Decade of the Brain
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Discovering Our Selves: The Science of Emotion
Executive Summary

Introduction

James H. Billington, D.Phil.
The Librarian of Congress

Steven E. Hyman, M.D.
Director, National Institute of Mental Health of the National Institutes of Health

The brain is the most complex object of human inquiry. Even to the nonspecialist, it is intuitively obvious that the source of all of our mental life--our behavior, thoughts, and emotions--must be an enormously complex organ. Much of the science that explains the brain, in turn, is also complicated.

In a collaborative ten-year initiative to inform the public and policymakers about the brain, the Library of Congress and the National Institute of Mental Health are realizing the mandate of the 1990 Presidential Proclamation declaring this the Decade of the Brain. Our focus matches the Proclamation: "to enhance public awareness of the benefits to be derived from brain research." We take seriously our responsibility to create and organize new knowledge, educating American citizens and enabling them to make wise decisions.

Our generous partner for this conference is the Charles A. Dana Foundation, leading supporters of brain research. We are grateful for special support from the Foundation and its Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives, which is enabling us to broadcast our message widely and effectively.

Access to advances in basic and clinical neuroscience is also vital to understanding ourselves as human beings. Even as researchers have made remarkable progress in elucidating brain function from the level of molecules to the level of behavior, one area until recently has remained inaccessible: the neurobiology of emotion. Emotions do more than color our daily lives; they motivate us and influence our every decision, even when we are unaware that we are making decisions. Understanding how emotions function and why they sometimes malfunction is critical to our individual and societal health.

Human beings long have been ambivalent about their emotions. Plato and Aristotle considered that reason made us human, and emotions were what we shared with animals. Emotions got us out of control and into trouble. Even in the early history of psychiatry, the inchoate, unconscious Id was juxtaposed with the more reasonable, tractable, conscious Ego.

In putting emotions in the basement of not only our brains but of neurobiology, we did ourselves a great disservice. Indeed, we have discovered that if we do not understand the neurobiology of emotion, we not only cannot begin to understand serious mental illnesses--the common and debilitating scourges of depression and anxiety disorders, the lack of motivation and emotional abnormalities in schizophrenia, the devastating problems of autism--but we also cannot understand ourselves as human beings.

In the last few years, the science of emotion and its association with the science of memory has caught fire. The speakers at this conference are those who have shed light on what was the dark basement of neurobiology, and who are now making the science of emotion one of the most exciting, vibrant, and important areas in neuroscience. Their presentations reveal a work in progress. Neither they nor we know or can foresee what all the consequences of their work will be. That is the mystery inherent in basic scientific research. We are delighted to be able to share these reports on their work with a broader audience, and we invite you to join them and us in our ongoing search for knowledge.


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