If you are new to this series, this article is part of a book which I am publishing here on this site. I suggest you begin with the first article published on January 2, 2016 https://theclickercenterblog.com/2016/01/02/
Part 1: Chapter 2: Animal Emotions continued
In the previous section I introduced you to Virginia Morrel’s book “Animal Wise”. In her book Morrell shares the work of scientists from all over the world who are doing pioneering work in the field of animal cognition. That includes the neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp.
Virginia Morrell gives a wonderful summary of Panksepp’s work in a chapter entitled “The Laughter of Rats”. It’s a great primer to prepare you for Panksepp’s own books on Affective Neuroscience. For those of you for whom this is a new term, Morrell supplies us with a simple definition: that’s the zone where neurons, emotions and cognition meet. The question here is how does the brain generate emotional feelings and what impact (affect) do these feelings have on behavior?
Panksepp sees emotions as evolutionary skills that help animals survive and reproduce. Evolution is a conservative process meaning structures tend to be preserved and reused rather than discarded. We can use mice and rats in medical studies because their biochemistry is so similar to our own. So why should we think the nervous system is any different when it comes to recycling existing structures?
Panksepp titled his second book “The Archaeology of the Mind”. It’s a great title. Just as an archaeologist can study past cultures by digging down through layers of sediment, the neuroscientist can study the evolution of cognition by going down through the layers of the brain. We share the same ancient structures with all other species of mammals. We are not separate from other animals. We share a common heritage, and Panksepp now has evidence to support the idea that that means we also share common emotional experiences.
By electrically stimulating the brains of rats and guinea pigs Panksepp has identified seven emotional systems found in the mammalian subcortex. These seven systems serve similar functions in the animals he has studied. When he talks about these systems he writes them in capital letters to differentiate them from our vernacular use of these terms. I will follow this practice here.
The Seven Affective Emotional Systems
The SEEKER System is the most primitive and extensive of the seven systems. The SEEKER circuit is activated when a healthy animal explores it’s environment. It needs to know where it’s resources are, where to look for food and water, shelter and mates. When people talk about the SEEKER circuit, they often use someone’s love of shopping as a modern example of this system in action.
Karen Pryor has speculated that the SEEKER system is activated by clicker training. That’s why we see such enthusiasm and eagerness to engage in the training. It isn’t so much about the food that comes after the click, as it is the hunt for the right solution.
It’s easy to see how the SEEKER system applies to dogs and other predators. They have to hunt for their prey, so it’s no wonder dogs love clicker training. But horses? They live on a carpet of grass. How does this relate to them?
Even horses need a strong SEEKER System. They may live on a carpet of grass, but they still need to find the bits that haven’t been recently grazed. They need to know where the water holes are, especially in a dry climate. They need to know where to find shelter in a storm, and what the best routes are out of a canyon should they be chased by predators.
I came to appreciate the SEEKER system in a rather odd way. I don’t know about you, but I am a mouse rescuer. When one of my cats comes parading past me with a mouse or baby rabbit dangling out of her mouth, another of Panksepp’s primary systems sends me into action. The nurturing CARE system makes it impossible for me to see an animal in distress without wanting to do something about it. Yes, I know mice are considered pests and all that, but mice also have emotional lives. They are amazing creatures.
A Courageous Mouse
I’m going to digress for a moment. At the new barn we use an O2 composting system for the manure. Instead of creating a large manure pile somewhere – hopefully out of sight – and leaving it over a period of a year or more to rot down, manure goes into a cement bay. When the bay is filled, a pump forces air through the pile. You can see how this is done by looking at the photo. The empty bay in the middle shows two rows of wooden slats. These cover a trough in the floor. Air is pumped into this trough and up into the pile through holes drilled in the slats. This not only speeds up the composting process, the intense heat from the rotting manure kills weed seeds, insects and parasites. In three months it can produce a high quality compost that can go directly back onto the fields as fertilizer or into the garden. And because the manure is contained throughout the process in the cement bays, there’s no unsightly muck heap in the barn yard.
We don’t have a tractor so when a bay is ready to be emptied, I do that by hand – wheel barrow by wheel barrow. It’s a time consuming process but well worth the effort. As I shovel in yet another wheel barrow full of compost, I think of the flowers that will be growing out of it later.
One cool fall day I was emptying the composter, digging in with my pitch fork when I disturbed a mother mouse and her nest filled with babies. She scurried out from under my pitch fork with seven almost-grown babies clinging to her belly. She ran up what was for her a mountain of manure to the top of the composter.
There she was confronted with a sheer cliff many times higher than herself. One of her babies had lost it’s grip. She paused just long enough to give it time to reattach itself to her belly, and then she scaled the cement wall, ran across the wooden planks of the walkway at the back of the composter, and disappeared into the safety of the mouse tunnels she must have known she would find on the other side.
I was in awe. What courage. Am I projecting human emotions onto a mouse? Maybe. But I will still call it heroic what she did, especially pausing long enough to carry all of her babies to safety. She could so easily have left that one behind to save the others. She could have kept herself safe and simply abandoned them all. We have much to learn from the dedication of that little mouse to all of her offspring.
The Cat Dilemma
So when one of my cats come meowing proudly through the house showing off some little mouse that she has brought back for me, I turn into a rescuer. But I am always in a quandary. I hate the way a cat will play with a mouse before she kills it. I want to rescue the mouse and set it free. But am I really doing it a favor? Who knows how far the cat has come. When I release the mouse, will it be able to find it’s way back to the safety of its nest, or am I condemning it to a slow death by starvation?
I always do rescue the mouse, but for years I worried if this was really the best thing to do. And then at one of my clinics I got the answer. During our Friday evening introductions, one of the participants said he was a field biologist. He looked the part. I could easily see him tromping through the woods of northern Minnesota, radio tracking equipment on his back, following a pack of wolves. I’m sure you can conjure up your own picture based on all the nature programs you’ve watched on TV. I asked him what species he studied. His answer: mice.
“Oh,” piped up another attendee, “Are you an exterminator?”
Hardly. It turns out he loves mice. He was studying an endangered species that lives in the coastal sand dunes of North Carolina. Here was the perfect person to ask about my dilemma. Was I doing the mice I rescued any favor. I was very much delighted to hear that, yes absolutely, the mice would know how to orient back to their nests and stored food supplies.
It turns out mice can travel huge distances over the course of a single night. They are updating the map of their territories. They need to know where their resources are. Where is the grass that is about to seed, the berries that are about to ripen? Hearing this gave me a much deeper understanding of the SEEKER system and the primary role it plays in an animal’s life.
To be continued . . .
In the next installment I’ll continue to explore the Seven Affective Emotional Systems identified by Jaak Panksepp. Next up is RAGE.