Home » Jaak Panksepp: The Science of Emotions at TEDxRainier (Transcript)

Jaak Panksepp: The Science of Emotions at TEDxRainier (Transcript)

Jaak Panksepp

Here is the full transcript of neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp’s TEDx Talk presentation: The Science of Emotions at TEDxRainier conference.

Listen to the MP3 Audio: The science of emotions by Jaak Panksepp at TEDxRainier


What would art be like without emotions? It would be empty. What would our lives be like without emotions? There would be empty of values. So a famous classical poet said, “We hate and we love; can one tell me why? – Catullus. Science does not answer why questions; science answers how questions.

But the why question would be answered as follows. We have feelings because they tell us what supports our survival and what detracts from our survival. And I’ve been in this field now for half a century and it’s been a fairly lonely field, because when I was a student in electrical engineering, I started getting bored and I worked in the backwards of a psychiatric hospital and saw human tragedies, their emotional tragedies. And no one knew what emotions were, how we get these feelings, so I decided to shift to neuroscience – first clinical psychology, then neuroscience, that is the only path to understanding how we feel.

This seems to be an impenetrable mystery but it is potentially penetrable with neuroscience, especially if we take the emotions of animals seriously. And a friend sent me these pictures, a little fawn was injured and the dog took a special interest in the fawn. Now is the dog thinking or — interesting, we cannot penetrate the cognitive mind of animals, even though they are very skilled in living as we saw earlier this morning.

So second picture — is the dog saying ‘I like you’ or even ‘I love you’, ah we cannot penetrate those kinds of thoughts but we can penetrate feelings scientifically but only with neuroscience. And if we understand the emotions of other animals, I think we will begin to understand our own emotions. Artist drew this for me about a year ago and even chickens have emotions, so we mapped out sadness systems in chickens and they turn out to be the same as in guinea pigs and it looks like they’re very similar to those in human brains, that’s quite a shocker.

Now the animal mind is a great interest to us right now and I suspect that if we really focus on their feelings, we will finally begin to understand our own. So our approach requires neuroscience and we can actually turn on emotions by stimulating specific areas of the brain. We’ve known this for quite a while but I was among the first to ask: when we turn on emotion, does the animal feel good or bad? The animal can give us that answer, because it can turn on this stimulation if given the chance, or you can turn it off and that is our measure of feelings. So we’re very similar at the bottom of our minds and we’re very very different at the top of our minds. We are the cognitive creatures; they are the emotional creatures but they obviously must have thoughts about their lives in the world.

So this is a powerful emotion, we get angry and we get scared, huh, because of very similar systems in our brain. And it turns out that wherever you produce this anger response in animals they turn it off; they don’t like the feeling. So there is something like anger in the animal brain and if we understand those circuits, we might have new treatments for irritability disorder, someone who is continually getting angry and you say take a pill, well we have no pill.

So but we do have knowledge about seven basic emotional systems we call them Primary Emotions, we capitalize them because this requires a specialized terminology for science, otherwise we have confusing conversations because of so many words.

So what feeling does the seeking system, others still call it the reward system, the feeling is not pleasure, the feeling is enthusiasm, this is diminished in depression. And I’ll show you one clinical trial we’re running where we’re facilitating enthusiasm directly through deep brain stimulation. That’s the feeling in the vernacular I’m using everyday terms here of course, then there are many sources of anxiety in the world but we only have one powerful care system and what shall we call the feeling of lost – well, I thought a passion but that is too broad a term. Now care is tender and loving, it’s hard to describe these pre-verbal powers of the mind. The panic system generates loneliness and sadness and like I’ve told you in chickens we measure separation calls. So play brings you great joy. If you have too much psychological pain, namely the panic system, causes panic attacks also. This is the gateway to depression; too much psychological pain. If it’s way beyond bounds, people begin to think about killing themselves.

So we have developed one antidepressant by focusing on the molecular biology of happiness and joy, and it is currently in human testing. Yes, that is the way tender loving feelings feel in the mind, it has a certain dynamic. It comes across in the body the way the mother crests her child and a child that doesn’t have that will have psychological problems for the rest of his or her life.

So if we understand these emotional systems, some of them will be rewarding, some are punishing but they’re never neutral, and that is the evidence that they have emotional feelings. And we can predict that if we stimulate the rage system in humans, they will be very angry and it has been shown just accidentally during surgical procedures.

So let’s focus on this panic system that we started to study 45 years ago. When you separate a young one from the mother they begin to cry, because the mother is the absolute source of security and we started measuring this crying and trying to figure out a neuroanatomy of it and the neurochemistries and that has led to new treatments for depression as well as for suicide.

If you take a little bird and they’re born and they’re walking around and they’re crying, crying, crying looking for their mother, as soon as they find the mother’s wings, they settle down and they’re comfortable and we can simulate this by simply holding the little ones in our hands, they immediately quiet down, they feel comfortable, their beak goes down and they fall asleep. This is because we’re activating chemicals that counteracts psychological pain and the most powerful chemistry for this turns out to be brain opioids, that’s a shocker. It turns out that our love and our attachment are partially addictive phenomena; they ride upon our internal opioids. They provide us with a sense of security that everything is right in the world.

So there we are, that is the reason we become addicted to these molecules and it’s a tragedy of our country that we put people in jail as opposed to putting them in treatment facilities to explain what’s happening in their brains. I think it would be wonderful if our government had an open conversation about the sources of addiction in our brain. Opioids mediate motherly love, the attachment bond between mother and child, the attachment bond between loving adults.

And then we found that the molecule that releases milk from the breast also is very powerful in the brain in reducing the panic response, the separation distress response and lo and behold the molecule that manufactured milk in the breast is equally effective in reducing separation distress. So the physiology of motherhood is the physiology of love and we mapped this system with deep brain stimulation in guinea-pigs first and then chickens and the anatomy was the same, the neurochemistries were the same. And you see that in the guinea pig picture, a deep subcortical system where you can activate the separation cries and even if you take an adult guinea pig that no longer cries, if you put an electrode in there they will cry like a little baby as long as you provide the stimulation. So where does it go? It kind of develops inhibition from higher brain areas. Testosterone is something that counteracts crying, that’s why there’s a large difference in male and female emotions.

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