Message in The Music

By Leah Hochbaum

Published January 05, 2007, issue of January 05, 2007.

Even scientists need to get their groove on sometimes. So, after presenting a lecture titled “Fearful Brains in an Anxious World,” renowned neuroscientist and New York University professor Joseph LeDoux doffed his scholarly persona and strapped on a guitar. It was time for some Brain Rock.

LeDoux’s band, The Amygdaloids, is named for the part of the brain that LeDoux studies. All the band members are affiliated with NYU in some manner:former Israeli soldier and current neuroscience post-doctoral fellow Daniela Schiller on drums; Nina Galbraith Curley, a master’s student in neuroscience, on bass, and Tyler Volk, an environmental scientist who teaches in the biology department, on guitar. The Amygdaloids premiered worldwide recently at Union Hall, a performance space in the Park Slope area of Brooklyn. Science majors filled the retro-chic locale to catch a set of blues-tinged tunes played by some of the best minds in academia.

“We’ve got a little set about mental disorders worked up,” said LeDoux, 56, author of “The Emotional Brain: The Mysterious Underpinnings of Emotional Life” (Simon & Schuster, 1996) and “Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are” (Viking, 2002), before the show.

Dubbed “Brain Rock,” the set list includes covers of such cerebral hits as Jimi Hendrix’s “Manic Depression” and “Purple Haze” and The Rolling Stones’ “19th Nervous Breakdown,” as well as some original works by LeDoux and Volk.

The group’s main objective is to increase awareness of mental health issues through music by promoting research in the field.

“As a scientist, I try to reach out to the public by writing books,” LeDoux said. “But this is a totally different way to get the message out.”

And what a message it is. LeDoux’s original song “All in a Nut” deals with the psychology of fear, while his “Mind Body Problem” is about the occasional and disturbing disconnect between the two.

Colleagues LeDoux and Volk began jamming together regularly after discovering a shared aptitude for the guitar. Months later, at a faculty function, Schiller volunteered her services — and her drum kit. She then introduced the men to Curley, and the foursome was officially complete.

The focus on music for and about the mind was a given, since three of the band’s members are neuroscientists. Plus, LeDoux can’t remember a time before his life revolved around the brain.

As a child, he cultivated his love for gray matter while working for his father’s butcher shop in his hometown of Eunice, La.

“My job was to pull the bullets out [of the brains] so customers wouldn’t be chewing on lead,” LeDoux said, laughing. “It was an intense experience. And the parts of the animals that interested me the most were the slimy, wiggly brains.”

After high school he escaped the small Cajun town to attend Louisiana State University, where he studied business. “It wasn’t until I was halfway through a master’s in marketing that I realized it wasn’t what I wanted to do.”

So he went back to his old standby, the brain, earning a Ph.D. in psychology from the State University of New York at Stony Brook. He joined NYU in 1989 and has been studying what’s inside the skull ever since. Until music called, that is.

In his nearly six decades on the planet, he’s been an almost-businessman, a neuroscientist and now, a musician on the cusp of rock stardom (or at least a musician who’s played before a crowd). Would he be willing to change careers yet again? “It’s not out of the question,” LeDoux said.

He seems willing to follow his mind wherever it may lead him. After all, it hasn’t steered him wrong yet.

Leah Hochbaum is a freelance writer living in New York.



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