Suspecting that we might better understand ourselves by understanding animals, pioneering Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung once spoke with a zoo keeper about how humans relate to different animal species. The zoo keeper said that with experience it’s possible to anticipate the behavior of mammals but not reptiles. No matter how much time you spend with a snake, the zoo keeper said, you still can’t read its emotions and thus can’t ever be sure how it will behave next. Jung attributed this to the structural differences between the mammalian and reptilian brains – they are just too different for the two species to understand one another.
But not so humans and other mammals. The May edition of Discover magazine contains a fascinating interview with animal researcher Jaak Panksepp. Panksepp has spent decades trying to determine which areas of animals’ brains control specific behaviors. This has been done through various means, including implanting electrodes in the brains of cats and rats. Other techniques have involved the use of drugs as well as literally tickling rats. Panksepp’s research indicates that mammals are much more similar emotionally than commonly believed.
Panksepp has identified seven emotional networks that are fundamental to all mammalian brains: Seeking, Rage, Fear, Lust, Care, Panic/Grief and Play. These are the instinctual emotions of all mammals, including humans. Humans, however, possess higher brain functions that enable us to control these emotions to at least some extent while animals just “go with” what they’re feeling.
Seeking, which most people wouldn’t consider a fundamental emotion, is listed first because Panksepp believes it is fundamental to how we interact with the world. Mammals actually experience pleasure from actively exploring the world around them. We humans are very active explorers when young, but don’t always carry that behavior into adulthood. Panksepp’s research indicates we might feel better if we did.
Panksepp is also very interested in mammalian play – another basic childhood behavior. Play, according to Panksepp, is essential in developing social skills. Play allows us to interact in positive ways while at the same time teaching us boundaries. We learn from experience that pushing others too far will cross the boundary between play and more negative emotions. The more a mammal is deprived of play, the more it fights with others.
Panksepp has discovered that rats at play appear to laugh at a frequency far above the range of human hearing. By using equipment that can detect these ultrasonic frequencies, Panksepp has found that by tickling rats he can induce laughter similar to when humans are tickled.
Panksepp believes his findings have application in human life. He says we should look more at addressing the primitive portions of our brains when dealing with problems like attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, which he believes is the result of a very fundamental “hunger” for play, and also depression. Panksepp believes that depression – which often “disconnects” the sufferer from life — is “an underactive seeking urge that has been made underactive by too much psychological pain.” He says the best way to treat depression is to ‘go to that deep place in our brain’ and “amplify our eagerness to live.” One hopes, though, that this can be done without the need to insert electrodes in depressed people’s brains…
Panksepp’s ideas have met with a lot of rejection – mainstream science has not been eager to accept that humans are so emotionally similar to animals. But with decades of research to support his assertions, Panksepp is beginning to be taken seriously. Just as Jung suspected, by studying other mammals we are coming to a better understanding of ourselves.