Archeology of Mind: Neuroevolutionary Origins of Human Emotions, by Jaak Panksepp and Lucy Biven. Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology, 2012.
Reviewed by Kai MacDonald, MD
I AM A REVIEWER, AND THOU SHALT READ NO REVIEWS OTHER THAN THIS.
In some of the (slightly different) iterations of the bible’s Ten Commandments, the solemnity of the first few injunctions is emphasized by their being cast in ALL CAPITAL LETTERS. 2000-plus years later, this all-caps scheme is considered bad form in many email forums (it’s the electronic equivalent of YELLING), and often signals an eruption of what in that medium is called “toxic disinhibition” or “flaming” behavior. Before reading Jaak Panksepp’s seismic 1998 masterwork “Affective Neuroscience”–in which he denotes his 7 core emotional systems in this larger-than-life format (i.e. RAGE, LUST)–I had never seen this capitalization tendency outside of the Decalogue and blog rants. Certainly never in scientific writing. In many ways, this perhaps quirky–and perhaps presumptuous (why not italics? or underline?)–bending of conventional punctuation is both an apt signature for his work and symbolic of its chiseled-in-stone portent.
In this review of “Archeology of Mind: Neuroevolutionary Origins of Human Emotions (Part of the Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology)”, Jaak’s most recent book (co-authored by Lucy Biven), I will address three questions. First, does Panksepp’s oeuvre, captured in Archeology, warrant this use of the LARGER THAN NORMAL disconvention? Second, what are the main theories that are rediscovered in Archeology? Third and perhaps most importantly for the helping professions and the psychotherapeutic community (for whom the book is supposedly written): is Archeology the best summary of his work?
The answer to the first question―whether Panksepp’s ideas warrant a bending of standard punctuation for time immemorial–is a conditional YES. Taking the conditional first, if you have an attachment to reading standard sentences, take a vantage 100 years hence and imagine what other earth-shaking, fundamental things may be discovered that need similar typological setting-off: “This paper will undertake a comparison between Panksepp’s RAGE system, Dr. Smiths MESOLIMBIC THETA SYSTEM and Professor Penguin’s !*#SUBSTANCE P-SENSITIVE CIRCUIT#*! “. A scientific arms race of emphasis could ensue. Furthermore, why not capitalize other scientific categories or words that could be confused with their more pedestrian variations, for example defense mechanisms like SUBLIMATION (the really important defense mechanism, not the petty transition from solid to gas), and REPRESSION. Of course, 100 years hence, a broad swath of the scientific community will be largely illiterate anyway, driven by micro-tweets and iTube, so we needn’t worry.
To justify the capital YES, we may wryly note that the import of “capitalize” comes from the Latin caput (head), where these emotion circuits lie, and that the verb form capitalize signals one will “take the chance to gain advantage from”. Capital letters (weirdly called “Tall Man” letters in some publications) have been empirically demonstrated to help with lexical confusion, at least in part by influencing eye movements (Filik, 2004). My biased belief―which Jaak has helped solidify–is that if any set of things in the world of mammalian neuroscience deserve to be set off with CAPS, the core emotion systems in the brain would fit the bill. Knowing about these systems gives significant theoretical advantage, especially to emotion-informed, evolution-endorsing therapists. Six years ago, in 2006, I first wrote to the ISTDP list serve discussing Jaak’s first book “Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions (Series in Affective Science)”. At that time, it seemed to me a watershed: specifically, it was the only neuroscientific source I had seen discussing RAGE―the fireworks part of Davanloo’s ISTDP–in any depth, and in a larger context of emotional systems. At the time, it was my impression that few in the therapeutic ISTDP/STDP/IEDTA community had heard of this maverick scientist, or his scientific discoveries. Since then, Jaak has been much more widely read, has spoken at therapeutic conferences, and has branched into several psychotherapeutic forays.
In “Archeology”, Panksepp takes on a large project, albeit one that many or most ambitious, career scientist-philosophers undertake: the theory of all things. In this case, Jaak attempts to plumb the source of mammalian consciousness and mental function. Starting from first principles―(i.e. materialism and evolution)–he takes us to what he considers the bedrock of the human and mammalian mind: the subcortical and brainstem loci which are the root of what Panksepp calls primary affective consciousness. From this root, according to Jaak, the whole civilization of higher forms of consciousness spring. Anatomically, in the brain, these foundations are old, deep, centralized: vital. This journey, this delving to the ancient, buried radix affectorum, justifies the Archeology of the title.
2. The Man
A brief biopic informs a review of Panksepp’s work and Archeology. The Estonian-born Jaak began as a somewhat itinerant child, his family escaping from that country to Germany during World War Two; Jaak landing in the US in 1949. Though the majority of his research is in animals, Jaak started his training in clinical psychology at the University of Massachusetts, at a time when behaviorism was the zeitgeist. After spending time in an electroencephalography lab, Jaak became intently interested in the neuroscience of mind: his 1969 thesis is on “the Neural Basis of Aggression in the Albino Rat”. Even in this first published work, which explored the neural basis of the mouse-killing behavior of rats, we can hear the pangs of Jaak’s fellow-feeling conscience:
Since live, unanesthetized mice were used as attack victims in the present research, justifications are in order. The procedure of using live victims seemed necessitated for lack of . . . alternatives . . . it may be questioned whether the information reported here was worth obtaining at all. The author’s opinion is that research into the neural basis of aggressive behavior is presently of direct psychiatric and social concern . . . Distress to mice was minimized as much as experimental aims could allow in these experiments . . . At most, any mouse felt pain for 30 sec . . . if wounded but not immediately killed, mice were immediately sacrificed by the experimenter.”
Jaak’s empathic soul-searching and suffering-sparing evokes Burns’ “To a Mouse . . .” (which Jaak quotes in Archeology), and is emblematic of the refined sentiments he has for his “poor, earth-born companions”; these sentiments, one can see, have informed the last 4 decades of his work.
Since this telling, germinal publication, which blends empathy, compassion and implicit guilt (in the experimenter) with aggression and neurobiology (in the rats), Jaak has been obscenely prolific, with greater than 300 scientific papers on emotion, several field-spawning textbooks, and an ever-broadening spread of interests. Still early in his career, Jaak designed and published a large number of truly seminal basic-science studies on the basis of mammalian emotion. Like other giants of natural science (Darwin, Wilson, Kandel), observations from these experiments became the primordial soup from which Jaak’s later theories evolve. Included in his groundbreaking initial works are seminal discoveries about decortication (surgical removal of an animal’s cortex); electrical brain stimulation; oxytocin and its relation to separation distress; the connection between opiates and social bonding; and the role of too-high-pitched-to-hear rat vocalizations as an expression of rat’s titillation at being tickled. These vocalizations are thought to be an expression of the core PLAY circuit (see a must-see video at youTube ). As a scientist, then, Jaak’s theories about emotions do not spring–rough-clad and unanchored–from his own personal experience or ruminations. Instead, they grow out of the terra firma of peer-reviewed, published research with our animate (and, he argues, fellow-feeling) cousins.
Notably, Archeology is more personal and closer to the heart than Panksepp’s former works. In these pages–using the standard scientific metric of complete authorial anonymity–Panksepp bares all. Here, we read about the selfish lush whose drunken drive clumsily snuffed the flame of Panksepp’s daughter, Tiina Alexandra Panksepp (1975-1991). Though he dedicated “Affective Neuroscience” to her, in Archeology he shares many more details of this painful rent in his paternal life. Here also we read about his emotional reaction to that loss, his use of antidepressants, the benefits he received from psychotherapy. Here also, we read about his (and his wife(s) !) recent chemotherapy for lymphoma, its nearly-fatal complications, his experience with EMDR. In many ways, these personal revelations, neither mawkish nor maudlin, complement and humanize his science. In fact, I distinctly remember that this “humanization” of himself―specifically the foreword to his daughter in Affective Neuroscience–drew this reader into its pages. In his discussions of core emotions, Jaak is speaking both for the species and for himself: “archeological dig” has been deeply informed by the personal pain of loss, the experience of depression, and existential dread. Jaak, we sense, feels: like we do.
3. The Theories
In Archeology, Jaak highlights all of the ideas he has developed over his career―most which have roots in his own research. The majority of these theories are extraordinarily informative―in a general way–for people interested in human mental function, behavior and brain-based suffering. Their deep resonance with emotion-focused therapy in general and ISTDP in particular–as well as their consilience with the phenomenology seen in deep emotional psychotherapeutic work―justifies a review.
The first theory (which he develops a long, detailed, and oft-repeated proof for) is that an overwhelming majority of the available evidence suggests that mammals have primary emotional consciousness. That is, they experience emotions. Specifically, animals experience subjective states which are similar in their essence to our own unprocessed, unexamined, unverbalized, unthought-about core emotional states, the felt states of mind that occur 100-300 milliseconds after a stimulus. In ISTDP, these are the emotional responses at the bottom of the triangle of conflict. In Archeology, a great deal of ink is spent on “animals feel” blandishments, and many, many passages are spent buttressing his argument against agnostics (“how can we know . . . animals can’t talk”) and anti-anthropomorphists (”its natural―and wrongheaded―to extrapolate from your own introspection to animals”). Three key sets of facts support his “animals feel” claim, which seems obvious to the pet-loving layperson and also philosophically problematic, even dangerous, to many scientists. First, animals clearly exhibit likes and dislikes when we electrically stimulate the same brain areas that―when stimulated in humans―produce subjective feelings. If those brain areas are not creating subjectively valued experiences, what are they creating? Second, though humans have large cortexes, the cortex is not necessary―based on the behavior of animals and humans without cortexes–for what Jaak calls primary process emotional experience (that first 100-300 milliseconds). Third, given the clear homology between emotional feelings and emotional behavior, it is infinitely reasonable to infer that emotional behaviors exhibited by animals reflect the simultaneous activation of emotional feeling states.
Tracing back through this argument, we can see the three points which anchor the second of Jaak’s seminal ideas: the triangle of affective neuroscience (yes, he has a triangle, too). These points anchor a naturalistic, brain-based perspective on emotions: 1) subjectively-experienced mind (which includes the primary process affective experiences of animals), 2) brain, and 3) behavior. Thinking like a neuroscientist who experiments on animals, this triangle justifies the claim that animal experimentation can illuminate the emotional lives and ailments of humans.
A third fundamental tenet of affective archeology is that of nested layers of anatomy and experience, which draws on the principle of the layered evolution of the brain ala Paul McLean’s “triune brain” theory. This theory suggests that there are three different levels of brain function which create three different levels of emotional experience: 1. Sub-neocortical (i.e. brainstem)-based primary process emotions; 2: Basal ganglia (subcortical)-based secondary-process emotions; 3. Cortically/frontally-based tertiary affects and neocortical awareness functions. Important for ISTDP and emotion-focused therapies in general is that #1―if you allow some conceptual wiggle room―can be moored at the bottom of the triangle of conflict, #2 at the anxiety pole, and #3 in defenses. Said differently, a careful examination of the micro-phenomenology of affective experience (i.e. videotapes of emotion-focused therapy) also supports the existence of these levels, and their recursive (looping back on themselves) influences. See the free article referenced below for details and illustrations.
A fourth major part of Panksepp’s worldview identifies 7 primary affective systems, anchored in subcortical brain circuits and present in all mammals. These are (roll out the capitals . . .)
1. SEEKING (expectancy)
2. FEAR (anxiety)
3. RAGE (anger)
4. LUST (sexuality)
5. CARE (nurturance)
6. PANIC/GRIEF (separation)
7. PLAY (joy)
Each of these systems emanates from a core set of brain regions and is influenced by a cadre of contributory neurochemistries (see article, again). A large part of Archeology goes into the scientific background behind these seven systems, their implication for human ailments, and their impact in larger society and human life.
In developing and explicating these theories, and therefore in Archeology, Panksepp straddles several chasms that bedevil all attempts to describe an unbroken materialist causality from molecules to mind. First, there is the gap between homo sapiens and all the other mammalian species we currently breed and use for scientific experiments: largely, rodents, but throw in chicks and dogs and pigs and primates. The second gap is actually a series of similar gaps between different levels of understanding of the central nervous system: between neurochemistry (i.e. opiates, oxytocin, and dopamine); separable brain circuits; affective states with their embodied felt-ness; behavior; and complex, multilayered states of mind. To straddle the latter gap–between organ and experience–Jaak takes another lexical liberty and mints a mirror-image neologism: BrainMind/MindBrain. Like something plucked out of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, you can flip the two sides of the term as needs demand: BrainMind emphasizes the organ aspect; MindBrain the subjective. This term (terms?) captures Panksepp’s belief in what is called dual-aspect monism: an essentially materialist worldview that sees mind and brain activity as two perspectives on the same natural phenomena.
4. Archeology: The Book
One of the best parts of Archeology, at least for this “return reader”, was re-finding veins of linguistic jewels which flash brightly in all Panksepp’s work. As a writer, Jaak is a master of crafting lapidary phrases that add sparkle to the science of affect. The seven emotional brain circuits are “ancestral tools for living”, “ancestral memories of how effectively we play the game of survival and reproduction . . . passed down through the collected mindless ‘wisdom’ of our genetic code”. “Affective consciousness”, the bedrock of our conscious lives, is “an energetic form of consciousness”. A section on the RAGE circuit is given the Macbeth-inspired heading “The Rageful Furies of the Mind”. Describing the SEEKING system, Jaak notes that “these highly energized, euphoric-foraging engagements with the world” are”what some might call joyous aliveness”. Though stern scientists might rankle at these emotion-tinged descriptions and their implications, from the perspective of a scientist-author, I find them both descriptive and fetching, both here and in his earlier Affective Neuroscience. Despite these sparklings, and despite the clear relevance of Jaak’s ideas and research, Archeology’s numerous flaws too often divert the dig. Specifically, though Archeology has some advantages over the earlier Affective Neuroscience (a freshet of new illustrations, novel ideas about PLAY and LUST, the role of time in experience), I think his core themes are expressed more concisely in his former work. For the educated lay reader, Archeology had a few too many flaws, and a few too many pages. A one-sitting precis of his recent work and key ideas can be found at plosone.org .
5. Blind Spots, Rough Spots
The largest, most glaring flaw in Archeology is that it created an at-times vertiginous sensation that–though welcomed when one visits the deep “layers of history” buried in Rome–was not welcome in a more casual read. Specifically, I found myself asking again and again: who is/are he/they (more on this in #2) addressing? Novitiates to Jaak’s work may find themselves either annoyed or befuddled–or both at different times–by passages recounting details of the often-spirited neo-Talmudic infighting between the cognoscenti of neuroscience, psychology and emotion. In some of these passages, Jaak seems to be grinding a personal axe with some of his more prominent detractors, and showering us with distracting sparks. Indeed, though the preeminence of a neuroscientific perspective on our identities makes these theoretical issues important, and though the history of science informs our current state, gossipy details of the “infighting” were too frequent and too detailed.
In the same vein, but at a different level, I often found the technical writing buried in many passages too byzantine for a “layperson read”. These passages caused this reader―admittedly familiar with the language–to glaze over. For example, a section discussing a variety of small proteins (neuropeptides) that may be used as drug treatments details a variety of animal experiments using agonists (stimulators of a receptor) and antagonists (receptor blockers) contained twists and turns like this “these episodes can be inhibited by glutamate receptor antagonists . . . However, it is unlikely that its direct pharmacological manipulation would yield a useful antianxiety agent . . . milder stimulation through a glycine receptor “side-knob” on glutamate receptors may be a very safe and useful treatment.” Is there an expectation that lay-readers, most of whom presumably do not have a degree in neuropharmacology, will hold the thread through this labyrinth of changing acronyms and chemistries? Perhaps if the faint-of-heart reader struggles, they may benefit from taking an agonist–or was it an antagonist–of CRF . . . or was it MSH??? Yet another mind-numbing section goes too deeply into the details of Pavlovian conditioning experiments, with their UCS’s, UCR’s, CS’s and CR’s: which is the bell again? The meat? The saliva? Reading these “conditioning” section (the CS), I found myself experiencing very light nausea: my CR (conditioned response) to multistep causality and a profusion of abbreviations. Amidst this technical material, we get Twitter-ready clunkers like the revelation that when animals press a lever to electrically stimulate parts of their brain’s SEEKING system, rats get “super excited”. OMG!
A second flaw, in a work that aims to explicate Panksepp’s ideas for a lay readership, is that several of Jaak’s pet (ok, animal companion) projects are given much, much too thorough a treatment. As discussed above, Jaak is nobly and transcendently committed to the enterprise of raising human consciousness of consciousness in animals. As highlighted by the above quotation from his thesis, he has a bodhisattva-like awareness of the suffering of sentient beings. All this is a supremely enlightened stance. But the readership he says he is writing for may not be able to whether what to me were too frequent assertions and on-and-on arguments about whether animals have primary consciousness. Many of these readers have read Singer’s “Animal Liberation” or one of its more modern variants. Many have been happy, I suspect, with the common-sense idea that their canine companions feel. Add to this project the oft-repeated flailing against the hackneyed ‘affect versus cognition’ canard, and you have a book that appears to be trying to both 1. educate and entertain the public; and 2. take detailed issue with his staunch critics. In striving too much for latter, Archeology is too long―and labyrinthine–for the former.
Panksepp wisely flew solo in Affective Neuroscience. In Archeology, his often-clumsy co-authorship with the psychoanalyst Lucy Biven creates a third, jarring flaw. Certainly, the authorial duo of a therapist and neuroscientist is a clever pairing and might leaven the work for the large “lay” readership of therapists, teachers and healers. Certainly, this two-gendered duo could be seen as representing each part of the MindBrain, like two halves of the cortex. The problems created by the partnership, however, surpass its benefits. Though we are mercifully spared the worst-case authorial Jabberwocky that could have resulted (the use of BivenPanksepp/PankseppBiven), several sections of this book are annoyingly author-aware. In different chapters, we may hear from our authors that “we have intentionally not dwelled” on this or that topic, whereas later–speaking for himself–Jaak discusses “his” ideas with the personal “I”. Delightful in an opera, I found the solo-pair-solo dynamic too distracting amidst often-challenging conceptual material. On top of this, Biven’s theoretical leanings often mean that “psychotherapy” equals “traditional psychodynamic psychotherapy”. For example: “when affects maintain the upper hand, the talking cure is apt to fail because the interpretive method, the cardinal psychotherapeutic tool, can frequently be ineffective in the face of our primal passions.” Later, Jaak (I assume here he is speaking for himself) seems to displays a subtly supercilious attitude toward analysis and perhaps even psychotherapists when he says that “neuroscientists are the only tribe of scientists that will ever be able to clarify the mechanisms of mind”. Sadly, Jaak, when he takes up the job of discussing some “new ways to help establish affective well being”―the work of Diana Fosha and Les Greenberg―he must go it alone. In this section, Biven explicitly opts out, for “the junior author did not wish to be affiliated with those views”. Though one respects her commitment to ideological purity, one wishes her affiliation with the unity of the work–and the experience of the reader–had surpassed her personal affiliation with her views.
Besides these specific shortcomings, several aspects of affective neuroscience specifically relevant to the psychotherapies are excluded. The role of attachment―the human crucible for affective learning–in the process of human emotional development is underplayed. Regarding the latter, though basic-emotion-demonstrating humans can survive without a cortex (an oft-cited argument against the “emotional processes are cortical” argument), few actually do. The anticonnectionist (here, I mean the complex, dynamic, and evolving connections between different brain areas, which actually change as the result of therapy), antidevelopmental implications of a cortex-minimizing model flatten the nuances of the complex neurobiological process of real human development. The cross-level process between midbrain, subcortex, and cortex includes the development of vital mental attributes: emotion regulation, theory of mind, the complex self. Specific to psychotherapy, the important topics of guilt and shame are barely mentioned. Finally, experienced psychotherapists may find some of the well-meant psychotherapeutic suggestions alternatively too Chicken Soup for the Soul–“two major ways to restore your composure are taking a few deep breaths and reflecting on who you want to be”–and too preachy: catharsis is “not good for you”, and “you should want, in the long term: . . . ‘mindfulness and wisdom’ ”. Amen.
As a psychiatric clinician, I often use the divining rod question “how might this help the next the person in front of me?” as a yardstick. Using this metric, I find an affective neuroscience classification model often falls short. As illuminated by our financial support of at least two of classification schemes (the DSM system and RDoC―the NIH’s new tax-supported Research Domain Criteria), brain-based human ailments are currently not able to be illuminated, studied or treated within any single explanatory model. Schizophrenia, substance-use disorders and social phobia―just to stay in “S”, are informed by an affective neuroscience model, but certainly not encompassed or explained by one. During our short lifetimes, our classification schemes may always vaguely resemble Jorge Luis Borge’s fanciful Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge, which divides animals into ramshackle categories like “embalmed ones”, “those that are trained”, “those that tremble as if they were mad”, and “those that, at a distance resemble flies”. Though Panksepp’s theories are important tools in our understanding of mammals, humanity and some of humanity’s ills, the “theory to treatment” arc of the affective neuroscience worldview is sometimes hard to traverse.
If, in spite of this work’s shortcomings, the SEEKING reader chooses to plunge into Archeology, take CARE to go armed with a spade of patience, a map of the blind alleys, and an understanding of the project’s history. Do not FEAR; you will certainly emerge with more than a handful of treasures.