Affective Neuroscience

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Affective-Neuroscience. Psychology Fanatic
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Science continues to expand our understanding of emotion. Quaint judgements of good and bad have slipped into the past (for many) and we have adopted a the more complex understandings of the neuro underpinnings of felt experience and behavior. In the 1990’s Jaak Panksepp coined the term “Affective Neuroscience” (2019). During the 90’s neuroscience took center stage, focusing mostly on the physical structures of the brain. Basically, affective neuroscience combines neuroscience with the psychological study of personality, emotion, and mood.

Affective neuroscience is the study of the neurological basis for emotions. Jaak Panksepp and Joseph LeDoux are notable early pioneers in the field of affective neuroscience, beginning their research and published findings in the 1990’s. Joseph LeDoux wrote that “the mind has been viewed as a trilogy, consisting of cognition, affect (emotion), and conation (motivation)” (2003, Kindle location 502).

Pankseep explains “the affective neuroscience strategy relies on preclinical evidence for the existence of a variety of primary-process emotional networks in mammalian brains.” He theorizes from experiments involving “highly localized electrical stimulation of the brain (ESB) sites” that these emotional networks “which “exist almost exclusively in subcortical regions” (2010). These subcortical regions are typically known to be part of the limbic system.

Key Definition:

Affective neuroscience is the science of how the brain processes emotions. Affective neuroscience addresses the affective aspects of the physical brain, and the corresponding cognitive processes of the mind.

Neuro-Correlates to Behavior 

Pankseep suggests that a causal chain of internal feelings control the actions of both humans and nonhuman, largely crafted from non-conscious processes. Firstly, our neuro network reacts to internal and external stimuli with positive and negative affect (or valence). Additionally, affect is also experienced in varying degree of arousal. Consequently, the valence and arousal lead to subjective interpretations often referred to as feelings. And then, the interpretations of feelings then motivate behavior (also see appraisal theory).

A major premises of affective neuroscience is that feelings sustain some unconditioned behavioral tendencies normally not apparent to conscious cognitive processes. Comparatively, the James-Lang theory of emotion that quickly incorporates cognitions.

Affective neuroscience focusses on neural correlates, however, science still considers cognitive functions for directing attention to internal and external experience. The attention impacts brain connection, which in turn, affects behavioral tendencies.

Panksepp’s Methods of Research

Panksepp’s research included examination of cross species brain functions by means of electrical stimulation, pharmacological challenges and brain lesions. Panksepp could not use humans for most of his methods research. He began his research by “probing the neural constitution of emotions in the deep foundations of the mammalian brain” (2019). From his research, Panksepp concluded that a cross-species network exists that arousals and motivates behavior. He further broke down this finding into distinct networks that motivated different types of behaviors.

Three Levels of Emotional Arousal

Panksepp’s theory explains emotional motivation through three levels. At the foundational level is a primary biologically motivated system that reacts to stimuli, from the primary emotions evolves a secondary process, and tertiary process. Panksepp explains “these fundamental emotional powers of the mind, which are closely affiliated with a variety of bodily states and nonspecific brain arousal systems (e.g., norepinephrine and serotonin), concurrently generate distinct emotional action tendencies as well as raw feeling states that rapidly get linked to a variety of events in the world through classical conditioning and other basic learning mechanisms” (2009).

Lets take a closer look at Panksepp’s three levels of emotional arousal:


Panksepp explains “primary-process emotional affects are initially unconditioned, “objectless,” neuroevolutionary, affect-laden response tendencies arising from very ancient lower regions of the brain” (2009). We commonly call our subjective experience of primary process arousals feelings. Panksepp wrote that “primary process emotional affects are mammalian/human birthrights that arise directly from genetically encoded emotional action circuits that anticipate key survival needs” (2010). Primary process affects are natural motivators that ensure survival. The primary process create the philosophical state of intention to act.

In regards to the primary process, Kenneth L. Davis and Christian Montag wrote, “Mother nature (aka evolution) speaks to mammals in the oldest language, the language of emotional affects. the ancestorial voices guide their choices as they navigate life” (2019). Our emotional journey all begins with these pangs of feeling arising from neural structures that evolved to sustain life.

Secondary Emotional Processes

We experience raw primary affects in terms of valence and arousal. Historically, psychology has referred to these affects in terms of the hedonic principle of pleasure and pain. Sigmund Freud refers to this as the pleasure principle. Our underlying drives to seek pleasure and avoid pain alter behavior through second level learning, basically through conditioning principles. We reflect on the past and predict the future effectively avoid pain and efficiently secure pleasure. Panksepp explains that secondary emotional processes “arise from simple learning, such as classical and operant conditioning” (2010).

Davis and Montag explain that our evolutionary evolved primary process affects are not fixed functions “but are able to learn and adapt to novel environmental experiences.” Basically, feelings of pleasure and pain serve as rewards and punishments for behaviors that activate those feeling affects. Hence, through conditioning principles, we integrate new experiences into the primary framework of emotional reactions. Our memories hold various scenarios that we associate with pleasure and pain. Accordingly, when we encounter similar situations in our environment, a conditioned (or secondary process) of arousal occurs, motivating action.

Tertiary Process

The third process, and perhaps the one that cause the most emotional dysregulation, is the “intrapsychic ruminations and thoughts about one’s lot in life” (2010). We refer to these processes as the executive functions of thoughts and planning. Panksepp explains that “emotional dysregulations are invariably accompanied by cognitive ‘stuff’—entangled in attributions, ruminations, and all sorts of hopes, plans, and worries” (2009).

Seven Basic Emotional Networks of Primary Process Emotions

Panksepp theorizes we have biological networks within our motivational system, “the seven emotional primes.” These “primary behavioral motivational systems that are at the core of what animates us” (Fosha, Sigel, and Solomon, 2009). These individual networks of motivation have their own punishments and rewards.

Jaak Panksepp defines the basic emotional networks by six criteria:

  • They generate characteristic behavioral-instinctual action patterns
  • They are intially actived by a limited set of unconditioned stimuli
  • The resulting arousals outlast precipitating circumstances
  • Emotional arousals gate/regulate various sensory inputs into the brain
  • They control learning and help program higher brain cognitive activites
  • With maturation, higher brain mechanisms come to regulate emotional arousal (2010).

Panksepp discovered seven basic emotional systems are consistently supported by a cross-species affective neuroscience. They are SEEKING, FEAR, RAGE, LUST, CARE, PANIC, and PLAY. Panksepp believed that these networks were of “critical importance for generating primary-process affective states—basic psychological states such as urgent interest/desire, anxiety, anger, eroticism, nurturance, sadness, and joy” (2009).


The SEEKING system, according to Panksepp is “the epicenter of the excitement of living.” He continues, “The SEEKING system mediates appetitive desire—that is, the urge to find, to consume, and at times to hoard the fruits of the world” (2009). Perhaps, this is comparative to the Broaden and Build state referred to by Barbara Fredrickson in her theory of positive emotions. Panksepp suggests the SEEKING system psychologists traditionally refer to this system as the “brain reward system.” They explain that the SEEKING/desire system is “a general-purpose appetitive motivational system that is essential for animals to acquire all resource needs for survival” (2010).

Panksepp suggests that the SEEKING system probably “helps most other emotional systems to operate effectively.” SEEKING is a major source of life energy, and comparative to Freud’s concept of libido. In unadulterated motivation, the SEEKING system “provokes intense and enthusiastic, exploration and appetitive anticipatory excitement/learning” (2010).


The FEAR network protects animals from pain and destruction. Panksepp explains that “activity in this system is the unconditioned response that mediates classical conditioning of fear, with frozen postures when arousal of the system is modest, and with intense flight when arousal is stronger” (2009). We commonly refer to the activation of this system as the Fight, Flight, Flee response.


“When SEEKING is thwarted,” Panksepp wrote, “RAGE is aroused.” Anger is our response to curtailing of our freedom. This system “invigorates aggressive behaviors when animals are irritated or restrained, and also helps animals defend themselves by arousing FEAR in their opponents” (2010).


LUST is the motivational system that drives reproduction. Specific brain systems and chemistries mediate sexual drives that are distinct for male and females. Sex hormones activate reproduction behaviors. Oxytocin promotes sexual readiness in females, as well as trust and confidence. “Vasopressin promotes assertiveness, and perhaps jealous behaviors in males”(2010).

Panksepp wrote that “while humans can exercise extensive restraint over such urges because of the power of their higher cognitive mechanisms, most other animals follow no such cultural mandates. That means that erotic impulses are often especially thwarted in human societies, blocking the free flow of libidinal ‘energies'” (2009). This thwarting of libidinal energies is a primary factor in many of Sigmund Freud’s theories of neurosis and defense mechanisms.


The CARE system is the maternal nurturance system, an evolutionary safeguard to assure parents take care of offspring. Panksepp explains that “some of the chemistries of sexuality, for instance oxytocin, have been evolutionarily redeployed to mediate maternal care—nurturance and bonding—suggesting. there is an intimate evolutionary relationship between female sexual rewards and maternal motivations” (2010).

The mother child bonding activated during early childhood is essential for healthy development of the child’s brain. Ada Lambert wrote, “an infant denied maternal love cannot, in adulthood, build any sort of relationship, whether social, sexual, or parental” (1997).

More or less most mothers naturally bond with their newborn and provide care. Training and instruction help direct these natural behaviors into effective behaviors.

PANIC (or Grief)

This system originally referred to as the PANIC system, now preferably as the GRIEF system, is our separation distress system. Panksepp explains, “young socially dependent animals have powerful emotional systems to solicit nurturance. Children naturally cry when caregivers fail to provide basic survival needs. Panksepp explains that infants “cry out for care, and their feelings of sudden aloneness and distress reflect the ancestral neural codes of the separation-distress system from which adult sadness and grief are constructed” (2009).

In many ways, the PANIC system dyadically works with the CARE system in caregivers.


A recent state lotto commercial pronounces “a little play goes a long way.” They were referring to our natural instinct to play. While internal motivations to play are more salient in children, they motivate action throughout our lives. Panksepp explains “young animals have strong urges to play–running, chasing, and wrestling.” He continues “these ‘aggressive’ assertive actions are consistently accompanied by positive affect–an intense social joy”(2010).

Children learn basic social rules through play. Panksepp adds “playfulness is probably an experience-expectant process that brings young animals to the perimeter of their social knowledge, to psychic places where they must learn about what they can or cannot do to each other. Play allows animals to be woven into their social structures in effective but friendly ways” (2009, Kindle location 548).

Books on Affective Neuroscience

A Few Words from  Psychology Fanatic

Hamlet said to Horatio, “there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of.” We may never know the full extent of biological fate. Hence, freedom of choice appears to exist in the realms of executive cognitive functions. Markedly, we find strength, hope, and even a spark of divinity in our ability to direct and improve our lives. Yet, biological givens constrain our freedom of choice.

In conclusion, affective neuroscience provides helpful information for treatment and certainly great cause to give empathy to those suffering from emotional diseases not of their choosing. Accordingly, we must progress beyond our simple calculations of emotional wellness, suggesting those suffering to be weak or “bad.”

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Davis, Kenneth L.; Montag, Christian (2019). Selected Principles of Pankseppian Affective Neuroscience. Frontiers in Neuroscience.

Fosha, Diana; Siegel, Daniel J.; and Solomon, Maria D. (2009). The Healing Power of Emotion: Affective Neuroscience, Development & Clinical Practice (Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology). Editors Diana Fosha PhD, Daniel J. Siegel M.D., and Marion F. Solomon Ph.D. W. W. Norton & Company; 1st edition.

Lambert, Ada (1997). Evolution of Love, The (Human Evolution, Behavior, and Intelligence). Praeger.

LeDoux, Joseph (2003) Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are. Penguin Books.

Panksepp Jaak (2010). Affective neuroscience of the emotional Brain-Mind: evolutionary perspectives and implications for understanding depression. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience, 12(4), 533–545.

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