Review: The Neuropsychology of Anxiety

The distinction between wisdom and intelligence has always intrigued me. Across various lines drawn over the years, I am at present settled on this: intelligence is how well we solve our problems, wisdom is whether our problems are the right ones.

By this definition, The Neuropsychology of Anxiety by Gray and McNaughton is a book about the neurological mechanics of wisdom. While our planning and conscious problem solving occurs in our frontal cortex, our goals arise from the limbic system, and goal conflict is precisely the phenomena of anxiety. How we respond to competing goals, how we generalize, how goals get reified over others over time ― all this and more is unfolded in the pages. In this capacity as a guide to the mechanics of wisdom, this book was the primary inspiration behind one of my articles and several more which are still only drafts.

Its ambitious scope, spanning decades of research and theories on neuroscience and psychology, at times felt larger than its organization could hold, though perhaps active students and researcher in the field would find their existing frames sufficiently reinforce that organization. Still, despite the plethora of widely varied, detailed technical results, despite the myriad of conflicting theories which the authors faithfully reproduced and systematically addressed, throughout the book an intuitive picture of goal conflict and resolution formed in my mind.

To any embarking on this path of ascertaining the mechanics of wisdom, I would first recommend Affective Neuroscience by Panksepp, which is my preferred introduction to the concept of Basic Emotions and the drives which underlie human actions (an abridged exposition can be found here). Armed with the understanding of the triggers and primed action patterns of emotional mammalian behavior, The Neuropsychology of Anxiety plays a keystone role in the unification of those drives into an apparently coherent person. Detailing not only the trigger and response for the emotion of anxiety, it also encompasses the long-term associations between context and emotions, and, within this project, unifies memory into an understanding of emotional drives.

While certainly a heavy technical text, The Neuropsychology of Anxiety has been more than worth my time, and I expect to visit it again in the coming years to further refine my understanding of goal conflict.