Dr. Jaak Panksepp, a neuroscientist at Washington State University who wrote the book Affective Neuroscience and is one of the most important researchers in the field, calls the core emotion systems the “blue-ribbon emotions”, because they “generate well-organizes behaviour sequences that can be evoked by local electrical stimulation of the brain”. This means that when you stimulate the brain systems for one of the core emotions, you always get the same behaviours from the animal. If you stimulate the anger system, the animal snarls and bites. If you stimulate the fear system, the animal freezes or runs away. Electrodes in the social attachment system cause the animal to make separation calls, and electrodes in the “SEEKING” system make the animal start moving forward, sniffing, and exploring its environment. When you stimulate these parts of the brain in people, they don’t snarl and bite, but they report the same emotions that animals show.
People and animals (and possibly birds) are born with these emotions – they don’t learn them from their mothers or from the environment – and neuroscientists know a fair amount about how they work inside the brain.
Here is a quick rundown of the four blue-ribbon emotion systems, which Jaak always writes in caps:
SEEKING: Dr. Panksepp says SEEKING is “the basic impulse to search, investigate, and make sense of the environment”. SEEKING is a combination of emotions people usually think of as being different: wanting something really good, looking forward to getting something really good, and curiosity, which most people probably don’t think of as being an emotion at all.
The wanting part of SEEKING gives you the energy to go after your goals, which can be anything from food, shelter, and sex to knowledge, a new car, or fame and fortune. When a cat stalks a mouse, its actions are driven by the SEEKING system.
The looking –forward- to part of SEEKING is the Christmas emotion. When kids see all the presents under the Christmas tree, their SEEKING system goes into overdrive.
Curiosity is related to novelty. I think the orienting response is the first stage of SEEKING because it is attracted to novelty. When a deer or a dog hears a strange noise, he turns his head, looks, and pauses. During the pause, the animal decides, do I keep SEEKING, run away in fear, or attack? New things stimulate the curiosity part of the SEEKING system. Even when people are curious about something familiar – like behaviourists being curious about animals, for instance – they can only be curious about some aspect they don’t understand. They are SEEKING an explanation that they don’t have yet, whether it’s food and shelter or Christmas presents or a way to understand animal welfare.
SEEKING is a very pleasurable emotion. If you implant electrodes into the SEEKING system of an animal’s brain, it will press a lever to turn the current on. Animals like to self-stimulate the SEEKING system so much that for a long time researchers thought the SEEKING system was the brain’s “pleasure centre”, and some people still talk about it that way. But the pleasure people feel when their SEEKING system is stimulated is the pleasure of looking forward to something good, not the pleasure of having something good.
SEEKING might be a kind of master emotion. Jaak Panksepp says that SEEKING could be a “generalised platform for the expression of many of the basic emotional processes….It is the one system that helps animals anticipate all types of rewards”. It’s possible the SEEKING system helps you anticipate bad things, too. There is research showing that one area in the nucleus acumbens, which is part of the SEEKING system, responds to negative stimuli the animal is afraid of. The SEEKING system might turn out to be an all-purpose emotion engine that produces both positive and negative motivations to approach or to avoid. But until researchers learn more, SEEKING means the positive emotions of wanting, looking forward to, or being curious about something, and that’s the way I will be using the term in this book. SEEKING feels good.
RAGE: Dr. Panksepp believes that the core emotion of RAGE evolved from the experience of being captured and held immobile by a predator. Stimulation of sub cortical brain area causes an animal to go into a rage. RAGE gives a captured animal the explosive energy it needs to struggle violently and maybe shock the predator into loosening its grip long enough that the captured animal can get away. The RAGE feeling starts at birth – if you hold a human baby’s arms to his sides, he will become furiously angry.
Frustration is a mild form of RAGE that is sparked by mental restraint when you can’t do something you’re trying to do. That’s why you feel mild anger when you can’t unscrew a tight lid from a jar or when you can’t solve a math problem. In one case the action of opening the jar has been restrained, and in the other the mental action of solving the math problem has been restrained. Frustration from mental restraint evolved out of RAGE from physical restraint.
FEAR: The FEAR system doesn’t need a lot of explanation. Animals and humans feel FEAR when their survival is threatened in any way, from the physical to the mental and social. The FEAR circuits in the subcortex of the brain have been fully mapped. Destruction of the amygdala, the brain’s fear centre turns off fear.
PANIC: PANIC is Jaak’s word for the social attachment system. All baby animals and humans cry when their mothers leave, and an isolated baby whose mother does not come back is likely to become depressed and die. The PANIC system probably evolved from physical pain. When you stimulate the part of an animal’s brain that regulates physical pain, the animal makes separation cries. Opioids are even more effective at treating social pain then they are at treating physical pain. Jaak says that’s probably why people say it “hurts” to lose someone they love.
Dr. Panksepp also writes about three other positive emotion systems researchers don’t know much about, and that don’t necessarily run through an animal’s entire life. He calls these three emotions “more sophisticated special-purpose socioemotional systems that are engaged at appropriate times in the lives of all mammals”.
LUST: Lust means sex and sexual desire.
CARE: CARE is Dr. Panksepp’s term for maternal love and caretaking.
PLAY: PLAY is the brain system that produces the kind of roughhousing play all young animals and humans do at the same stage of development. The parts of the brain that motivate PLAY are in the subcortex. No one understands the nature of playing on the PLAY system well yet, although we do know that play behaviour is probably a sign of good welfare, because an animal that’s depressed frightened, or angry doesn’t play. The PLAY system produces feelings of joy.
Taken together, these seven emotions – especially the first four – explain why some environments are good for animals (and people) and others are bad. In a good environment you have healthy brain development and few behaviour issues.
In terms of emotions dogs need;
Social contact, so their PANIC system doesn’t get activated. Develop their frustration tolerance, and remember that behaviour training is all about ‘impulse control & emotional restraint’.
Games and play with owners to activate SEEKING system.
Interesting things to do – especially long walks – that also arouse their SEEKING system.