The scientific case for emotional feelings in animals

Recently, I was reading over some of the posts from my conference and clinics notes page. And I realized that I had never finished posting my notes from the 2014 Art and Science of Animal Training Conference! So, last week and this week I am sharing my notes from the final three talks. You can find all of my conference notes on this page.

ORCA conference at UNT 2014Neuroscientist Dr. Jaak Panksepp gave the keynote address at the 2014 Art and Science of Animal Training Conference. Dr. Panksepp studies basic emotional and motivational processes in the mammalian brain, including brain mechanisms of sadness (separation distress) and joy (animal play and laughter). His work has helped researchers understand more about animal and human emotions and has contributed to the treatment of depression and ADHD.

Why study animal emotions?

Ask almost any animal lover if pets have feelings and emotions and that person will emphatically tell you “Yes!” Interestingly (and unfortunately) many scientists are still not convinced that animals have emotions or that emotions can be studied scientifically. According to Dr. Jaak Panksepp, many behavioral neuroscientists still regard feelings and emotions as irrelevant. These people would tell you that since we can’t get inside the animal’s mind to know exactly what the animal thinks or feels, we should disregard emotions and only study observable behavior.

However, Dr. Panksepp is convinced that animals have emotions and that animal emotions can be studied scientifically. And, the more than 400 papers that he has published are starting to convince other scientists and researchers who were once doubtful. Importantly, Dr. Panksepp believes that if we understand animal feelings and emotions, we might be able to better understand our own feelings and emotions. As well, Dr. Panksepp’s work on animal emotions is leading to the development of new drugs to treat depression in humans.

Dr. Jaak Panksepp’s seven primary emotional systems

Why did feelings and emotions even evolve in the first place? Dr. Panksepp believes that these systems evolved in the brain because they were useful to the animal. The whole function of the brain is to help the animal anticipate certain situations so that the animal has a better chance of surviving and reproducing. The fundamental emotional systems probably evolved because they helped animals find food, protect their territory, take care of their young and more.

From his research, Dr. Panksepp has identified seven primary emotional systems. These primary emotions are all deeply unconscious and are processed in the lower parts of the brain. Different parts of the brain can be stimulated to activate these systems and produce emotional responses. Interestingly, Dr. Panksepp capitalizes each of the seven emotional systems (ex. FEAR) to emphasize that these terms are not being using in their normal, everyday sense and instead are being used to refer to specific neural networks in the brain.

1) SEEKING – The first primary emotional system that Dr. Panksepp discussed was the SEEKING system. The SEEKING system is the animal’s expectancy system and is essential for survival. It generates feelings of enthusiasm and helps animals “seek out” food and other resources.

The SEEKING system can be active even when other emotional systems are also active. It is also related to the production and release of dopamine. Interestingly, the dopamine system is usually characterized as a pleasure system. However, Dr. Panksepp characterizes it as seeking, since dopamine is involved in both appetitive and aversive learning.

2) RAGE – The RAGE system produces feelings of anger. This is what is activated when you feel very annoyed or pissed off at something or someone. This system probably evolved because it helped the animal be able to protect its resources, such as food, territory, mates and offspring.

3) FEAR – Dr. Panksepp’s third primary emotional system is the FEAR system. When areas of the brain related to the FEAR system are activated, this generates feelings of anxiety. This helps protect the animal because the animal learns to avoid or be cautious about things that produce fear emotions.

4) LUST – The LUST system is related to reproductive urges and patterns of courtship and reproductive behavior. It has slightly different chemistry in males and females. In his talk, Dr. Panksepp said that when an animal is feeling horny, the lust system is being activated.

5) CARE – The CARE emotional system is related to maternal care and taking care of young. This is one system that is stronger in females in many species, but the strength of this system and when and how it is activated varies widely by species. According to Dr. Panksepp, the CARE system produces feelings of tender and loving care and a desire to care for young.

6) PANIC – The PANIC system causes an animal to feel lonely or sad. It is activated when a young animal is separated from its mother. Dr. Panksepp has studied the PANIC system in depth in rats. When young rats are separated from their mother, this system is activated and it leads to separation cries and separation distress. Interestingly, Dr. Panksepp mentioned that in domestic rats, we have selected against separation distress and panic. As a result, domesticated rats do not respond quite the same as wild rats when the PANIC system is activated.

According to Dr. Panksepp, one cause of depression could be that when the PANIC system is activated too much, it suppresses the SEEKING system. (The PANIC system is also related to grief.) Dr. Panksepp is working on several treatments for depression in humans based on what he has learned from studying brain chemistry and the PANIC system.

7) PLAY – The PLAY system is very important for an animal’s development. Dr. Panksepp said that the PLAY system evolved in the mammalian brain because it allows animals to get socialized in a positive, joyful way. When this system is activated, it generates feelings of joy and happiness.

Dr. Panksepp has spent a great deal of time researching the PLAY system and the SEEKING system in rats. He’s even done some work on the rat equivalent of “laughter.” What he has found is that when rats are tickled and scratched in a certain way, their PLAY system is activated and they produce high frequency vocalizations. Dr. Panksepp can tell that the rats like to be tickled because they will perform other behaviors to get tickled as the reward.

According to Dr. Panksepp, each of these emotional systems is rewarding or punishing. The FEAR, RAGE, and PANIC systems are all punishing. What this means is that when these systems and emotions are activated, the animal will work to get rid of them and escape from them. The other four systems (SEEKING, LUST, CARE, and PLAY) are rewarding systems. This means that the animal will actively work to produce these emotions and engage in certain behaviors so that these systems are activated in the brain.

It was fascinating to get to hear Dr. Panksepp speak at the conference and I’m eager to study more about his work on animal emotions and neuroscience. If you found this post interesting, I would recommend listening to this interview with Dr. Panksepp from Brain Science Podcasts. Dr. Panksepp also has several books about his research on emotions which are available through Amazon, including, Affective Neuroscience and The Archaeology of Mind.

If you liked this post, take a moment to share it!

, , , , , , , , ,

Don't miss out on great information about animal training! Subscribe now to the Stale Cheerios newsletter and receive email updates when new posts are published.

Disclaimer: StaleCheerios posts occasionally contain affiliate links. Affiliate links are one way that StaleCheerios can continue providing top-quality content to you completely for free. Thank you for supporting our hard work! Learn more here.