Is Activation “Seeking System” Dependent?

“New” Ideas Illuminate Old Realities
I think I might be in love!

© Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, CTP, CMC, ACT, MCC, SCAC
In support of the ADD/EFD Basics Series

Swooning over Jaak Panksepp: ACTIVATION ideas
(from cruelty-free experiments exploring animal emotions)


Jaak Panksepp, the father of Affective Neuroscience, is a very interesting “pioneer” intrigued by the neuro-scientific underpinnings of both human and animal emotional responses.

He has written a fascinating book with a slightly daunting title, The Archaeology of Mind: 
Neuroevolutionary Origins of Human Emotion.

Don’t let that stop you. It’s an “accessible to more of the general public” version of ideas he put forward in his considerably more “academic” offering entitled, Affective Neuroscience, published in 1998.

This long-awaited second publication is his updated attempt to share his life’s work – since the 1960s – the results of his cruelty-free animal experiments that led to identifying what he calls the seven networks of emotion in the brain: SEEKING, RAGE, FEAR, LUST, CARE, PANIC/GRIEF, and PLAY.

He says he uses all caps because these networks are “so fundamental that they have similar functions across species, from people to cats to rats.”

If the name sounds familiar

Those of you who are also regular readers of Discover Magazine may recognize Panksepp’s name from Pamela Weintraub’s feature article on “the rat tickler” entitled Humanity’s 7 Primal Emotions from the May 2012 issue.

Readers who were smart enough to start listening to The Brain Science Podcast when I first introduced it (or to download the pdf transcripts) might have been treated to three different samplings of Dr. Ginger Campbell’s excellent interviews of Panksepp (one a “replay” of an interview from her other podcast, Books and Ideas).

The rest of you – don’t feel left out – I’ve included links to these gems and others in the Related Content ’round the ‘net section below (a section found at the bottom of most of my articles.)

“Brothers under the skin”

You will learn that Panksepp decided, after mapping “brain firing” in laboratory animals for decades, that he could come to no conclusion other than the acceptance of the reality that humans and animals share a similar emotional make-up.

An idea not always embraced by some of his scientific colleagues, he believes that his work proves that his seven networks of emotion in the brain are common to ALL mammals, great and small.

Obviously, he’s convinced me! 


Those of us who have lived closely with our furry friends probably needed no convincing anyway.

You would never be able to convince most of us that our animals do NOT have emotions! But you know most of those science-types — skepticism is in their DNA. Until something is proven scientifically, journal-published and replicated, it’s merely an unsupported theory.

Panksepp is a rare and outspoken voice in the science field, I suspect only partly as a result of his many years of experience exploring the neuro-similarity between human and animal emotional responses. He calls for respect for the reality that animals DO feel, not only pain, but emotions like fear, anger, loneliness, caring, grief, excitement and joy.

He is a long-term ethics advocate as a result. He champions kindness, and urges the field to rethink the way that laboratory experiments are designed. He knows from experience that it is possible to develop methods that do not cause animals pain and undue distress, yet continue to get credible results from valuable and much needed animal research.

There’s a lot more to love about Panksepp’s work — click the links I have provided below to find out for yourselves.

THIS article, however, is going to give you just enough background to begin to explore the first of his seven primal emotions: SEEKING – because I think it provides a clue to our struggles with ACTIVATION.

Be sure to checkout the sidebar for how links work on this site, they’re subtle ==>

I’m late, I’m late, I’m LATE!

As some of you may recall from my introductory article, ABOUT Activation . . .

Activation struggles are a common occurrence in the ADD/EFD/TBI (Alphabet City) population. Sometimes we just can’t seem to “make” ourselves get started.

What’s going on when we wait until the last minute
to begin something we’ve known about for months?

What IS it about the last minute rush that busts a desperate case of “I just can’t make myself” w-i-d-e open, uncovering a secret activator that we couldn’t, for the life of us, locate the day before?

The short answer is that PRESSURE – last minute deadline pressure, specifically, activates epinephrine release – the stimulating neurotransmitter that shakes us up, wakes us up, and gets us moving.

But there’s a lot more to it.

Closely related both to motivation deficit and under-arousal, I went on to say in my introduction to this topic, insufficient activation is usually misidentified, mislabeled, and totally misunderstood.

Let’s see if we can shed some light on that sad fact by looking through the lens of Panksepp’s work.

Emotional Origins

Panksepp’s extensive lab experience has also led him to conclude that basic emotionality is not cognitive in nature. He challenges the long-standing “James-Lange theory,” which insists that emotions are our brain’s higher-order (cognitive) interpretation of signals coming from the body. The example used most often is interpreting a racing heart as fear.

Panksepp’s conclusions are that emotionality emerges not from the cerebral cortex, associated in humans with complex thought, but from deep, ancient brain structures, including the amygdala and the hypothalamus.

As Ginger Campbell underscores in her recap of one of Panskepp’s interviews:

This means that emotional experience originates in the subcortical parts of the brain that evolved […] even before primates. Other animals may not be able to analyze their emotions the way we do, but there is no doubt that they [feel them].

LabRat ChoosingThe evidence? Animals show predictable behaviors when subcortical circuits are stimulated, behaviors that can be replicated.

When given a choice, as with pushing a lever to activate stimulation for example, only when an animal experiences the stimulus as pleasant will they self-stimulate. They will actively avoid unpleasant stimulation.

Known through procedures necessary prior to and during neurosurgery, when human beings have these same areas stimulated they are able to describe those specific emotional responses in just the way one would expect from the area of the brain stimulated.

Various motor and sensory experiences can also be elicited by stimulating the cortex (the brain’s surface). However, one does not get pure affective (emotional) experiences by stimulating the cortex.

Echoing a statement from Dr. Panksepp during the interview, “in fact, an animal without a cortex still has emotions.”

As Panksepp has been quoted as saying, “Taking the emotional feelings of animals seriously may yield more rapid understanding of human emotions and thereby promote progress in psychiatric medicinal development.”

Campbell goes on to summarize another point in their discussion,

“Unfortunately, there is currently little-to-no research funding for exploring questions at what Dr. Panksepp calls, ‘the primary level.’

The research being done at the secondary, or memory and learning level, and at the higher cortical levels is important. But I agree with Jaak that it is a tragedy for the primary level to be ignored—especially when you consider the potential for helping people with psychiatric illnesses.” — AND potential assistance for those of us with neurological challenges, I would like to add!

On our own again . . .

Let’s see what we can cobble together meanwhile, combining what science tends to pooh-pooh as “purely anecdotal” with what science already believes it “knows.”

science_archaeologist_sSeek not and ye shall not find

“SEEKING, Panksepp asserts, “is the granddaddy of the systems.”

Although he demonstrated its existence repeatedly in his lab, SEEKING is an emotional state Panksepp struggled, at first, to name. He tried foraging, interest, curiosity, anticipation, expectancyeven craving – before finally deciding that SEEKING best expressed what he kept seeing in the behavior (and in the brain), whenever that particular behavior appeared.

It would seem to be almost “hard-wired” deep in primitive brain-circuits common to all mammals — the “motivational” engine that gets us up and at ’em every day — out of our warrens, dens, and up off our couches, to venture forth in search of food, company, activity, useful work and pleasure.

That’s the reason why, in Animals Make Us Human, Panksepp’s long-time friend Temple Grandin – Asperger’s advocate and animal scientist – tells us that experiments show that animals in captivity would actually prefer to have to search for their food than to have it delivered to them.

To that assertion, I would have to add a caveat:  healthy animals – and those that are neuro-typical.

For human beings, it seems, desires activated by the SEEKING system are not limited to physical needs or to tangible rewards. According to Panksepp, we humans can also get excited about abstract rewards.

It is the SEEKING circuits that are firing, he says, when we get excited about making intellectual connections, enlivened by new ideas, enraptured with emerging technologies, and enthusiastic in our search for meaning in our lives — in a manner that keeps us in action in the direction of that which we seek.

Unless, of course, they aren’t. Firing. So what is it that makes them fire on cue?


It turns out that the neurotransmitter dopamine fuels the seeking system.

Remember dopamine – the neurotransmitter system that tends to be wonky in
those of us with Executive Functioning disorders and dysregulations of many types?

The dopamine circuits “promote states of eagerness and directed purpose,” Panksepp writes. It’s a state most human beings find engaging and fulfilling.

It feels so good that most of us seek out activities that keep this system aroused — or substances like cocaine and amphetamines, drugs of stimulation that are particularly effective at stirring the SEEKING system pot.

connect the dots to youConnecting some Dots

Hmmmm . . . does anybody ELSE see a correlation between our psychostimulant medication, known to increase the bioavailabilty of dopamine, and the daunting drug abuse statistics among non-medicated ADDers?

I wonder what it is they’re SEEKING? 
energy, perhaps?

Is anybody ELSE thinking that perhaps the reason we are able to remain focused on items that peak our interest, when our minds practically short out when something does NOT “enliven” us, has something to do with the workings of this SEEKING system?

How about the well known strategy that immediate and repeated positive feedback is suggested as necessary to keep an ADDer on track to completion for “boring” or unpleasant activities?

I wonder what it is we’re SEEKING?
Another hit of that feel-good dopamine to ACTIVATE, perhaps?

STAY TUNED, we’ve only just begun to investigate this activation mystery.

If you haven’t read the first two Activation articles, while you’re waiting for the next installment, go back to read ABOUT Activation (the introduction to the topic) and Procrastination: Activation vs. Motivation.

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You might also be interested in some of the following articles
available right now – on this site and elsewhere.

For links in context: run your cursor over the article above and the dark grey links will turn dark red;
(subtle, so they don’t pull focus while you read, but you can find them to click when you’re ready for them)
— and check out the links to other Related Content in each of the articles themselves —

Related articles right here on
(in case you missed them above or below)

Other supports for this article – LinkLists for articles

A few Panksepp Videos & Podcasts ’round the net

Related Articles ’round the net

BY THE WAY: Since is an Evergreen site, I revisit all my content periodically to update links — when you link back, like, follow or comment, you STAY on the page. When you do not, you run a high risk of getting replaced by a site with a more generous come-from.

About Madelyn Griffith-Haynie, MCC, SCAC
Award-winning ADD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching field co-founder; [life] Coaching pioneer -- Neurodiversity Advocate, Coach, Mentor & Poster Girl -- Multi-Certified -- 25 years working with EFD [Executive Functioning disorders] and struggles in hundreds of people from all walks of life. I developed and delivered the world's first ADD-specific coach training curriculum: multi-year, brain-based, and ICF Certification tracked. In addition to my expertise in ADD/EF Systems Development Coaching, I am known for training and mentoring globally well-informed ADD Coach LEADERS with the vision to innovate, many of the most visible, knowledgeable and successful ADD Coaches in the field today (several of whom now deliver highly visible ADD coach trainings themselves). For almost a decade, I personally sponsored and facilitated seven monthly, virtual and global, no-charge support and information groups The ADD Hours™ - including The ADD Expert Speakers Series, hosting well-known ADD Professionals who were generous with their information and expertise, joining me in my belief that "It takes a village to educate a world." I am committed to being a thorn in the side of ADD-ignorance in service of changing the way neurodiversity is thought about and treated - seeing "a world that works for everyone" in my lifetime. Get in touch when you're ready to have a life that works BECAUSE of who you are, building on strengths to step off that frustrating treadmill "when 'wanting to' just doesn't get it DONE!"

12 Responses to Is Activation “Seeking System” Dependent?

  1. Pingback: Friday Fun: Tink on Christmas Outfits | ADD . . . and-so-much-more

  2. Sue Vincent says:

    Thanks, Madelyn. I agreee, anyne who has lived with animals is more likely to take a lot of convincing that they do not share a similar emotional make up. As Running Elk reminded us, we too are animals, so why deny to other creatures what we admit for ourselves?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: From Impulsivity to Self-Control | ADD . . . and-so-much-more

  4. testosterone Boosters review says:

    WOW just what I was searching for. Came here
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    • I admire your honesty, “Ferdinand” – but I still deactivated your link before approving your comment. If your search for testosterone boosters is to assist in activation (cognitive performance vs. sexual), you’ve come to the right place and are most welcome.

      Low testosterone is in fact one of the contributors to lack-of-activation quicksand, but I’m not planning to go into it here. “Medication can help, but not by itself” – tip one from the “laziness” posts <===link is all I plan to say in these articles.

      But please see the sidebar for the comment policies – or you will be automatically spammed next time and I'll never see your comment.


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