The Time is Right for "Holding Time"
A Rising Tide of Pain

The Elephant of Emotion

If you're looking for an article on the emotions of elephants, see this excellent story: An Elephant Crackup?

How can we understand our feelings when we can't really describe them? Neuroscientists, psychologists, anthropologists don't mean the same thing when they talk about fear or love. When we talk to each other, we borrow from these sciences, and even more from movies, books and music, but each of us has our own inchoate definition of each emotion. We're all of us -- academic and lay person -- blindly describing an elephant.

I'm in Los Angeles for Seven Dimensions of Emotion, a conference put on by the Foundation for Psychocultural Research, and there's a fascinating mix of scientists and academics talking often at cross-purposes about fear, disgust, empathy, grief, anger, love and hope.

I'm here to hear Sue Carter, Helen Fisher and Jaak Panksepp talk about love, and all of them have taken the neuroscience approach to understanding emotion. Their work has been revelatory to me not only because, combining it with Allan Schore's studies of how the brain develops after birth, it provides a framework makes sense of my own experience. Most important, Schore shows how this scientific understanding can be used to heal.

Panksepp's talk was the most exciting so far. He's working to prove that animals and humans share the same emotions. He said, "The nature of affect is the most important scientific question in emotion research." He said that in the 20th century, animals "lost their feelings to behavioral neuroscience." The behaviorists, in an attempt to be ultra-objective, reduce everything to stimulus and response; Panksepp called this an intellectual tragedy.

He studies play behavior in animals as one of the most universal and primary affects (or emotions). He's identified the sound of rats laughing!

Panksepp says his work has potential for helping kids with autistic spectrum disorder or attention deficit or hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). In dogs, blocking the activity of opioids, the brain's natural morphine, makes them more interested in social contact, as evidenced by increased tail-wagging and licking the faces of humans. He says about 40 percent of autistic kids also respond to opioids-blocking by increased social behavior -- but only when they're in a rich social environment.

He thinks that the vast majority of kids diagnosed with ADHD are really play-deprived. "ADHD is largely a cultural disease," he said.

Play needs to be free and self-directed, Panksepp said, and it needs to involve plenty of rough-and-tumble activity. Such play is about pushing limits, and, inevitably, there comes a moment of complaint, when one kid becomes uncomfortable with what's happening. Such moments are opportunities for dramatic social learning, he says, because it forces kids to learn to negotiate on the spot.

"Kids aren't given enough free play," Panksepp said, "and I think many of them don't know how to renegotiate that moment."

Now, think of the modern play date, where kids' activities are closely monitored by moms or nannies. Each monitor is hypervigilant that their kid neither gives cause for complaint nor becomes a target. They're so quick to jump in and deliver controlling commands. "Seth, give the truck back." The children are under a microscope and may feel that they're more of the adults' surrogates than self-directed individuals free to follow their joy.

All this has nothing to do with oxytocin nor with my book. Which brings me back to the elephant of emotion. Panksepp told an illustrative anecdote. Speaking about grief, he said that he himself had experienced great grief, that is very strong when he's alone. When he's with another person, no matter what they talk about, the grief dissipates somewhat. He attributed the lessening of his grief to his shift from activity in the limbic system, the subsystem of the brain that processes emotion, to the cortex, the part of the brain that handles higher reasoning.

But what about the oxytocin response? Social contact, especially but not only with those we trust, causes the brain to release oxytocin, which calms us and makes us feel more at peace. Grief could be defined as pain caused by loss of social contact; social contact can help ease that grief.

Opioids but not oxytocin are part of Panksepp's emotional elephant; both opioids and oxytocin are involved in social bonding, especially that state that we somewhat randomly call love.

See also Prairie Voles and Me (and You),