TIFT #24 Jaak Panksepp and Motivation

tift Aug 10, 2021


One of the best summer reads in memory was the late Jaak Panksepp’s Archaeology of Mind. This eye-opening description of our mammalian emotional brain is technical, but fresh and different than anything I have come upon before. Dr. Panksepp, who passed away in 2017, makes a scientific argument for what we all know, but science has had a hard time accepting, that animals have emotions a lot like ours. Panksepp was one of the few people who knows how to tickle rats and listen to their hypersonic shrieks. Besides that, a remarkable neuroscientist, he spent the last 30 years quietly studying the seven basic emotional systems we mammals all share. Just to be complete, these are (using his convention of capitalization) FEAR, PLAY, CARING, RAGE, PANIC, LUST, and a system called SEEKING that drives us towards our goals. The last one is the one I want to talk about here. (Revised from a blog post published in 2015)

Some years ago, researchers discovered a “pleasure center” in the brain. When rats and other animals, could press a button and receive stimulation at a certain location in the brain, they would continue to press until exhausted. Clearly this brain region gave them tremendous pleasure. Of course one imagines some great satisfaction like orgasm or a perfect steak. However, Panksepp tells us it is seeking a goal that is so rewarding. He describes in all mammals and humans a SEEKING system that provides the drive to reach our goals. What this means is that our greatest pleasure is actually the anticipation of pleasure. In his words, “animals exhibit an intense enthused curiosity about the world” and humans “report a sense of eager anticipation and an enhanced sense of themselves as effective agents who can make things happen in the world.” (p.98)

The same system is used to motivate us for all kinds of goals, minor and major. For example, it motivates us to run for our lives when in danger or attack when threatened. When responses, adaptive or not, are triggered, it is the SEEKING system that makes sure we follow them to their endpoint.

When under its influence, we are hyper-aware of our surroundings, intent on any pathway that will lead to our goal. The system is able to team up with the other emotion systems to direct us towards whatever goal we happen to embrace. It might be the pursuit of lust, but it could also be making a killing in the stock market, or running from the bad guys. In other words, the anticipation of reaching our goal is one of the most pleasurable things we can experience. As we all know once we arrive, there is a moment of satisfaction, then the pleasure dims rapidly. On the other hand, we also know how to draw the experience out so there are sub goals to keep us interested. When cooking, we taste what we have so far, which keeps our interest going till the final product is done. Weight Watchers encourages clients to have a good weigh-in so they stay motivated towards the ultimate goal.

When the SEEKING system loses its level of activation, we experience a feeling of loss of energy, hope, optimism and capability, in other words, depression. Those blue feelings are an indication that one’s SEEKING system has been turned off. What turns it off? Anticipating failure. Running into a brick wall. When it is clear that the goal is unreachable, we feel loss and even despair. Suddenly, all that pleasurable anticipation melts into hopelessness.

Not surprisingly, humans have found artificial ways to induce intense activation of the SEEKING system. Taking stimulant drugs increases the activity of dopamine, the main neurotransmitter of this system. This activation gives a sense of heightened awareness and goal-orientedness. This is why stimulants can help people who have the focusing problems of ADHD. These medications also have a tendency to over-activate the system. What happens then?

Af first, overdriving the system is the same as having a goal within reach, then having to wait. Think about waiting on a ski lift line when a tour group is allowed to cut in front. I’m sure you can think of more personal examples. As long as we remain optimistic, the system stays activated. With mild frustration it becomes even more activated. At that point we are likely to go in useless circles, for example obsessively checking the “progress monitor” on our computer screen. Kids repeat “are we there, yet?” When the system is highly activated, obsessive, repetitive actions are typical. Ask any cocaine addict about useless obsessive activity.

With an even higher level of overdrive, we begin to perceive connections or cause and effect relationships where they are not. Soon after that, paranoia and psychosis begin. When cocaine addicts exhibit paranoia, their SEEKING system is being overdriven by the drug. This may also explain some cases of other kinds of psychosis. What do the antipsychotic drugs do? They suppress the overactivity of dopamine.

Panksepp explains another phenomenon. When the seeking system is deflated, a small amount of an opiate can reactivate it. Of course this does not take away the danger of taking opioid substances or reduce their addictive potential. Besides traditional opioids, Ketamine also has mild opioid activity, which may explain its effectiveness for depression. This activation by opioids may also explain reports of a some people (usually with addiction problems) who say that opioids are the one thing that makes them feel energized and ready to get up and go in the morning.

To sum up, the SEEKING system is the seat of our motivation. When we give our friend (or team) a “pep talk,” we are activating their SEEKING system by enticing them to imagine a goal and see it as really possible. When the SEEKING system and the mental image or idea of the goal join together we find the motivation, energy, focus and feeling of optimism to go after what we want. Perhaps this is the secret of the “Secret,” a popular method for achieving goals by envisioning their accomplishment.

Dr. Panksepp’s book is a tour de force. It is technical, but humanly written and will give you an entirely new education about this and the other six emotion systems. Visit the Howtherapyworks bookstore with Amazon links to this and other books.

Jeffery Smith MD

Photo: Washington Post (No infringement intended).

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