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One on one... with Jaak Panksepp

Centre for the Study of Animal Well Being, Washington State University; includes online-only extras

14 June 2011

One inspiration
None more than Darwin. His love of life and openness to its subtle complexities remains unsurpassed in many of our minds.

One moment that changed the course of your career
Starting graduate school in clinical psychology, I had a chance to study brain self-stimulation reward in 1965, as a Veteran’s Administration Hospital Trainee, and I was hooked by the possibility of really understanding the causal infrastructure of our affective life and shifted promptly to physiological psychology.

One book that you think all psychologists should read
My Affective Neuroscience if you seek an understanding of the emotional foundations of human/animal minds.

One way of understanding ‘the chills’ evoked by music
‘Skin orgasms’ may be closely linked to our primal social emotional circuits; there may be basic neurochemical similarities between the chilling emotions evoked by music and those engendered by separation distress and grief. I talk about this in my 1995 paper in Music Perception (15, 171–207).

One thing that you would change about psychology
Forty years ago all students majoring in psychology should have become masters of functional neuroscience.

We still don’t have the will to emulate biologists who realised soon after Watson and Crick that every biologist must understand genetics. We can’t fathom the mind without understanding the brain. Evolutionary psychologists in love with ‘modularity’ in adult brains should understand that at birth the neocortex is largely tabula rasa. Even neocortical capacity for vision is learned. Evolved functional specialisations (aka ‘modularity’) are sub-neocortical.

One challenge you think psychology faces
Pre-clinical work with animal models of psychiatric disorders must focus on understanding affective networks of mammalian brains as foundational for mental disorders. What came first in evolution generally controls what came later. Emotional feeling arose first in ancient caudal and medial brain regions; they are not simply neocortial ‘read-outs’ of bodily commotions.

One role for play in children’s lives
Play is essential for healthy prosocial mental development, and if our kids do not get enough, it is wise for society to increase opportunities (build ‘play sanctuaries’) so children have ready access to this tonic. If we respect their playful emotional nature, they have many reasons to respect us and be less depressed.

One more question
Can we ever scientifically understand the human mind if we do not understand the animal mind? After we discovered tickle-induced ultrasonic ‘laughter-type’ chirps in rats in 1996, we critically evaluated the idea from many angles (including its reward value – young rats love being tickled) and sought to share this discovery in Nature. A prominent animal ‘emotion’ researcher torpedoed us with ‘even if this phenomenon were true, you would never be able to convince your colleagues’. Gosh, whatever happened to the rules of evidence?

Web-only answers

One neglected point about emotion
All mammals have very similar primary-process (unconditional) brain circuits that evolved to guide emotional life. If you want to understand the causal infrastructure of human emotional feelings, there are few credible options but animal brain research – trying to fathom how primal affective circuits are still foundational for the complexities of human emotional life... and everyday cognitive decision-making too.

One hero/heroine from psychology past or present  
William James, even though his main theory of emotions (with Lange), profoundly wrong, survives after 125 years without essentially any robust causal evidence. Even as he left psychology with a profound intellectual legacy, he had insufficient neuroscientific knowledge to guide his thinking. But his unheralded diminutive theory is supported by Affective Neuroscience: Every emotional instinct is accompanied by a feeling... but his era was unaware of the subcortical autonomic somato-visceral networks that generate instinctual emotional action patterns, accompanied by raw emotions.

One thing that organised psychology could do better
Facilitate a fuller integration of psychology with its neuroscientific, neuroaffective and neuroethological cross–species evolutionary foundations. First and foremost we are mammals, and Evolutionary Psychology needs to be integrated with what we already know about the infrastructure of the human BrainMind from studying our fellow creatures, a project promoted by the Dunbar & Barrett (2007; Oxford Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology).

One great thing that psychology has achieved
Development of rigorous ethological and experimental procedures to study animal and human behaviours, so we can finally understand the neural, developmental, and cultural sources of animal/human minds.

One problem that psychology should deal with
It would be terrific if the field officially recognised, based on the mass of existing evidence as opposed to opinion – that all the other mammals and birds, at the very least, experience emotional arousals within their subcortical brains. Perhaps that will ‘tell’ us more about our evolved psychological nature than computational theories of mind.

One nugget of advice for aspiring psychologists
Neuroscientist mainly study animal brains; the humanities study human minds. Learn to understand the human BrainMind from both perspectives.

One alternative career path you may have chosen
Architecture after high school; biological psychiatry when too old to change course.

One regret
Personally: The death of my daughter and three of her friends at the hands of a profoundly drunken driver. Scientifically: The widespread disregard of the ancient affective foundations of learning and higher cognitive processes. Neither ‘rewards/punishments’ nor ‘reinforcements’ would exist without the subcortical primary–process affective networks of the brain. So why do so few psychologist study the primary–process emotions of our minds?

One hope for the future of psychology
I expect we would understand the human mind better if we openly discussed, once more, the affective experiences of other animals. Behavioural science has stupendous achievements, but also a dark and seemingly lasting blemish: The dogmatic assertion that we can never understand the minds of other animals. Neuroscience changed that but the discipline, at large, still disregards the existence of experiences within animal brains. What are we waiting for?

One proud moment
When my ‘home town college’ – the University of Tartu in Estonia, established by the Swedish king Gustavus II Adolphus in 1632, where my hero Emil Kraepelin first worked – awarded me an honorary doctorate in 2004, concurrently with the president of Finland, Tarja Halonen.

One benefit of tickling rats
We mapped the brain chirping circuitry and everywhere we evoked laughter-type chirps, the brain stimulation was rewarding. We can now monitor positively eager affective states objectively, which allows us to estimate the emotional status of rat minds during many situations including drug addictions and depression. And tickling facilitates anti-depressant-type neurogenesis in the hippocampus.

One function of play
To activate complex neural growth factors and epigenetic programs that help regulate the developmental construction of fully–social, positively affective brains/minds, especially in the neocortex. Abundant physical play can be an antidote to ADHD and childhood depression.