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Where Does Your Fear Come From?

Kevin Cook
  • (0:45) - Twitter Discoveries: The Deep History of Ourselves
  • (6:00) - Awareness of Fear: Human vs. Animal Instincts
  • (11:30) - Acting out of Fear: Being Aware Of Your Emotions When Investing
  • (21:15) - Insights From Joseph LeDoux
  • (30:20) - Episode Roundup: Podcast@Zacks.com

Welcome back to Mind Over Money. I'm Kevin Cook, your field guide and story teller for the fascinating arena of behavioral economics.

I love Twitter TWTR. Not just because it's the fastest place to get news and expert analysis, but more so because it is a knowledge portal to just about everything that interests me, all in one place, all easily accessible from my phone.

In any given moment, I can be witnessing live posts and interactions from experts across a dozen of what I call "communities of knowledge," from science, politics, education and economics to nutrition, fitness, psychology, and entrepreneurship.

On any given day, I can also find a dozen knowledge rabbit holes to run down. Therein lies some danger in being distracted.

But every week brings some new person or source of knowledge that I wonder how I lived without.

A couple of weeks ago was no exception as I found neuroscientist Lisa Feldman Barrett posting her recent book review in Nature of Joseph LeDoux's new work The Deep History of Ourselves: The Four-Billion-Year Story of How We Got Conscious Brains.

I talked about Dr. Barrett's work and her 2017 book How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain in my June 2018 podcast...

3 Rules of Wealth for Bull Markets

I had read parts of some older LeDoux books like The Emotional Brain and Synaptic Self. He was widely known for his focused research on fear. In the lab, he and his colleagues used rodents for experiments since, like all mammals -- and nearly all vertebrate brains -- they share a brain structure called the amygdala.

By the way, did you know about 40% of all mammal species are rodents -- that's 2,277 species!

The amygdala, derived from the Greek word "almond," owing to the structure's almond-like shape, performs a primary role in the processing of memory, decision-making and autonomic emotional responses including fear, anxiety, and aggression. It is located deep in the brain's medial temporal lobe.

In the podcast, I read a passage from Dr. Barrett's book review because something really struck me that I had been wrestling with for years about understanding fear.

And that is the fear that animals experience. Another community I frequent on Twitter is anything involving interesting or fun animal behavior. I have two young daughters and that's something we can always share, whether it's exotic animals in far off places or just kittens and puppies being themselves. Last week I saw an incredible video of a man courageously releasing a wolf from a trap in the wild.

But lately, I've noticed a lot of "cat attacks and scares off bear" videos.

And as I thought about it, I've always been fascinated with how fearless some animals can seem in combat. How is this possible?

Well, Joseph LeDoux, whose name wrongly became synonymous with the idea that the amygdala was the fear center that all animals shared, has been trying to tell us for years.

In the podcast, I explain it as well as I can with the help of Dr. Barrett. From her book review in Nature...

For example, many scientists still assume that emotions are a legacy of some ancient mammalian ancestor, and that they lurk in subcortical circuitry which has supposedly remained largely unchanged by evolution. LeDoux explains how this view leads otherwise gifted researchers to wrongly believe that when humans and non-human animals perform similar actions, these are accompanied by similar feelings — the same anthropomorphism that led him to redraw the map of fear. He concludes that such magical thinking has interfered with the search for medications to treat anxiety disorders, which now affect a record high of hundreds of millions of people globally.

I also mention a resource to give you an introduction to Joseph LeDoux's work and his new book The Deep History of Ourselves: The Four-Billion-Year Story of How We Got Conscious Brains.

On his Twitter feed @TheAmygdaloid, I found a Facebook FB Livestream LeDoux did where he gives a good 10-minute introduction to the book and then further discussion with economist Jeffrey Sachs, the Columbia University professor known as one of the world's leading experts on economic development and the fight against poverty.

Unfortunately, after watching the event on Tuesday September 17 (after it live-streamed on Sep 12), the URL has now expired. I think that's how Facebook works those.

So instead, I searched for some other links for you and found some good things in surprising places -- like the Joe Rogan Experience where Mr. LeDoux just made an appearance very recently I believe...

1) Why Xanax Doesn't Stop Anxiety

Even if you don't care for Joe the UFC guy, this 10-minute clip not only gives Joseph the neuroscientist a chance to answer the Xanax question, but he also succinctly sums up how the amygdala works as a subconscious sensory filter for danger separate from our experience of fear as a mental construction, assembled by our prefrontal cortex from past memories and feelings.

He also refers to the possibility of humans having an anxiety "set point" whereby each of us can tolerate a certain level of stress and that once something anxiety-causing has been removed, we can handle filling our cup of stress back up.

2) Lectures & Talks (on Joseph-LeDoux.com)

Of note, LeDoux went to college to study business and only later stumbled into neuroscience. In 1968, LeDoux attended Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge where he majored in Business Administration and minored in Psychology. In 1972 he began work on a Masters of Science in Marketing from LSU. During this time, his interest in psychology grew and he volunteered in the laboratory of Robert Thompson, who introduced him to brain research. He later joined the Department of Neurology at Cornell Medical School and worked in the Neurobiology Laboratory. There he developed an interest in the topic of emotion through his doctoral work with Michael Gazzaniga on split-brain patients in the mid-1970s.

And if you do like Joe Rogan, here's another good 8-minute clip from episode #1344 with Joseph LeDoux...

3) What Everyone Gets Wrong About Anxiety

In this one, LeDoux explains in his own words how his work became associated with the wrong idea, namely, that the amygdala was the center of our experience of fear.

Even better he goes into the pharmacological basis of most anxiety drugs and why they don't really achieve what most patients are seeking in terms of stress reduction.

The Feeling of What Happens

When I think back to what pulled me the most into studying neuroscience nearly 20 years ago, it would have to be my curiosity about how emotions impacted decision-making, especially where it came to investing and trading in financial markets.

It was fascinating for me to learn -- and practice what I was learning as a professional currency trader -- that your mind and body were going to have reactions to the stress and uncertainty of trading that weren't always in the best interests of long-term success.

And it wasn't so much about controlling one's emotions as learning to anticipate, interpret, and process feelings like fear, regret, and despair by having a set of processes for decision-making that could either lessen their severity or recover from them more quickly.

My first podcast here in June of 2016 goes over that evolution of thought and the research I did both as a trader, an observer and trainer of traders, and a reader of books by the neuroscientists...

Mental Models of Financial Sabotage

The field of neuroscience is thankfully one full of practitioners who are not afraid to be wrong and can vet each other's work.

And just as the advancement in imaging tools of the past 20 years has vaulted their knowledge, we could be on the verge of another leap forward with combined capabilities of machine learning and AI.

To wit, NVIDIA NVDA "artificial intelligence" technologies are being employed by the Sydney Neuroimaging Analysis Centre (SNAC) to help speed up brain scan analysis for clinicians. Here was the NVIDIA press release on August 20...

AI Frame of Mind: Neural Networks Bring Speed, Consistency to Brain Scan Analysis

In the field of neuroimaging, two heads are better than one. So radiologists around the globe are exploring the use of AI tools to share their heavy workloads — and improve the consistency, speed and accuracy of brain scan analysis.

“We often refer to manual annotation as the gold standard for neuroimaging, when it’s actually probably not,” said Tim Wang, director of operations at the Sydney Neuroimaging Analysis Centre, or SNAC. “In many cases, AI provides a more consistent, less biased evaluation than manual classification or segmentation.”

An Australian company co-located with the University of Sydney’s Brain and Mind Centre, SNAC conducts neuroimaging research as well as commercial image analysis for clinical research trials. The center is building AI tools to automate laborious analysis tasks in their research workflow, like isolating brain images from head scans and segmenting brain lesions.

(end of excerpt from NVIDIA news blog)

Millennial Fears: Technology Changes Everything

I started this podcast because of my fascination with the intersection of brains, investing, and technology.

And I am rarely at a loss for a new example of how technology changes behavior. As I put the finishing touches on this article, I thought I'd do an internet search for "top Millennial fears." The answers from TechExplorist.com were quite fun...

1. Spiders (37%)
2. Phone running out of battery (31%)
3. Fear of sending a text to the wrong person (26%)
4. Missing a flight (24%)
5. Having no Wi-Fi (24%)
6. Heights (24%)
7. Bees/wasps (23%)
8. Missing a train (22%)
9. Deep water (20%)
10. Social situations (20%)
11. Having my photo taken from a bad angle (19%)

Note that #'s 2, 3, 5, and 11 are all very recent developments, due to technology innovations changing the world and behavior.

Clearly, Apple AAPL dramatically altered life with the smartphone. I done several episodes and articles about that topic, with these from January and June 2018 some of the best...

Apple iPhones Give Me the Feelies

Dopamine and the Weather, Part 1

The Death of Innovation in a Late-Cycle Bull Market?

Finally, in other news Microsoft MSFT announced after the close Wednesday they are launching a $40 billion share buyback.

My first reaction was about the demise of innovation when this amount of capital is spent to reward shareholders in the short-run. And I'm only half joking.

With all that's going on in technologies that are transforming the world like AI, big-data, automation, and gene editing -- all that Satya Nadella can come up with is a giant buyback?

They should have spent $10-15 billion to buy Alteryx AYX, my favorite big-data analytics engine.

Oh well. Alteryx will probably grow to $10 billion on its own over the next year anyway.

One more thing. The study of brains and fear can obviously fill lifetimes, as Joseph LeDoux, Lisa Barrett, Michael Gazzaniga, Candace Pert, and the grand old man Eric Kandel can well attest.

So that means if you enjoyed this discussion, it really could be just the start of more exploration. And I myself have even more questions than when I began.

Here are some of my initial questions for Dr. LeDoux...

1. Did you roll "freeze" into “fight or flight?” I understand the importance of the freeze reflex. Is it universal in vertebrates?

2. Do animals respond with "fight or flight" sans fear? What about animals who appear afraid? Is that just human perception ascribing feelings to observed behavior?

3. It sounds like humans can accelerate hormones like adrenaline and/or norepinephrine simply with their thoughts, memories and “mental constructs” of fear. Is this ever the case with animals if you simply show them the blue square (not subliminally)?

The last question is based on research work LeDoux did with Elizabeth Phelps at Harvard, as he describes in the video clip on Xanax. Phelps, a cognitive neuroscientist known for her research at the intersection of memory, learning, and emotion, designed experiments where human subjects were given a slight shock when shown an image of a blue square. After that conditioning, then the image was only flashed subliminally. What they observed was that the amygdala could detect the threat and this was evidenced in physiological responses like heart rate and sweaty palms, but there was no conscious experience of fear.

Bottom line: Understanding our own fear responses is really important not just for investing but also for our future as political animals.

Thanks for being a part of the discussion and don't be afraid to take it further with all the resources I've linked to!