The following are the notes I used for my presentation to the Atheist Society on “The Emotional Brain” on 12 July 2005 at the Trades Hall, Carlton.


I have no tertiary science qualifications. I did well in science at school and was awarded a cadetship in Engineering. After two years at Melbourne University I began an eighteen year career in administration with the Postmaster General’s Department followed by eighteen years with Australia Post. I took early retirement in 1993 and reading up on science has been one of my activities over the past twelve years.

Although I attended a meeting of the Atheist Society in 1998 I have only been coming here regularly since this year. I have been a member of the Atheist Foundation of Australia (AFA) for some years but, since they are based in South Australia, I haven’t been involved in AFA activities. I have met some AFA members since coming here and am enjoying the fellowship. This talk in no way is endorsed by the AFA although I hope to have an article based on this talk published in their newsletter or magazine. I would like to urge any serious atheists to sign up. They have an excellent web site.

I have been interested in human behaviour since my teenage years when I began to question the protestant religion of my parents. By the time I had my own children I had become well and truly a confirmed atheist. It is only recently that I have become concerned with the damage that is being done by the dominant religions to individuals, institutions, nations and the world generally. The inability of the human race to manage violence and sustain peace disgusts me. With the knowledge we have today and the available technologies I’m certain we could be doing a lot better. One step in this direction is to better understand our true nature including the emotional human brain.

Ken Young
July 2005



1. What is the Emotional Brain?
2. How was this discovery made?
3. What’s the problem?
4. Suggested Solutions
5. Summary and Conclusions


The emotional brain (EB) is that part of the human brain that generates emotions.

Philosophers and poets have long known the difference between thinking with the head and the heart. Now we have scientific evidence to support this difference, except it’s all in the head and there are some interesting discoveries.

The EB operates subconsciously processing the same information coming into the conscious thinking brain (TB)

Because the EB does it quicker than the TB we can act before we are consciously aware of why we’ve acted. The TB then analyses why we acted and it can generally come up with an answer, even if the answer is only “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”

The EB has its own memory and its own logic.

Sometimes the logic of the EB appears irrational. Its logic has been “selected for” by the evolutionary processes of nature. Some would say “designed” by evolution but evolution does not design – nature selects. Some would say designed by a god without any qualification or question.

As well as nature, which uses DNA as a recipe and not a blue print, the EB is capable of learning and remembering what feels good and what feels bad. Thus the environment nurtures us.

When ever we meet a new situation it is important to be able to evaluate quickly if we are in danger or if we are in a situation where we can gain an advantage. If we take too long we may be dead or at least miss out on something that will give us a survival or procreative advantage.

In the modern world emotional behaviour is frowned upon. We now rely on our TB to think before we act. We avoid acting in haste and in some cases avoid acting at all. This inaction can often lead to a build up of feelings that often pop out in the most inappropriate way.

Nevertheless the TB has taken over and we are suffering as a result. Many of us are unhealthy – physically and mentally. Many of the people on this planet are suffering from depravation and illness. I will be suggesting that some of this is due to the more recent dominance of the TB.

The TB is leading many people in all sorts of destructive directions as recent events have shown. The belief systems of those who worship power, attribute it to their god, and then justify their own abuse of power over others, in the name of that god, disgust me. It is the TB that creates these crazy belief systems. We need to get back in touch with the humanity and health giving properties of the EB.

What makes me think this way?



Split-brain surgery is a procedure in which the nerve connections between the two sides or hemispheres of the brain are severed in an attempt to control very severe epilepsy.
In the 1960s and 70s psychologist Michael S. Gazzaniga worked with patients who had undergone this surgery.
As a result he made a number of discoveries regarding the way the left and right hemispheres of the brain process information differently.

The discovery by LeDoux of the separate pathways for emotions and thoughts

Working with Gazzaniga in the 1970s Joseph LeDoux became hooked on studying the emotional brain when they discovered that emotions where still getting through to both hemispheres even though the hemispheres were disconnected.
This discovery suggested emotions were processed by another part of the brain using separate pathways. LeDoux then spent many years studying these pathways using rats.
In 1998 LeDoux published his findings in The Emotional Brain, the mysterious underpinnings of emotional life.
I quote from the Preface of his 1998 book “At that time (the late 70s) very few brain scientists were interested in emotions. In the intervening years, and especially recently, the topic has begun to be fairly heavily investigated, and a good deal of progress has been made. I thought it was time to share some of this information with the general public.

“The Emotional Brain provides an overview of my ideas about how emotions come from the brain. It is not meant as an all-encompassing survey of every aspect of how the brain produces emotions. It focuses on those issues that have interested me most, namely issues about how the brain detects and responds to emotionally arousing stimuli, how emotional learning occurs and emotional memories are formed, and how our conscious emotional feelings emerge from unconscious processes.”

Multiple Intelligences

We’ll hear more about Gazzaniga and LeDoux later but first a word about multiple intelligences
In 1983 Howard Gardner wrote a book called Frames of Mind in which he proposed that there was not just one monolithic kind of intelligence that was crucial for life success, but rather a wide spectrum of intelligences, with seven key varieties.
His list includes the two standard academic kinds, verbal and mathematical-logical alacrity, but it goes on to include spatial capacity, kinesthetic competence, musical ability and the personal intelligences divided into inter-personal and intra-personal.
I haven’t read this work but this summary has been taken from Daniel Goleman’s book – Emotional Intelligence.

Emotional Intelligence – Goleman

In 1996 psychologist Daniel Goleman’s book, “Emotional Intelligence – Why it can matter more than IQ” was published by Bloomsbury and became a number one best seller.
The paperback version is still prominent in bookstores today along with his more recent books. In Emotional Intelligence Goleman tells the following story under the heading of “Our Two Minds”
“A friend was telling me about her divorce, a painful separation. Her husband had fallen in love with a younger woman at work, and suddenly announced he was leaving to live with the other woman. Months of bitter wrangling over house, money, and custody of the children followed. Now, some months later, she was saying that her independence was appealing to her, that she was happy to be on her own. “I just don’t think about him anymore – I really don’t care” she said. But as she said it, her eyes momentarily welled up with tears.
“That moment of teary eyes could easily pass unnoted. But the empathic understanding that someone’s watering eyes means she is sad despite her words to the contrary is an act of comprehending just as surely as is distilling meaning from words on a printed page. One is an act of the emotional mind, the other of the rational mind. In a very real sense we have two minds, one that thinks and one that feels.”
As a result of Goleman’s books millions of people have been able to get a better fix on their emotional nature and have been able to develop into more aware and empathetic people. Business people now use his work in management training courses.

Publication of “The Emotional Brain” LeDoux

Daniel Goleman’s book Emotional Intelligence was published in 1996 before LeDoux’s book The Emotional Brain in 1998. LeDoux had published quite a lot prior to this and Daniel Goleman had interviewed him often. Much of Goleman’s book is based on the work of LeDoux
It would be impossible to cover the whole of LeDoux’s work here but Jacobs in The Ancestral Mind summarizes the significant findings. Jacobs first comments here on the growing scientific awareness of the impact of unconscious processes on our thoughts.
“But it was the work of neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux, building on these earlier studies, that provided the physiological evidence for the key role played by unconscious processing in our emotional life. ….
“But LeDoux’s critical finding was that input arrives at the amygdala before it reaches the cortex. What this means is that the amygdala allows us to intuitively “read” emotional stimuli and respond to them instantly, before we are consciously aware of precisely what we are responding to. …
“In fact, some emotional stimuli may never even reach the neocortex or conscious awareness because the reticular formation does not always generate sufficient arousal to activate thalamocortical transmission or registration in working memory.
“Extrapolating his finding into human terms, LeDoux demonstrated that natural selection placed its trust primarily in the unconscious processes of the Ancestral Mind, not the processes of the conscious Thinking Mind. It knew that in critical situations, the Ancestral Mind could be counted on as the wiser, more experienced observer and reliable guardian to keep us from harm.”

This new awareness of the functioning of the emotional brain is gradually filtering through the scientific establishment, particularly the brain sciences. This year the topic even made the local paper.


In this year’s Australia Day Honours the 80 year old Australian scientist, Professor Derek Denton, was made a Companion of the Order of Australia. The Age of 26 January 2005 reported on page 6 as follows.

“Buried just under the surface of our conscious mind are the basic primal urges: the need to breathe, drink and the desire for sex. It was while studying another of these needs, the hunger for salt, that Derek Denton encountered a great scientific question – how did the conscious mind evolve in the first place?

Nearly 400 years earlier, another scientist facing this question came up with the philosophical observation: “I think, therefore I am.” Rene Descartes was trying to highlight what he believed was the uniqueness of the human species. It was his belief that our mind is separate from our body.
Professor Denton disagrees. He believes human consciousness can be traced through the evolution of our species, as with any physical attribute. “Consciousness, as we know it, evolved progressively from those basic primal urges.” He said that what we refer to as the mind is something we gained because it gave us a survival advantage. When history examines his legacy it might be for his aphorism: “The mind is what the brain does.”

Here Denton refers to the subconscious primal urge generation function of the brain as well as the conscious thinking function of the brain and defines the terms “Brain” and “Mind”. I use the term brain to include the mind. Jacobs obviously prefers to use “Mind” but I suspect that is because many religious people can’t come to grips with their minds being a bodily organ and not a magic soul type of thing.



DANIEL GOLEMAN – From Emotional Intelligence
“These are times when the fabric of society seems to unravel at even greater speed, when selfishness, violence, and a meanness of spirit seem to be rotting the goodness of our communal lives. Here the argument for the importance of emotional intelligence hinges on the link between sentiment, character, and moral instincts. There is growing evidence that fundamental ethical stances in life stem from underlying emotional capacities. For one, impulse is the medium of emotion; the seed of all impulse is a feeling bursting to express itself in action. Those who are at the mercy of impulse – who lack self-control – suffer a moral deficiency: The ability to control impulse is the base of will and character. By the same token, the root of altruism lies in empathy, the ability to read emotions in others; lacking a sense of another’s need or despair, there is no caring. And if there are any two moral stances that our times call for, they are precisely these, self-restraint and compassion.”


More recently (2003) Gregg D. Jacobs has written The Ancestral Mind. Jacobs expands on the work of LeDoux demonstrating that much emotional processing is performed in the more primitive parts of the brain we humans share with other animals. Jacobs suggests that the more modern Thinking Mind has taken off to process the internal thoughts we now have as a result of language. The Thinking Mind is an add-on to the Ancestral Mind humans had before we had developed complex language. At that time we had our well developed Ancestral Mind that provided us with all the repertoire of responses necessary to survive and procreate.

I appreciate that it is hard to think what it would be like to be human but not have language. Our ancestors would naturally have been very responsive to their emotions. The Emotional Brain of LeDoux is now a part of the Ancestral Mind. Jacobs proposes that the Thinking Mind has, since language, taken over from the Ancestral Mind and is now the main source of our modern conscious awareness. He suggests it has become a tyrant and is responsible for many of the ills that beset humans and human society as well as our greatest asset.

The general thrust of Part 1 of The Ancestral Mind is that many of the modern diseases and social malaises of modern times have come about because of what he calls “the tyranny of the Thinking Mind” (TM) over the Ancestral Mind (AM).

It all began with the development of complex human language which enabled humans to conduct an internal dialog. This conjured up images of disastrous futures and other negative thoughts that had an unhealthy impact on the body. The flight or fight hormones that usually only fired up when a real and obvious threat appeared were being continuously brought into play.
We’ve never had it so good but we’re not any happier and in fact we have sleep disorders, digestive disorders, headaches, anxiety, depression, anger and hostility not to mention many other stress related illnesses.
The progress of the Thinking Mind has been increasing with every new development in civilization – trade, farming and property demarcation, the industrial revolution and family disruption, new technologies and more recent globalization and communications revolutions. The Thinking Mind has more and more taken over and become a tyrant in modern living.

Jacobs suggests “During the past 400 years of material progress, the Ancestral Mind, a more intuitive entity, and one more at home with feelings and images than with facts and figures, spreadsheets and time cards, has been increasingly relegated to the attic, like some unhinged and embarrassing relation in a gothic novel.” (pps5&6)

Here are some quotes from the beginning of Chapter One headed The Tyranny of the Thinking Mind
“Many scholars point to the evolution of language, and a written system of recording it, as the primary catalysts for the development of the self-consciousness that led, perhaps, to our loss of innocence.”
“Language is an essential medium for all the activities we associate with the TM:
. Conscious awareness and reflection
. Analytical and abstract reasoning
. Problem solving and skill learning”
“The dark side of linguistic ability as an aspect of consciousness is that, as soon as something is expressed concretely as a word, the word has already been substituted for the full experience of the thing itself. This loss of immediate experience separated us from the vibrancy of the real world, we are only in touch with the words that have come to represent it.”
“The Thinking Mind enabled us to a large extent step outside natural selection.”

We are now exercising much more control over nature than ever before. The advantage of language has come at some cost.


DANIEL GOLEMAN PH. D. – Psychologist, journalist, author, and lecturer is currently co-chairman of The Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence in Organizations, based in the Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology at Rutgers University, which seeks to recommend best practices for developing emotional competence. Goleman would almost certainly say that we can improve the current situation if more people were trained to develop their emotional intelligence. Both Goleman and Emotional Intelligence (EI) have their critics.

According to the registration form for the forthcoming International Symposium on Emotional Intelligence to be held at Swinburne University of Technology, here in Melbourne, on Friday 15 July 2005 – “The field of emotional intelligence (EI) is growing at a rapid rate. EI is being used in a variety of applications including the workplace, the school system and for personal development. It has been suggested that EI is important for leadership, performance, scholastic success, life satisfaction and inter-personal relationships. Over the last 5 years many models and tests of emotional intelligence have emerged.”


Jacobs points out that the ancestral way of life was free of wars and people behaved in a more altruistic and co-operative way. The aim, however, is not to revert to our ancient ways but to develop techniques to regain some of the qualities of life we had when the Ancestral Mind was in charge. Part 2 of The Ancestral Mind has eight chapters on different techniques for reclaiming a connection with the Ancestral Mind and its healing powers. These include various meditation and relaxation techniques.
One section headed “The Power and Biology of Faith” suggests – “religious faith and spirituality may contribute to the reduction of stress and the improvement of health. Consider the following:
Those with religious beliefs have lower rates of suicide, drug use, juvenile delinquency, divorce, and morbidity and mortality. Overall, at least six studies in the past several years have consistently found that religious involvement is associated with a 25 percent reduction in mortality, which is equivalent to a seven-year difference in survival.”

One quote on the AFA website has Bernard Shaw suggesting “The fact that a believer is happier than a skeptic is no more to the point than the fact that a drunken man is happier than a sober one. The happiness of credulity is a cheap and dangerous quality.”

Another one I like is from Albert Einstein. “A man’s ethical behaviour should be based effectually on sympathy, education, and social ties and needs; no religious basis is necessary. Man would indeed be in a poor way if he had to be restrained by fear of punishment and hope of reward after death.”

The AFA website has pages of Quotes, Bloopers and Cartoons if ever you need a god laugh. I would like to think we atheists can be as healthy and happy as religionists if we put our minds to it.

Back to “The Ancestral Mind.” Other sections of Part 2 of this Chapter (Seven) headed “The Power of Stress-Reducing Attitudes and Beliefs” include sections entitled
“Optimism” (refer to Seligman and Learned Optimism)
“Anger: The Toxic Emotion” – this section includes eleven exercises for reducing anger
“Laugh Your Stress Away”
“Using Positive Illusions and Denial to Manage Stress”

The other Chapters in Part 2 of the book are entitled
“Taming Toxic Thoughts” – includes conscious stress management techniques.
“Social Support and Stress Hardiness” – see page 115
“Opening the Door to the AM: The Relaxation Response”
Refer to Ainslie Meares and the Dali Lama
“Before Words, Images Were” – see page 139
“The Ancestral Mind’s Minimal Daily Requirements”
– includes consideration of music, natural sunlight and physical exercise.
“Solitude and Wilderness: Medicine for the Soul”
“Through the Eyes of a Child”

The cover of The Ancestral Mind suggests it is a self-help book with statements like “A revolutionary, scientifically validated program for reactivating the deepest part of the mind” and “Reclaim the power” but I think it is better than that. I think it provides a great insight to the way in which our human brains work and the underlying causes of the challenges facing us as humans. We are not perfect but we can be beautiful people.

JOSEPH LEDOUX is a Professor at the Centre for Neural Science at New York University.

In his summary LeDoux ponders the evolutionary path of the human brain and comments on “the struggle between thought and emotion.”
In the final paragraph of The Emotional Brain he states –
“Oscar Wilde once said ‘It is because Humanity has never known where it is going that it has been able to find its way.’ But wouldn’t it be wonderful if we did understand where our emotions were taking us from moment to moment, day to day, and year to year, and why? If the trends toward cognitive-emotional connectivity in the brain are any indication, our brains may, in fact, be moving in this direction.”


Recently Michael S. Gazzaniga had an article in the weekly magazine, New Scientist, 11 June 2005, entitled “What’s on your mind?” Currently he “is director of the Centre for Cognitive Neuroscience at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, where he researches split brains and is editor-in-chief emeritus of the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience. He is a member of the US President’s Council on Bioethics. His most recent book is The Ethical Brain (Dana Press, May 2005).” In the article he states –

“Belief formation is one of the most important areas in which cognitive neuroscience needs to teach something to ethicists and to the world. The brain forms beliefs based on contextual information, and those beliefs are hard to change. If you know that, it is hard to accept the wars that rage and the lives that are lost due to differences between belief systems. At another level, however, it should come as no surprise that people are behaving as they do: we are wired to form beliefs and to form theories.

“In this view religious beliefs are meta-narratives, rationales we provide for our actions. Common moral reasoning may be built in to humanity, but the stories that attempt to explain and to the answer to “why” questions about its results are social constructs. If we could come to understand and accept that the true sources of different belief systems are socially institutionalised theories of interpretation of our actions, then it seems to me we could go a long way to accepting their differences of narrative. There are no universal differences in how humans exist in the world.
“As we continue to uncover and understand the ways in which the brain enables belief formation and moral reasoning, we must work to identify what the intrinsic set of universal ethics might be. It is a revolutionary idea, but clinging to outmoded belief systems and even fighting wars over them in the light of this knowledge is, in a word, unethical.”

If this doesn’t give serious thinkers, including atheists, a rallying call then nothing will.


The aspects of the emotional brain that I find dramatic are –
It operates subconsciously and quite separately from the thinking mind;
It often causes us to act before we’ve had time to think;
Because it has been built to our DNA recipe, and by our experiences it contributes significantly to the differences between individual personalities.

Add these to the motivation function of the emotional brain and you could say we don’t really know why we do anything.*

* I didn’t use the following notes but have included them for the record

However, since the thinking brain is extremely good at rationalizing our actions we appear to know exactly why. I suspect this is because we continuously evaluate our actions so we can justify them. If we can’t justify them then we manage our emotions accordingly – or at least most of us do most of the time. Effectively we do things because we feel like it, or expect to feel bad if we don’t. These feelings arise from unconscious processes over which we have little control. They are a product of the basic architecture of the brain with nurturing from the environment. It’s nature and nurture and not nature versus nurture.

Another aspect I find dramatic is the duality, and even plurality, of our mental processes. Many processes are occurring at the same time, in parallel, and most of them are subconscious. For example much of the brain is given to handling visual information. Separate areas of the brain deal with what we see at any time – colour, shape, texture, movement, significance, names, related memories, distance, etc. Our conscious brain is totally unaware of this processing. It just gets the resultant thoughts about what we think we can see.

This multiplicity of brain processes gives lie to the suggestion we are a single entity. If any one area is damaged we can become a different person. If we have one area developed more than average we may have additional talents that few others have. Since we are not a single entity and our consciousness depends on our brain function it is hard to see any enduring soul surviving our death.

I think recent developments in understanding the emotional brain have a great potential for giving atheists a sound basis for their philosophical position. I suspect they also spell doom for religions that manipulate their flocks into a false sense of security, or a certainty, that many atheists know does not exist. We may even be on track to find the antidote for fundamentalism and terrorism. I live in hope.

By Ken Young