2015 William James Fellow Award

Joseph LeDoux

New York University

Joseph LeDoux is one of the world’s leaders in psychology and neuroscience. His empirical research represents one of the cornerstones in the understanding of brain-behavior relationships. LeDoux is known for his systematic, careful, and elegant experiments, which have revealed the neural and molecular mechanisms that support Pavlovian aversive conditioning (what earlier in his career he called fear learning). Because of LeDoux’s groundbreaking research, we now understand the synaptic plasticity within key sites of the amygdala that allows learned threats to automatically elicit innate defense responses. LeDoux has been honored for his achievements by his election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2006 and to the National Academy of Sciences in 2013.

LeDoux’s work has also informed the public’s understanding of how the brain learns to create and cope with states of threat. He published two books for popular audiences, The Emotional Brain and Synaptic Self. Both books have been translated into numerous languages and are still in print after more than a decade. His work has been written up in Scientific American numerous times and has formed the basis of other popular books and magazine articles (e.g., LeDoux’s work was the foundation for Daniel Goleman’s highly influential book, Emotional Intelligence). Very few psychological scientists have contributed at this level to the public’s understanding of science.

In his more recent theoretical writing, LeDoux offers a major reconceptualization of his earlier empirical work. By offering a theoretical formulation of how conscious experiences of anxiety and fear arise, LeDoux once again displays the kind of intellectual courage and leadership that he has become known for. This reformulation has the potential to truly transform the science of emotion, steering the field toward what many believe to be a more scientifically defensible (and therefore useful) theory of emotion.