The Primacy of Core Affect: Jaak Panksepp's Groundbreaking Theory of Emotion

Jaak Panksepp is widely considered one of the founding fathers of affective neuroscience. Through meticulous animal research spanning decades, he developed a groundbreaking model of primary emotional systems in the mammalian brain. Panksepp's core affect theory revolutionized the scientific understanding of emotions and their role in shaping human and animal psychology.

Panksepp sadly passed away in 2017, but I was privileged enough to attend his one-day seminar ‘The Evolved Primal Emotional Feelings of Animal Brains and Animal Minds: Clinical and Therapeutic Applications' in Oxford, UK in 2015. 

In this article I hope to give you a brief introduction to the seven core affect states, and Jaak Panksepp's theory without overloading you! While the books Affective Neuroscience and The Archaeology of Mind are overwhelmingly and intimidatingly large tomes, you will learn a great deal by purchasing them, and they should be on the bookshelves of every animal behavior student.

Panksepp's work plays a huge influence on my work as a companion animal behaviorist and how I work with dog, cats and their caregivers.

“If you get the emotions right, the behavior will follow” is my favorite quote by my one time mentor Karen England, and one I like to use often, it really does relate to how animals feel and how it influences their behavior, just ask Panksepp.

I'll get into how we use these emotional systems in the COAPE MHERA CABTi framework of companion animal behavior consulting in a later article, for now, I hope you enjoy reading this, and feel free to leave a comment.

The Seven Core Affect Systems

Panksepp delineated seven core emotional systems that provide the major motivations for mental life and behavior. Each system arises from concentrated neural circuits, chemical messengers, and associated behavioral patterns. The core systems include SEEKING, RAGE, FEAR, LUST, CARE, PANIC/GRIEF, and PLAY. These primal affects drive exploratory urges, anger and aggression, self-protection, sexual behavior, nurturing tendencies, social bonding, and rough-and-tumble playfulness.

Unconscious Operation and Function

A vital aspect of Panksepp's theory is that core affects function unconsciously, allowing animals to act and react without needing higher cognitive processing. They operate from ancient survival-focused brain structures like the amygdala, hypothalamus, and periaqueductal gray. This confers rapid reflexive responses to environmental stimuli and internal urges.

Core Affects versus Higher Emotions

Panksepp drew a sharp contrast between ancient core affect programs and more advanced cognitive emotions processed by cortical regions. Higher emotions, like jealousy, guilt, shame, or optimism arise from neocortical areas that handle abstract thought, language, imagery, identity, and planning. These deliberate, reflective emotions require awareness and life experience to develop fully.

Core Self versus Higher Self

Similarly, Panksepp proposed a “core self” rooted in primordial affective experiences of the body that infant mammals and humans possess at birth. This elemental core self, mediated by basic affective contact with the world, provides a foundation for the later emergence of higher cognitive self-identities encoded by neocortical language areas. In Panksepp's theory, primal core affects establish an experiential core self that enables development of advanced self-awareness.

Implications and Applications

Jaak Panksepp's groundbreaking core affect model commanded attention for confirming emotions as tangible, biologically anchored systems, rather than vague psychological concepts alone. It demonstrated that primal evolutionary emotions shape our minds as much as sophisticated human thought does. His vision of emotive subcortical circuits informed fields like neuroscience, psychiatry, psychology, and philosophy of mind.

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