You know, The Synaptic Self sounds an awful lot like Blink, I said to myself mere moments ago when I was reading the introduction. Pithy stories? Check! The only Descartes line anyone remembers? Check. Discussion the subtle and intricate interplay between conscious and unconscious? Oh man, now I feel like Gladwell grabbed half his book from LeDoux.
In my high school AP Psych class, our teacher, a half-crazed overly enthusiastic lady, tried to make us remember LeDoux with the phrase “What can Ledoux… do for you?” Haha. It rhymes. I have no idea what she taught us about him, but I can tell you this much: smart dude.
Smart enough that when I was reading it, The Synaptic Self sounded pretty obvious to me (I mean, the first chapter at least). I think that tells us something. Not that I’m particularly knowledgeable, because I’m not. It speaks to the prevalence of the ideas that he expresses broadly in this book, 9 years after it was published. I did a bit of internet research, and the novelty of the ideas expressed in TSS seems to be a topic little discussed – not terribly surprising, considering that it’s an old book and the genesis of good concepts is often hard to track down. One site I found said that while synapses had been prior discussed in book form and selfhood had been tied to memories, this was a new way of combining those pieces of information into a whole. Nifty!
If that’s right, LeDoux was somewhat of a pioneer in 2002. The stress on synapses as the substrate of cognition is something that I don’t think I’ve seen elsewhere, but there are many concepts that return from general knowledge that I picked up in class and in books like Blink and The Accidental Mind (by Harvard’s David Linden). Stuff like plasticity, the importance of the unconscious in all levels of function, the newness evolutionarily of the conscious, genetic prerogatives like the freezing fear response, and the reduction of humanity to our functional subunits (though other sources I’ve read tend to generalize this to neurons or be a bit more vague).
I am coming to the tentative conclusion that LeDoux’s ideas are perhaps the genesis of, and certainly an important part of, a movement to try to understand the identity of humans as nigh random collections of cell bundles in a way that’s comprehensible to the non-neuroscientist collections of cell bundles.
Here’s a link to a video that takes a deep and searching look at the nature of unconscious transitions, modulated (of course) by our synaptic self.