from the British Neuroscience Association

Brain and Mind Magazine

At the Frontier of Science -Article

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