Research neuroscientist, Jaak Panksepp, has been studying the anatomical basis of emotions for many years. It has been a challenging task for many reasons. For one, the scientific community has not been in agreement as to what comprises an “emotion” – whether they exist at all and, if so, how to describe them. Another question is raised by those who claim (passionately I might add) that emotions are environmental and not inherently physiological. This is not what Panksepp has found. In fact, he has been able to identify 7 different brain circuits which correspond with discrete emotional responses. Further, he provides us with extremely reasonable ideas about the evolutionary basis for the development of each of these emotional circuits. While he freely concedes that there may be more to be discovered in the future, those which he identifies at this stage are:
- Seeking: This is the drive to explore the world – to gain stimulation and sustenance from the environment. Interestingly the nerves’ receptors for the neurotransmitter which is most associated with this behavior (dopamine) are severely compromised or destroyed by the use of drugs such as cocaine, which explains the incredible lethargy after prolonged use and the need to keep snorting or smoking in order to maintain a baseline of alertness.
- Rage: Panksepp found that anger is a primary emotional experience, as it is put into service when the animal is being constrained. It is a natural reaction to the experience of being cornered and, indeed, his representative picture is of the hissing cat backed into a corner. This is different from the anger we often describe as our reaction when a lover hurts our feelings or betrays us. The difference is interesting and worth further thought and discussion.
- Fear: This is a basic self-protective mechanism. Our brain is programmed to protect us and get us the heck outta there when we are faced with threats to our existence. It’s the old “our ancestors split when they saw a saber-tooth tiger roaming close-by.” What Panksepp also observed, interestingly, was that when this circuit was chronically and continually activated, the organism lapsed into a state of anxiety – which, then can be defined as the low level, continuous expression of the fear circuit.
- Nurturance: This is the classic maternal care circuit. When it is stimulated, the body produces a load of oxytocin, which has been called “the cuddle hormone.” It is also true that this circuit is activated, and we are bathed in oxytocin, when we are feeling close and loving to a partner. The evolutionary basis for survival of the species is pretty self evident, here.
- Rough and Tumble Play: Panksepp observed the animals in his lab spontaneously engaging in such play. It is the expression of a physiological need to experience joy. He associates human laughter to the activation of this circuit. The evolutionary value of the play circuit is more speculative, but Panksepp suggests that it may facilitate basic socialization.
- Lust: The drive to seek out and find a mate is perhaps the most fundamental evolutionary imperative. Panksepp describes many, many courting rituals and other behaviors which are reflective of the stimulation of this circuit.
Panksepp has been able to generate these emotional responses, from rage to fear to sexuality, by stimulating discrete parts of the brain with mini-electrodes. This would seem to add proof to his theories. The seventh and final hardwired emotion really forms the basis of the couples therapy I do and I will leave that discussion to the next post.