Written by Jaak Panksepp & Lucy Diven

Which came first – the emotion or the thought?

Review by Gunnel Minett

For most of human history people have tried to explain the human mind. Why are we conscious? Where do our thoughts come from? Where do our emotions come from? What makes us happy? What makes us sad? What fills us with; enthusiasm, lust, anger, fear, or tenderness?

The main consensus has been that it is our thoughts that come first, that they trigger our emotions and motivation. Rene Descartes who still has a clear influence on Western science, was crystal clear that our thoughts were predominant. By stating “I think therefore I am” he even questioned everything but his thoughts.
In the last century discussion about mind and consciousness expanded greatly. There are now many views but very little consensus. It is like a giant jigsaw puzzle where people are trying to link up pieces here and there but where a number of pieces still are the wrong way up and need to be dealt with before they can contribute to the overall picture.

I would say that the authors of this book are contributing largely to clarifying the overall picture. By reporting on their findings in animal research they are able to show that human behaviour has a lot in common with other mammals. Even if we still know next to nothing about animal consciousness we can see that much of our emotional life is shared with other mammals.

The authors identify seven emotional systems that explain how we live and behave. These systems originate in deep areas of the brain that are remarkably similar across all mammalian species. These systems draw on information both from within and from the environment and act like a type of driving force for all emotions and behaviour. It is when they are disrupted, that we find the origins of emotional (and psychological) disorders. The systems are:
– SEEKING/EXPECTANCY: how the brain generates a euphoric and expectant response

– FEAR: how the brain responds to the threat of physical danger and death

– RAGE: sources of irritation and fury in the brain

– LUST: how sexual desire and attachments are elaborated in the brain

– CARE: sources of maternal nurturance

– GRIEF/PANIC: sources of non-sexual attachments

– PLAY: how the brain generates joyous, rough-and-tumble interactions

– SELF: a hypothesis explaining how affects might be elaborated in the brain

Because these systems are rooted in older parts of the brain they can be described as a type of emotional intelligence that influences the thoughts as much as the other way around. This is a very different approach to understanding human consciousness than most of the current debate where some still dismiss emotions as irrelevant or just a by-product of the conscious brain. For psychology in particular, a large part of the last century was heavily influence by the behaviourist attitude that understanding emotions were of no consequence when it came to dealing with human behaviour.

Panksepp and Diven make it clear beyond any doubt that this is not the right way forward. On the contrary, they argue that the best way forward for helping people with psychological and behavioural problems is to learn from their type of research. This means to learn from studying what exactly happens, for example, when the chemistry of the brain changes and to hopefully also develop drugs that will help us change the brain’s chemistry in positive ways. Combined with psychotherapy, this approach has been shown to produce very good results.

In their own words: “It has long been known that the most effective psychotherapy occurs when clinicians know how to approach clients with unconditional acceptance, empathic sensitivity, and a full concern for their emotional lives. In a word, effective psychotherapists share their ability for CARE, along with the ability to recruit their healing power of positive emotions. And this lesson is not just for those whose professional focus is to help heal the mind, but also for those harried clinicians who are more involved with bodily than mental health, and who, all too often, do not have sufficient time for the emotional concerns of their clients (Goleman, 2006). Of course, the loving touch does not need much time. But it does need consistency.” P 310

They also point to the fact that by understanding how the emotional systems works, we can understand what they need to develop, i.e. what kind of environment children need to develop fully functional emotional reactions. This can help to reverse some of the negative trends in today’s childcare. For instance it may help explain the growing number of autistic children and how to best help them. The authors also point to the number of children with ADHD who are treated with powerful drugs which numb their minds (and in particular their PLAY system) to some extent. By understanding the PLAY system and its role it is possible that ADHD-children can be helped simply by letting them have more time for play on a regular basis.

The authors also point to the importance of understanding the role of emotions in all forms of human interaction. In their words: “Whatever the reason, we do not really understand much more about how the higher brain functions can weave together our cognitions than we do about how the lower brain generates emotions. We do know that the personality characteristics of therapists – no doubt especially their capacities for affective attunement – are typically more important than the specific procedures they use. It is well known that when one is feeling bad, the attention of caring others can rapidly reduce negative effect. Twelve-step programs are probably so remarkably effective, because they provide the social concern and affirmations that are needed to become reconnected to one’s potential for positive feelings. The social-affective power of other minds can help people deal effectively with negative affects, and thereby the affective terrain of the brain may provide a clearer description of the psychological forces that lie at the heart of most human psychological problems, and the intra- and inter-personal mental dynamics that need to be recruited for optimal therapeutic effects.” P 455

Their conclusion is that understanding the role of emotions and how they are expressed in the brain and body will lead to great changes: “In any event, it is clear that psychotherapy is in the midst of an emotional revolution. The primal affective aspects of mind are no longer marginalized, but, rather, are recognized as the very engines of the psyche……But the bottom line is that further progress with such novel approaches must be grounded in understanding the nature of the underlying pathogenic factors.” P 457

It will be very exciting to see what such a change will lead to and if it will be enough for us to change the world for the better. Given that the future may require a total change in global cooperation for us to survive as a planet with a variety of life forms, we will certainly need all the knowledge there is to succeed.

W.W.Norton & Company, London 2012, ISBN 0393705315