Scientific endeavours in my lifetime have included major advances in the understanding of how our emotions are organised in our brain – ‘affective neuroscience’ is a fairly new term that refers to all of this, and Panskepp is the founder/pioneer of this field. He’s currently the Baily Endowed Professor of Animal Well-Being Science at Washington State University with a very lengthy list of published articles, chapters, reviews and books. I went to see him speak recently – he’s extremely likeable with a mischievous twinkle in his eye too.

I can’t summarise what he conveyed that day right now but wanted to record some nuggets that have lingered in my mind:

  • Panskepp’s 7 major emotional systems that he has identified in mammals (he’s spent more time with rats than, er, a sewer?). These have discrete neurones/transmitters/hormonal markers: SEEKING (most important one – drives us to seek things to nourish & sustain us while fleeing from fear too), FEAR, RAGE, LUST, CARE, PANIC & PLAY (deliberate capitalised letters as they reflect a particular meaning). He uses the term BrainMind to convey the idea that the mind is a function of the brain.
  • emotions are unconditioned responses & our brain organ built around this. Humans have a more developed cortex to negotiate and manage these. Animals don’t have this sophisticated machinery but doesn’t mean they don’t have these emotional systems. This makes Panskepp a pro-animalist (like Temple Grandin), but a challenge to thinkers such as Joseph LeDoux
  • depression reflects a depletion of the SEEKING system & needs targeting in effective therapy eg exercise & use of PLAY (although recent research of 361 patients suggested exercise doesn’t help depression after all…..)
  • consciousness is not awareness but is experience itself, ie it can be non reflective and can be without knowledge
  • our emotions intrinsically anticipate the future¬† – ie they are wired to predict survival. As barometers of survival, they have to be experienced.
  • CARE system is vital for us psychotherapists to bring online in our work, along with PLAY. This means empathy, sympathy, humour and even sharing our humanity/selves/stories….this is quite radical for traditional blank screen therapists who think it is crucial to keep themselves back (and therefore not ‘muddy’ the therapeutic relationship). The idea is that difficult or painful memories (that are a residue of our PANIC system – ie attachments to our caregivers) need to be re-consolidated. This re-consolidation can be done, in therapy, by experiencing the thinking/feeling of the memory differently. The therapist helps do this. If our memories go back into the memory bank changed a bit (and positively), it will return differently at a later time. This process can be repeated.
  • Panskepp has very strong words to say about psychiatric medicines – ‘a failure’ and all found by ‘serendipity’ (or even by accident) & intrinsically awry as not one has been premised on our emotional systems
  • OPIOIDS are naturally produced (eg when in powerful position) & in very small doses (0.1mg a day or even week) have been observed to have anti-depressant results
  • PLAY can stimulate neurological growth like SSRI’s can

Here’s a podcast of Panskepp & a link to his books.