The Developping Brain Part Two

The Anatomy of Joy with Jaak Panksepp, PhD

Jaak Panksepp, PhD, Emeritus Professor of the Department of Psychology at Bowling Green State University. Panksepp coined the term 'affective neuroscience', the name for the field that studies the neural mechanisms of emotion. "We finally got a handle on the nature of psychological pain, which is very important for depression and other psychiatric disorders.  And then we said well there must be something fundamental about the social principal that is in the arena of joy.  What would it be? And the answer was obvious that it must be playfulness.

Themes: 
brain
brain development
emotions
play

Play is nature’s optimum state.

Play is nature’s optimum state.
Jaak Panksepp

State specific learning and performance has been known within brain research for 40 years. If an animal learns a task under one chemical state it cannot remember it very well under a different chemical state. Every emotion is a state. Optimum states produce optimum learning and performance. Play is nature’s optimum state.

Every emotion is a state and that state has chemistry’s that provide codes for learning, what one does during that state.  This has been known within brain research for 40 years that there is state specific learning.  For instance, if an animal learns a task under one chemical state it cannot remember it very well under a different chemical state.  Now they just talk about molecular states, it’s just as important if not more important to say that during the psychological state you’re learning to behave a certain way and we have many, many different basic psychological states, as many states as basic emotions.  If you’re in an eager euphoric anticipatory state you can learn all kinds of connections in the physical world.  If you’re in a play state you can learn all kinds of connections in the social world.  If you’re in a fearful state then you make very precise linkages between those things that might hurt you and how you might behave to survive and thrive.  With anger, anger is not a good feeling but a lot of people become angry people because anger has worked for them and if it works for you then there’s a positive component to it.  But so many people get irritated very easily and they don’t know how to control their state of anger.  We even have a cultural saying take a pill but there is no pill to take but we know enough about the anger system in the brain to already manufacture a pill that should work but the science hasn’t been done yet.

Brain mind goes together so you’ve got a brain behavior word like play and you’ve got a mental brain word like joy.  We capitalize those words to indicate we’re talking about something very specific about specific network in the brain, all these human words have lots of excess meaning and the real issue, we’ve been working on this for almost 30 some years and we have a lot more to understand than we understand at the present time and a lot of people ask us well are you trying to manufacture a pill for kids and I answer no, we are trying to understand the system to such a deep level that we have the possibility of telling people that if you play a lot with your child here are the life long benefits for the kid.  The child developed an attitude toward life where they may not need pills.  They might not need pills for ADHD, for depression, for things like that.  Early experiences, positive experiences can protect you for the rest of your life.  That’s wonderful but there will be kids that have grown up with such bad emotions that they may need a pill and there’s nothing bad about it as long as you can be confident that the pill is safe and doesn’t have worse problems than the child already has.  There’s a case of many, many children are shy, they’ve got too much separation distress, a form of psychic pain that prevents them from going to school, interacting with schoolmates.  There was a paper a long time ago by Donald Klein, a great Psychiatrist in New York, and his wife, Rachel Kiddleman-Klein, and they had found that panic attacks are controlled by tricyclic anti-depressants in adults and they said maybe we can give tiny, tiny, tiny amounts of this medicine for kids that have school-phobia.  They’re back in school and they cry and cry and hang on to mother’s leg.  So they did this study and they had an interesting way of following them up.  They asked professional psychiatrists how well is this child doing?  they asked parents, and they also asked the children.  And after very, very tiny doses of this trycyclic anti-depressant Enipermine, the professionals said half the kids were better.  The parents said about seventy-five percent of the kids were better.  And when we asked he children every one of them said they felt better and more confident.  So there will be a place for these kinds of medicines but they have to use with a remarkable high level of intelligence and we cannot have that intelligence without respecting the feelings.

Basic feelings are gifts of nature

Basic feelings are gifts of nature
Jaak Panksepp

Once my friend Mark Smaller realized that what natural play was, it wasn’t objects it was human engagements, he decided to throw all his toys on the shelf and he said you know that opened up a relationship with the child where now I could move along and work with real issues much more rapidly.  So now they run around chasing each other.

Now when dads learn how to play with their kids, they’re a single child, the child was obviously very happy to have this playful attention.  The ADHD symptoms went down as far as the parents described.  They were much better regulated in the classroom.  Kids would get to bed easier.  The idea of the evening play session should be about an hour before the child goes to bed.  If you keep it to half and hour and allow half an hour to settle down, the reason kids don’t go to sleep readily is their body needed a play session and if they don’t get it they’re going to keep yelling out bring me this, bring me that.  So all the sudden the kids would readily go to sleep.

As a matter of fact I’ve got a friend, a child psycho-analyst  in Chicago, and usually that child psycho-analyst use a lot of play therapy which consist of a lot of toys and a lot of games and a lot of objects.  Once my friend Mark Smaller realized that what natural play was, it wasn’t objects it was human engagements, he decided to throw all his toys on the shelf and he said you know that opened up a relationship with the child where now I could move along and work with real issues much more rapidly.  So now they run around chasing each other.

The real problem in understanding feelings scientifically is that they’re hidden inside the nervous system and there is no direct indicator of how an organism feels that comes directly from the brain but we discovered that the kind of emotional actions that animals make naturally, the instinctual emotional behaviors from anger to crying to joy, play, that those same circuits that generate the behavior generate the emotional feeling.  So we can see the behavior, we can’t see the feeling, but they come from the same brain systems so we can study the behavior objectively as long as its natural behavior, not learned behavior and we can infer that the same chemistry’s, the same circuits control the basic feeling.  And this is similar to quantum physics.  No physicist has ever seen quantum particles but they have a language of mathematics to make predictions so that when certain larger particles are smashed together in a super collider and they spin out sub-atomic particles, that those would have certain mathematical characteristics.  So they have a language that they share with each other to make predictions.  Now in neural science mathematics isn’t going to work that way but we have neural circuits, all mammals have very similar circuits below the neo-cortex, very similar chemistry’s, almost identical chemistry’s and if we can identify the circuits and chemistry’s that control the instinctual behavior, we have an answer to what controls the instinctual feeling.  So these basic feelings are gifts of nature and we can understand them at a chemical level and we can make them predictions to the human level and we can predict how humans will feel when we modify these chemistry’s.

A solid scientific understanding what play is in the brain and what play does to the brain.

A solid scientific understanding what play is in the brain and what play does to the brain.
Jaak Panksepp

Our basic question has been what does it mean scientifically to have a basic feeling like joy or grief or anger or fear or desire, lust? These are fundamental forces of the animal mind and the human mind and there have been so little work on those topics in the last 150 years since science started because these are people say intangibles, feelings you cannot see. 

I think we are not looking for pills, we’re looking for a solid scientific understanding what play is in the brain and what play does to the brain.  And one cannot reach the conclusions before the science is finished.  We can be confident there will be a lot of benefits at all levels of the organism from muscles to mind and our own research has been much more interested in the mind.  Our basic question has been what does it mean scientifically to have a basic feeling like joy or grief or anger or fear or desire, lust?  These are fundamental forces of the animal mind and the human mind and there have been so little work on those topics in the last 150 years since science started because these are people say intangibles, feelings you cannot see.  But I think we have established a scientific paradigm where you can study these subtle aspects of mind and the strategy is very similar to quantum physics where you cannot study the quantum level directly, you have to study it indirectly.  Because of these very powerful approaches we can finally answer what does it mean to have grief?  What does it mean to have joy?  As soon as we begin to understand these forces of the mind scientifically we’ll have a foundation for biological psychiatry because there are a lot of people where these forces have become so imbalance that they literally need medical help, psychiatric help.  There can be molecules to re-balance systems.  There can be environments to re-balance systems.  Both of them have to work together.  But my attitude is that you do not give little children medications where we have not yet understood what the medications do to the animal brain.  So maybe eventually there will be medications, like play, medications that will take a fearful shy child that is on the periphery of the social activity and you can tell the child will have problems.  Maybe there will be not only psycho-social but a biological way of facilitating a healthier engagement with the world.

I agree that having a whole new concept of how parents behave with their kids is necessary.  We need a new Dr. Spock who operates at the emotional level.  Remember Dr. Spock said its okay to leave the little baby alone in their room to cry their heads off and then they go to sleep and that’s good for them. Well I don’t think it’s good for them.  I think when a child is indicating they want social contact, it’s wiser to make sure they feel good.  There’s a new book by Margo Thunderland from London, “The Science of Parenting,” and it actually tries to use the modern neural science to train parents on how to behave in a more productive way so their kids are happy and creative and real positive human beings.  So there are lots of ways to do it but without understanding the child’s emotions you really can’t make progress.  So training parents on how to be playful, let’s say if they’re a single child and that child doesn’t have a playmate then daddy better pick up the slack.  They should know what play really is and many of them do quite spontaneously, others do not, and we actually had a non-profit foundation, The Memorial Foundation for Lost Children, where we gave parents help if they had neurologically impaired kids like autistic kids.  We had therapies, new therapists and also ADHD and our psycho-social therapy was play, play, play every day.   At least a half an hour in the morning, a half an hour in the evening and if this young is without a playmate then we’d say dad you play physically in a happy way with the child.  Every dad that was able to do it they found their child didn’t show has much ADHD symptoms.

Can you facilitate the chemistries of play?

Can you facilitate the chemistries of play?
Jaak Panksepp

The whole neocortex, our thinking cap, is a blank slate.  It’s “tabula rasa.”  Experience has to write positively on it because it lasts a lifetime when the brain circuits are being laid down.

I’m certainly interested in the molecular biology of these systems.  Just like Jeff, we have good relationships with people that have molecular biology, laboratories, Joe Mosco’s lab in Chicago at Northwestern and hunting for these new molecules they are really targets for new psychiatric drug development.  So there will be children who are constitutionally incapable of playing.  Can you facilitate the chemistries of play?  Can you demonstrate at a genetic level how the brain connects up in a productive way?  What are the genes that are permanently changed for a lifetime?  These are incredibly important questions because right now there’s a lot of people interested in the nature of the social brain and too many people believe that pretty complex social neurons are given to us by genetics.  Like mirror neurons are hot.  Well mirror neurons are all over the brain.  These are neurons that say be sensitive to specific types of social acts by others so you begin to understand what others are doing.  There’s no evidence those are genetic.  I’ll put my money on the fact that those are epigenetic.  They’re learned, they’re developmental.  As far as I’m concerned the whole neo-cortex, our thinking cap, is a blank slate.  It’s “tabula rasa.”  Experience has to write positively on it because it lasts a lifetime so a child really when his brain circuits are being laid down, the child essentially has to thrive by five, that’s a buzz word in Washington, I don’t know if you’ve heard?

The University of Washington or Washington State with Governor Gregor, they had a very, very strong push toward a thrive by five program which makes perfect sense. The child’s not ready for school until it’s gone through all that learning that they can sit still and want to learn in a productive way.  So play is going to be a big part of that and our feeling is for the first couple of years in school the first class should be recess, just like in the old days where kids came to school and they played for half an hour before the school bell rang and they had to go inside.  I think that was a very positive aspect of their daily life.  We knew that after school was finished it was still a more safe society.  They could run and join to play with their mates and we all did it and now our kids can’t do it.

All the important things in life we learn in the midst of living and not talking.

All the important things in life we learn in the midst of living and not talking.
Jaak Panksepp

We need play sanctuaries in the way that Plato described them, where you bring the children together and you allow them to play by themselves, playing the games they want to play not what we want to give them.  That allows them creative use of their brain, their mind.  It provides full joy as opposed to partial joy. 

I think it’s incredibly difficult.  All the important things in life we learn in the midst of living and not talking about it, if a child makes a social mistake, hurts someone, pushes someone, it’s really very important for an adult to share our expectations at that moment very briefly, but if it’s immediately in the moment the child understands and learns.  If you try to bring the child back later and talk about it you will have nothing but arguments, rationalizations, disagreements.  The child will not really understand what you’re talking about.  So using the living moment is so important.  So in our very cluttered society with a lot of dangers, children need those safe spaces to play and there have to nurses, there have to be sensitive people around, just not lining them up to kick a ball, but just hanging around so when bad things happen there can be a sensitive adult guiding the child’s brain very rapidly and the child assimilates that lesson incredibly fast.  It’s the same in rats.  When we have rats playing they make two types of vocalizations.  One is the happy chirpy sound and the other is a complaint.  When that complaint occurrs it sounds like ummmm, play stops immediately.  Then the animal is paws and they sniff around, they do other things, and one begins to chirp and the other begins to chirp, they indicate they’re back in a friendly mood and they begin to play again.  If you have a long play session the happy chirps always go down and the bad sounds go up.  It’s the same for human children.  They’re happily playing and someone gets hurt and someone complains and etc., etc.  But that is an important part of play.  That’s why we need play sanctuaries in the way that Plato described them, where you bring the children together and you allow them to play by themselves, playing the games they want to play not what we want to give them.  That allows them creative use of their brain, their mind.  It provides full joy as opposed to partial joy.  Lining up and waiting to kick a ball is different business.

Developing a social brain

Developing a social brain
Jaak Panksepp

Our basic expectation is the golden rule and the child assimilates it very rapidly if their reward is to continue playing in a positive way.

The level of complexity that play produces in the brain is Mother Nature’s way of designed a highly sophisticated social brain and most of the social brain is not in the genes, it’s in the environment and how a child blends, what’s the social environment.  A child that doesn’t have enough joyous play will blend differently than one that does.  If Mother Nature already gave us this powerful urge, we’d better use it very effectively.  One of the real problems is that play is one of those urges that can take you not only toward joy but grief because children don’t know when to stop.  They don’t know what is too much.  They know what’s too little in terms of play, they want more, but occasionally and often bad things happen during play.  And parents know this.  Children go to parents complaining.  No, this is a very important part of life.  Children have to be able to learn to negotiate the negative situations in a positive way.  I think play allows you those moments in life.  If sensitive adults realize that the aim of play is also to bring the child to the very edge of their knowledge and then an intelligent adult gives them instructions at that point as to what our expectations are.  And very often if you tell the child what your expectation is, they’ll hurt someone.  Our basic expectation is the golden rule and the child assimilates it very rapidly if their reward is to continue playing in a positive way.

The anatomy of joy

The anatomy of joy
Jaak Panksepp

We finally got a handle on the nature of psychological pain, which is very important for depression and other psychiatric disorders.  And then we said well there must be something fundamental about the social principal that is in the arena of joy.  What would it be?  And the answer was obvious that it must be playfulness.

Well my background is a great desire to understand the very foundations of mental life and the nature of consciousness and my perspective is that the lowest level of consciousness is affective experience, various feelings of goodness and badness.  Then we wanted to make a science of this and we couldn’t imagine making a science out of it without having solid animal models so we accept the obvious that animals have emotional feelings and we can finally understand the brain mechanisms and we decided to pursue emotions in the brain that no one else had ever touched.  And one of them was social bonding, social attachment, separation distress where animals feel psychological pain when they’re isolated from others and the reunion and the positive feelings which are mediated by opioids, oxytocin and prolactin, a variety of chemistry’s lead to a social bond.  So we finally got a handle on the nature of psychological pain, which is very important for depression and other psychiatric disorders.  And then we said well there must be something fundamental about the social principal that is in the arena of joy.  What would it be?  And the answer was obvious that it must be playfulness.  And there was not yet a science to play.  A lot of people had described play but no one had tried to analyze it in a really scientific experimental way.  So we decided to go with a good ole laboratory rat and we said well how do you get them to play in front of you?  The answer seemed pretty obvious.  You make them hungry for play by putting them alone for awhile and low and behold if you put the young ones together they played like the dickens, immediately, very robustly.  And we described the behavior in detail and we wanted to rapidly get into the brain and work out the brain mechanisms.  So along with a serious and enthusiastic students we initially analyzed just the physical dynamics of play and then eventually had a post doc Brain Knutson who said is their play sound and I said well nothing that we can hear with our ears.  He was a little perhaps despondent but I said not to worry because we have to listen to a very high register and if you’re interested we’ll get the equipment and you can listen in and see if there is play sounds.  He discovered there’s play sound immediately, the first day.  So he was a young scholar who had no experience in animal research and he made a discovery right away.  We studied that at the play vocalization and a possible indication of excitement about life in general, anticipating all the good things in the world and Brian went in that direction and it was very productive but I thought it was fundamentally a social response.  So when Brian departed I had an under graduate assistant who just interviewed Jeff Burgdorf and he took over and forced me to be much more in the lab again, showing him the ins and outs of doing research.  After many months of kind of just doing play vocalization a thought crossed my mind that maybe it was laughter and that very morning when I had the thought it came out of a dream, it came out of some primitive unconsciousness, I came into the laboratory and Jeff was waiting for me and I said Jeff, left’s go tickle some rats.  And he kind of looked at me with a moment of perplexity and said okay.  So we went and we tickled the first rat.

The Developing Brain

 
There is a lot of interest in brains and child development. Some years ago it was mirror neurons. Today it is epigenetics. Interesting indeed, but we all know that planting a seed in sand or not watering the begonias will retard growth and even kill the plant. We are not separate from the environment. We breathe it, ingest it. We live in a constant reciprocal relationship with the environment and our body and brain reflects this.

For the next few days we will be featuring six full interviews with five international and acclaimed neuroscientists and researchers. Featured programs are, as you know, open to everyone. Membership in the Academy is not required. Each will be live for two days. Enjoy.

Themes: 
brain
brain development

Breastfeeding Bonding Prevents Infant Mortality And Suicide

The greatest terror a child can have is that he is not loved, and rejection is the hell he fears. I think everyone in the world, to a large or small extent, has felt rejection. And with rejection comes anger, and with anger some kind of crime in revenge for the rejection, and with the crime, guilt ~ and there is the story of mankind. John Steinbeck, East of Eden, 1952

Breastfeeding bonding and baby-carrying bonding are the first events of life, which the newborn/infant/child learns about love and non-violence. Love is first learned at the breast of mother and by being carried on her body ~ like in utero, where the first lessons of being connected with mother are learned.

Themes: 
abuse-neglect
bonding
brain
breastfeeding
culture
pleasure
pregnancy

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