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  • Writer's picturePamela Weintraub

THE RAT TICKLER, Discover 2012

Jaak Panksepp Pinned Down Humanity's 7 Primal Emotions

Jaak Panksepp has taken on many unusual roles in his storied career, but none so memorable as rat tickler: He learned how to stimulate the animals to elicit high-frequency chirps that he identified as laughter. Panksepp’s interspecies game-playing garnered amused media coverage, but the news also stirred up old controversies about human and animal emotions. Since the 1960s, first at Bowling Green State University and later at Washington State University, Panksepp has charted seven networks of emotion in the brain: SEEKING, RAGE, FEAR, LUST, CARE, PANIC/GRIEF, and PLAY. He spells them in all caps because they are so fundamental, he says, that they have similar functions across species, from people to cats to, yes, rats.

Panksepp’s work has led him to conclude that basic emotion emerges not from the cerebral cortex, associated with complex thought in humans, but from deep, ancient brain structures, including the amygdala and the hypothalamus. Those findings may show how talk therapy can filter down from the cortex to alter the recesses of the mind. But Panksepp says his real goal is pushing cures up from below. His first therapeutic effort will use deep brain stimulation in the ancient neural networks he has charted to counteract depression. Panksepp recently sat down with DISCOVER executive editor Pamela Weintraub at the magazine’s offices in New York City to explain his iconoclastic take on emotion. His new book, The Archaeology of Mind: Neuroevolutionary Origins of Human Emotion, will be published in July.

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