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Depressed? Your "SEEKING" System Might Not Be Working: A Conversation with Neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp

07/18/2013 11:14 am ET | Updated Sep 17, 2013

Jaak Panksepp, the inventor of the term "affective neuroscience", is regarded as a radical in his field, with ground-breaking insights into emotional issues ranging from depression to playfulness. What makes him radical? First, his study of animal emotions, and his data-supported assertion that animals experience feelings as humans do. Using electrical stimulation of the brain, Panksepp has shown that all mammals have the same basic emotional system: i.e. underlying neural networks that are linked to feelings of raw emotion, and respond positively or negatively when aroused. For example, Panksepp has tickled rats to hear them 'laugh' ; in other species, he has conducted extensive experiments on what he calls "separation distress." Today's neuroscientists generally do not bother to consider the emotional life of animals, or put it on par with that of humans. But as Panksepp eloquently argues: "Animals do have emotional systems that generate feelings, even though hardly a neuroscientist yet acknowledges this fact."

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Second: Panksepp looks at what causes our feelings: the primary, instinctual networks in the brain that make them happen. Most neuroscientists, he confided in our phone conversation between Paris (where I teach) and Washington (where he teaches), look only at symptoms. "They are behaviorists. They follow the tradition of early psychologist William James, who looked at emotion as a mental after-effect, a cognitive read-out of autonomic bodily arousals, rather than as the brain system which drives us." He has been at odds with these behaviorists for most of his career, this despite the fact that Panksepp's major contributions to the field of emotion are now widely accepted, especially by psychotherapists treating patients for emotional concerns such as depression.

One of Panksepp's major contributions: his identification of seven ancient instincts, or "primary-process affective systems," that in his view drive the human being. Namely : SEEKING, ANGER, FEAR, PANIC-GRIEF, maternal CARE, PLEASURE/LUST and PLAY. As a Darwinian neuroevolutionist, Panksepp holds that these instincts are embedded in ancient regions of the brain; they are evolutionary memories "built into the nervous system at a fundamental level" (hence why he spells them in all caps). The premise is that emotions are actually essential to our survival. "They allow animals to automatically anticipate survival concerns."

These instinctual emotional systems might be considered--and here is a radical insight--our "core-self."

Another radical insight: the most important of the seven emotional systems, the SEEKING-EXPECTANCY system, may be at the core of understanding depression. The SEEKING system is that which impels us to seek our environment for information that will help us survive, whether the location of tasty nuts or a link on a new internet dating service. "It allows animals to go out in the world and enthusiastically look for the resources needed to live." Dopamine-energized, this mesolimbic SEEKING system, arising from the ventral tegmental area (VTA), encourages foraging, exploration, investigation, curiosity, interest and expectancy. Dopamine fires each time the rat (or human) explores its environment. "I can look at the animal and tell when I am tickling its SEEKING system," Panksepp explained. "Because it is exploring and sniffing."

The minute you wake up, the SEEKING system is in gear: where is the coffee, where is my cell phone, what is going on, and where can I find it.

In fact, for Panksepp, this SEEKING System is implicated in everything from our constant meaning-making (searching the environment for significant connections) to, in its excessive form, addictions. "Check out a cocaine addict cruising for a new fix," Panksepp observed. Or someone addicted to the internet, going from one Google search to another. Dopamine is firing, keeping the human being in a constant state of alert expectation.

Typically it is not the reward that makes us feel euphoric, but the search itself.

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The opposite of seeking: depression. That moping, listless, who-cares-about-anything feeling? You are no longer inspired to seek the environment to survive. The SEEKING system has shut down. It instinctually seems better to roll over and play dead. "If you take the SEEKING system away," Panksepp commented. "Your mental life is so compromised, you cannot live happily."

Panksepp is a very open, affable, brilliantly verbal man on the phone, and divulges, in his writings and interviews, his own struggle with depression when his sixteen year old daughter Tiina, whom he raised for many years as a single parent, died in a tragic car accident. What helped him go back to his own seeking--and his scientific curiosity in emotion--was, he tells me, the support of his wife and friends.

For depression, this shut-down of SEEKING, is our natural response to the violation of yet another fundamental human instinct: our built-in need for attachment. Loss will spur ancient brain mechanisms of separation distress. A break-up, divorce, loss of job, or death--any perception of isolation or loss of love--will trigger another one of our instinctual systems, the PANIC-Grief System: the psychic pain that results from loss or social disenfranchisement.

And once the PANIC-Grief System is set in gear, the SEEKING System can no longer function vigorously.

Panksepp is currently working on developing new methods for treating depression by regulating the primitive emotional systems of the brain that are afflicted. Along with colleagues around the world, he has two projects underway. One involves direct Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) of the SEEKING system. As he noted to me, colleagues in Germany have already seen dramatic benefits in seven depressed treatment-resistant volunteers in the first experimental trial, six of whom showed clear increases in appetitive motivation with markedly diminished depression. Another approach, a medicinal study, has yielded a potential anti-depressant, code-named GLX-13, a molecule that helps facilitate feelings of "social joy." Both projects reflect a similar strategy: "to directly facilitate feelings of 'enthusiasm', that which is profoundly depleted in depression, by activating the SEEKING system."

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Another powerful way to treat depression that Panksepp has discovered may surprise us---and is one that we can put in practice ourselves. Play. Panksepp's latest research is on how PLAY is not just an amusing pastime, but one of the human being's seven instincts. PLAY is vital for humans and other animals to establish friendships and to learn social cooperation as well as competition, while testing the boundaries of what can and cannot be done. "Play is a primary process that helps achieve the pro-social programming of higher brain regions, such as the neo-cortex."

Overall, PLAY is "what allows us to engage positively with others," Panksepp says. "It also can be an antidote to the negative emotions. Animals who get abundant play are less susceptible to depression. PLAY promotes enthusiasm in the brain--that is, social joy. The SEEKING system and the PLAY system work together as a dance."

"Perhaps the best therapy for depression, at least in its milder forms, is to coax people to play again. And also to have lots of physical activity which can invigorate many brain systems."