Human emotions are complex, universally experienced yet uniquely interpreted. Understanding these emotions, however, remains an enigma to many. Enter Dr. Jaak Panksepp, a pioneering figure who straddles the worlds of neuroscience, psychology, and psychobiology. Dr. Panksepp has brought light to this mystery through the concept of “affective neuroscience,” an academic domain exploring the neural foundations of emotion.

Dr. Jaak Panksepp Power of Play

An esteemed scholar, Dr. Panksepp holds the Baily Endowed Chair of Animal Well-Being Science at Washington State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. He delves into the intricate relationship between veterinary and comparative anatomy, pharmacology, and physiology. Also an emeritus professor at Bowling Green State University’s Psychology Department, his academic contributions stretch wide and deep.

His magnum opus, “Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions,” is a cornerstone text in the field. Besides, he has enriched scientific literature with over 400 research articles, decoding the physiological substratum of motivated behavior. His editorial prowess shines in his co-edited works, such as the “Handbook of the Hypothalamus and Emotions and Psychopathology,” and the series “Advances in Biological Psychiatry.”

Currently, Dr. Panksepp also co-directs the research at the Hope for Depression Research Foundation, a leading force combating depression by fostering research into its origins and treatment strategies. As a renowned expert probing into the brain mechanisms underlying emotions, particularly laughter in nonhuman animals, Dr. Panksepp brings unique insights into the joy of life.

Recently, Brain World had the privilege of delving into Dr. Panksepp’s perspectives, focusing on a topic that is often undervalued yet fundamentally essential – the role of fun, laughter, and play in the lives of children.

Dr. Jaak Panksepp Power of Play

Brain World: What exactly is play?

Jaak Panksepp: I would say the only thing we can be sure about is the kind of physical play that animals enjoy. And, of course, we are animals, so our play is very similar. There is no ambiguity among young children; they instinctively know what play is. Academics get confused, parents get confused — calling what their children are doing “naughty,” “aggressive,” “being bad” — but kids are having fun, so we know that there is that one play system in the brain.

We know there is at least one that controls physical and social play. There is also exploratory play and object play, for instance a kitten playing with a ball of yarn, which require much more interpretation, because there are no demonstrated brain systems for these. And they are much harder to study in the laboratory. We were the first ones who developed standard techniques for studying play in the laboratory. They are robust, so anyone can now systematically study play, at least in laboratory rats.

BW: How did you create the robust environment for play?

JP: First of all, the animals have to be comfortable and safe. The animals also need to be young, and the animals need to be hungry for play. Just like when you study food intake or water intake, you have to be hungry or thirsty; likewise, we can induce a hunger or desire for play by depriving animals of play for a while. If you don’t make the animals hungry for play, they won’t be as motivated to play when you test them. Often they just explore. But if they haven’t played for a while, they are very eager for playful interactions.

BW: Kids like to play games, read books or go on the internet and engage in social networking. Is that play?

JP: I think so. But the main kind of play is when animals physically engage each other in rough-and-tumble activities. Physical play is fun. But playing games is also fun. However, if we didn’t have a play instinct, maybe neither kind of play would exist. However, playing games is not “primary-process” play. The most primitive parts of the brain generate various primary-process emotions, including physical play. Playing games is likely to be a secondary process, dependent on learning and memories. Few people are studying the primary processes. To do that, you must think in a very Darwinian way, and understand that emotions emerge first from very ancient regions of the brain, which connect up to more recent, higher brain regions that control learning and thought. This is a very important principle. Mother Nature built some important things into ancient regions of the brain — we don’t have the clear image of that, all the other knowledge of the brain is very weak, except senses such as vision. They are pretty straightforward.

BW: So you think play is a primary or primitive process. What are primary processes?

JP: These are “memories” that evolution built into our brain — various senses such as vision, various emotions and feelings. There are both primitive and modern parts in the brain. The primitive parts contain “tools” that all people need to live. On top of that all animals have learning and memory, and some even have thoughts. But to understand the brain we also have realize that certain experiences, such as emotions, arise from very ancient brain regions. Without those primitive brain systems, people wouldn’t survive; they would not have children or social attractions.

Animal research is needed to understand such ancient parts of mind. Indeed, in human brain imaging, up to 95 percent of neural activity is is in a category called “dark energy,” with scientists only seeing maybe 5 percent of the fluctuating brain activities. The other 95 percent of the brain often is not seen, and many primary processes are happening there. They are easier to see in animal behavior than in human brain imaging.

BW: Can you tell me more about your research of laughing rats and the relationship between laughing and emotion?

JP: Without laughter there will not be much joy in life. It’s a little shocking how little we know about how brains generate positive feelings. When we discovered laughter-type sounds in rats, I think people laughed at us a bit. But now know more about the “laughter” of rats than humans. And we have learned that a study of these happy sounds can illuminate human problems, even drug addictions and depression. Even though we cannot do detailed research on these systems with humans, we have mapped out the brain networks in rats along with some of the controlling brain chemistries, and currently it is one of our major measures of depressive feelings in animals. This allows us to focus on the feelings of rats rather than just their behavioral changes. Laughter and joy are aspects of both brain and mind. We still have a science that respects animal behaviors and brain molecules more than mind functions they create. That should change as we learn to understand the minds of other animals.

BW: How do you recognize that the rats are laughing?

JP: We actually looked for it, first in the form of “play vocalizations.” Since rats communicate with very high (ultrasonic) sound frequencies, we need special equipment to listen in, and when we did there were lots of “chirps” when rats were playing, especially when they are very excited and chasing each other. We had already shown that play was somewhat dependent on hearing, and very dependent on touch. Of course hearing is special form of touch — we hear by sensing air pressure waves along our cochlear membranes vibrates. With our ultrasonic equipment we had been studying play vocalizations for half a dozen years, when I woke up one morning with the thought: What if that sound was laughter? And we promptly went ahead and tickled some rats, and those sounds were provoked very easily. We brought them under “experimental control.”

BW: Do you have a playground for rats? And what is the ideal play environment?

JP: We don’t really have a playground, just regular test boxes. We were interested largely in how the brain controls social play. “Playground” usually means there are objects. As soon as there are objects, the rats can be distracted by them, and real play goes down.

I think young children rarely get as much play as their brains need in our country. Physical play is at times considered bad behavior, and medications for ADHD, such as Ritalin, all reduce play. By doing this, we are taking the desire to play away from our children. Human problems need to be dealt with in human ways. We have to develop a society that understands play, and the many good things it does for children’s brains and minds. We developed the concept of having “play sanctuaries,” where children have safe environment to play and develop their own games. We have much to learn about how good play is for the brains of our children.

BW: What is a good age for play? Can the old play, too?

JP: I think many of these emotional systems have a natural developmental time course, and vigorous physical play occurs only in animals. It declines after puberty. Old rats certainly don’t play, but old humans can. Still, physical play is for the young. But if animals indulge in a lot of play when young, they tend to remain playful and friendlier when older.

For human children, I think the “terrible twos” reflect the onset of strong play urges At age 2, the desire for play becomes very intense. By age 6, most children develop enough cortical inhibition to be able to sit still in classrooms. Before then, no child can sit still for too long. All very young children behave as if they have ADHD.

BW: Did you do any play research with humans?

JP: We did perhaps the first systematic experimental research on human children. But human physical play still has not been extensively studied. Developmental psychologists usually only study play with toys and games. We studied the play of two friends — pairs of boys and girls at 4 to 7 years of age — in an empty room with mats on the floor but no toys. “Play and enjoy,” we told them, and videotaped their interactions for about half an hour. We scored about 20 behaviors such as running after each other, wrestling, pushing from the front, pushing from the back, laughing, and so forth. Surprisingly, there was hardly any difference between the play of young girls and boys, as the human play literature led us to believe. A lot of people have claimed that boys play more, but we don’t see that in our rats or our human studies. We think many of the reported gender differences in play are a result of learning rather than any intrinsic differences.

BW: Are there negative aspects to play?

JP: Play does have a dark side. When you just allow your children to do as they please, then play often leads to disagreements, and perhaps even bullying. One function of play is to take you to the edge of your emotional knowledge, so you can learn what you can and cannot do to others. Thus in our studies of play in “play sanctuaries,” we always had young supervisors who would help young people get over such problems. Whenever something bad happened, then we quickly explained to the naughty child that they should be nice if they wanted to continue playing. They usually agreed, and readily learned to be good in order to have fun. We think children can learn many good social skills in this way. Thus play sanctuaries can be used to promote good behaviors.

BW: What is a play sanctuary?

JP: I think it is one of the most important things that children need to grow up well, perhaps even reduce the number of kids diagnosed with ADHD. In play sanctuaries caretakers could easily recognize childhood problems, those that may need special attention. Play sanctuaries could provide more children with the free play they often don’t get in the modern world. They are also places where children can be instructed “naturally” in good behaviors, and those who have difficulty playing might be given special attention. We might also need to train new kinds of child clinicians — those who really know how to play, not just talk and talk, not just test-test-test, but play. A real play-master.

BW: What do you think about the move for children to be in more structured environments earlier? Does that hurt their ability to play?

JP: I am sure it does. Play corresponds to brain needs at a certain time in life, it has a special energy that influence brain maturation. Thus, we have to have places where that can happen. I like to live in a small town, where free, undirected, natural play can happen. I believe the proper words to describe the current educational policy of “no child left behind” may be closer to “every child left behind.” We are neglecting the power of natural play and the physical activity that every child has to have to mature. Instead, we are focusing on reading, writing, or mathematics at earlier and earlier ages. But if you really understood the power of play, every child might learn to enjoy mathematics. Perhaps if we introduced children to mathematics in playful ways, every child would be more likely to love it. Perhaps we should understand that cognition is not everything; we have to institutionalize more positive playful opportunities for our children. Indeed, many Head Start programs do that.

BW: What is your plan for the future?

JP: I am currently most interested in depression research, especially from the focus that positive emotions can counteract negative emotions. Some current antidepressants have success rates as low as 28 percent, as in the famous STAR*D trial. Development of new medications has been slow because we know so little about the primary-process positive emotions by studying similar mechanisms in animals. Animals do experience basic emotions not so dissimilar from humans. Through such research we we can understand that other animals are also feeling creatures with minds, and not just conglomerations of molecules.

I hope there will be more scientists with open minds willing to understand human feelings by studying shared neurochemical systems in animal brains. If you really want to help people with depression, we have to find what causes psychological pain first, and see if positive feelings can counteract negative ones. And I think the emotional vocalizations — including the laughing sounds of animal — are currently the best indicators of positive feelings in animals. Focusing on molecules and behavior alone cannot provide complete solutions. Thus we have to envision brain functions as mind functions, and initiate neuroscientific discussions of how the brain creates mind not only in humans but also other animals.

Mind is a natural function of the brain. Thus, what philosophers can contribute is as important as what scientists are doing, by encouraging the field of neuroscience to grow up. I think a richer discussion and study of the neuroscience of animal minds can make wonderful contributions right now to understanding the types of creatures that we are.

This article was originally published in the Winter 2011 issue of Brain World Magazine.