As I made my way through a long-neglected RSS feed, I stumbled across this gem of an interview in Discover Magazine with Jaak Panksepp:
Jaak Panksepp has taken on many unusual roles in his storied career, but none so memorable as rat tickler: He learned how to stimulate the animals to elicit high-frequency chirps that he identified as laughter. Panksepp’s interspecies game-playing garnered amused media coverage, but the news also stirred up old controversies about human and animal emotions. Since the 1960s, first at Bowling Green State University and later at Washington State University, Panksepp has charted seven networks of emotion in the brain: SEEKING, RAGE, FEAR, LUST, CARE, PANIC/GRIEF, and PLAY. He spells them in all caps because they are so fundamental, he says, that they have similar functions across species, from people to cats to, yes, rats.
Panksepp’s work has led him to conclude that basic emotion emerges not from the cerebral cortex, associated with complex thought in humans, but from deep, ancient brain structures, including the amygdala and the hypothalamus. Those findings may show how talk therapy can filter down from the cortex to alter the recesses of the mind. But Panksepp says his real goal is pushing cures up from below.
As a neuroscientist, he was interested in exploring “bottom-up” therapies, such as deep brain stimulation to treat depression and other interruptions in the reward system, but understanding the deep origin of emotions also helps us understand the depth and complexity of emotional regulation.
There are many aspects of his research that seem immediately relevant to our work with children, including his observations of the emotional and behavioral correlates of the reward system in the brain. He inadvertently identified differences between the quality of behavior motivated by an external reward and that which is internally motivated by the reward system:
Those kinds of reward experiments had already been going on for years before you got to them. What insights did you add?
I observed that whenever the animal pushed the lever and got the motivating jolt, it explored its world energetically. That was very different than anything that happened when animals were working for food rewards, where they always stopped when they were full. To get at the difference between the two types of rewards, I designed an experiment that injected sugar water into the rats’ stomachs whenever they pushed the stimulating lever. I put one animal in the apparatus and went out to get lunch. When I came back it had killed itself with too much sugar. It just kept pumping more and more until it went into osmotic shock. The next time I didn’t walk away.
So even with a belly full of sugar, the rat was still craving something. What was going on?
I tried to answer that fundamental question through the behavior of my lab rats. It was clear that when I stimulated the reward center in the medial forebrain, they were not engaged in the kind of relaxation they felt when they stopped to eat or drink. It was just the opposite. It was the kind of behavior the animal showed when it was looking for food. So I started thinking in those terms: This was mother nature’s way of allowing animals to explore the world. It was an exploratory system; it was about generating expectancies, seeking rewards.
Even more compelling, his work on attachment:
In your next career move, you wound up at Bowling Green State University in Ohio in 1972. Why there?
It had a unique lab run by someone I found totally fascinating:John Paul Scott,a biologist in the psychology department who had done more work than anyone else on social attachments in dogs.Attachmentis the bond of selective preference between a mother and a child, whatever the species. Mother dogs and their pups bond, mother sheep and their lambs bond, and so forth. When a real bond has been established, the young selectively prefer their own mother, and follow her around persistently in order to feel comfortable. Conversely, the mother will shower all her devotion on just her own babies. When this attachment bond is broken, the young cry and cry until reunited with the mother; this is the panic system in action. Animals that grow up crying the most because they are separated from their mothers for the longest are generally maladjusted. Scott insisted that attachment had to be studied biologically, but no one knew how.
Then you found a way to study attachment. How did you do it?
Serendipitously, that was the moment, in 1973, that scientists discovered the opiate receptor—the first neurochemical receptor in the brain. The day I heard that, I said, this has got to be the attachment mechanism. Opiate addiction is another phenomenon that creates a powerful bond. We call it by a different name, addiction, but it is activated via a molecule that produces good feelings, and mom produces a lot of good feelings in the young ones, too. They feel comfortable, they feel soothed, and opioids have that same property, psychologically.
This has always astonished me… that, in essence, attachment is an addiction. The sensations we experience and associate with relationships, from the euphoric “warm fuzzy” feelings of connectedness to the hollow ache of loneliness, are simply chemical messengers in the brain directing our bodies to find the next “hit.”
How could you test the idea that social attachment is related to chemical addiction?
I had the insight that if you wanted to understand attachment, you would have to study crying. My first successful experiments used dogs. We took young pups and gave them morphine. Then we removed them from their mothers. The more morphine they got, the less they cried and the quieter they were. They sat alone and were satisfied, as if the mother was right there. Significantly, we could comfort the animals only with opiates like morphine, not with the types of agents often used to quell anxiety, the benzodiazepines. So we knew the crying wasn’t a physical fear. As with aggression, there were two kinds of anxiety systems. One was fear that a predator would attack, and the other was panic over separation.
Then, he started tickling rats to learn about play.
Is play embedded deeply in the brain, the way attachment is?
Many experiments over the years suggested it was, but to be sure I removed the upper brain of the animals at three days of age. Amazingly, the rats still played in a fundamentally normal way. That meant play was a primitive process. We saw, too, that play helped the animals become socially sophisticated in the cortex. That’s why it’s so important to give our kids opportunities for play.
And yet it seems that childhood play has become much more controlled than it was when I was young. I have gone to ADHD meetings to consider this childhood problem. But the doctors do not want to hear the possibility that these kids are hyper-playful because they’re starved for real play—because they are giving them anti-play medicines. Teachers are promoting the pipeline of prescription controls as much as any other group, because their lives are hard. They are supposed to be teaching kids at the cortical level of reading, writing, and arithmetic, but if they’ve got kids who are still hungry for play, it’s gonna be classroom chaos. And you can sympathize with them, because they should be getting kids that are sufficiently well regulated to sit and use their upper brains. But the kids’ lower brains are still demanding attention.
What happens to animals if they are deprived of play over the long term?
They look normal and they eat normally, they’re just not as socially sophisticated. Animals deprived of play are more liable to get into a serious fight. Play teaches them what they can do to other animals and still remain within the zone of positive relationships. If you have play you become sociosexually more sophisticated. Let’s say you have the classic triangle: two males and one female, because males are competitive for sex. So if you’ve got one animal that’s had lots of play and the other animal hasn’t, guess who is successful? The animal that’s had play knows how to stay between the female and the other male. The other guy’s a klutz.
At this point, I have a confession to make… I’m a fraud. I should, by all rights, surrender the blue ribbon awarded to me at my fourth grade science fair, in which I claimed to use food rewards to train a lab rat to navigate a maze and climb a ladder. In actuality, there were several questionable aspects in my methods, including the fact that the lab rat in question was my pet, “Nibbles.” As the object of my affection, he was showered with attention, affection, and treats. Food was never a strong motivator for him and so, when placed in the maze, he would simply climb out to find me.
Nibbles did, in fact, successfully navigate the maze and climb the ladder, but he didn’t do it for food. To keep him from climbing out, I used a piece of mesh screen to contain him as he moved through the maze and I quickly discovered that he would follow my hand, whether my hand led him to the food or not, because he learned that when he was finished, I would pick him up to play.
I have often joked that I could trace my career path back to my fourth grade science fair experiment. Just as play and a warm affectionate relationship became the most salient rewards for Nibbles, so too are they the most powerful motivators for children to persevere in face of a challenge.
I only wish I’d have have been aware of Panksepp’s research at the time…
It’s worth the time to read the whole interview here.