Monday, November 11, 2013


Can a bonobo fall in love?  These are the primate species (the others being gorilla, chimp, orangutan, human) famous for fucking anyone, anything, and even themselves.  They are also peace-loving, sexually non-competitive, and smarter than chimps.  They’re close to vegetarian, matriarchal.  What’s not to love? Unless you require a pretty face.

In the limbic brain of all primates it appears that there are seven evolved and therefore layered basic emotion-systems.  They do not exactly align with our concepts of emotion.  They are close to being what we call instincts.  If stimulated artificially (electrodes) there is evidence of emotion.  These systems underlie the human prefrontal neocortical brain which evolved later and independently, though that area can inhibit or shape the 7 systems.   The ideas are coming from the work of Jaak Panksepp who works with brain scans to activate and categorize responses that can then be confirmed by introspection on the part of a human thinker/feeler.  But the foundation of the idea was established by animal experiments that evoked specific behavior.   These are all in the limbic brain, the “mid-brain” that is the source and management of emotion and unreflective behavior.

Four are positive:  Seeking, lust, care and sometimes play.





 That is, they involve pleasure rewards and the animals will work for them.  

Three are painfully negative: the animals try to escape them: rage, fear, panic/grief.



The descriptions of these seven systems sound like horoscopes.  Consider seeking “a major source of life ‘energy’ sometimes called ‘libido.”  In pure form, it provokes intense seeking, fills the mind with interest and motivates organisms to effortlessly search for the things they need, crave and desire. . .  It sustains curiosity from the mundane to our highest intellectual pursuits.”  Withdrawal from active drug use, chronic stress and sickness are accompanied by deficits in this system: listless, not caring, depression.  But if this system gets overactive, the result is mania and psychosis, fantasies about reality.    It’s about dopamine and opioids.  If this system is destroyed, the animal goes catatonic.

To study rage and anger, the subjects were cats.  If they were thwarted from SEEKING, they became ENRAGED.  If their freedom of action were frustrated, they became angry.  But rage is close to fear in the brain.  (Fight/flight)  The neuropeptide Substance P and glutamate seem to be involved.

The lust/sexual systems were not studied in a particular species.  It appears that gender-specific sex hormones involved in sub-systems control overlapping realms.  Oxytocin is connected to estrogen.  (Trust and confidence.)  Vasopressin is connected to testosterone.  (Aggression and jealousy)  “It is possible for animals that are externally males to have female-typical sexual urges and others with female external characteristics to have male typical sexual urges.”  These systems are closely connected to SEEKING.

To study attachment and CARE, or rather the lack thereof, the subjects were dogs.  Then the emotional system was GRIEF/PANIC Young socially dependent animals have powerful emotional systems to solicit nurturance.  They exhibit intense crying when lost... it is aroused by glutamate and CRF and inhibited by endogenous opioids, oxytocin and prolactin.  . . . These neurochemicals are foundational for the secure attachments that are so essential for future mental health and happiness.”  Loss of security is not the same as raw immediate FEAR.

“We took young pups and gave them morphine. Then we removed them from their mothers. The more morphine they got, the less they cried and the quieter they were. They sat alone and were satisfied, as if the mother was right there. Significantly, we could comfort the animals only with opiates like morphine, not with the types of agents often used to quell anxiety, the benzodiazepines. So we knew the crying wasn’t a physical fear. As with aggression, there were two kinds of anxiety systems. One was fear that a predator would attack, and the other was panic over separation.”

“We studied oxytocin, and it turned out to be as powerful as the opiates in reducing separation distress. Every process in the brain has multiple chemistries. The three that had enormous effects on attachment were the opioids; oxytocin, which was superbly effective but had to be put directly into the brain because it does not cross the blood-brain barrier; and prolactin, the stuff that manufactures milk.”

To study seeking and play, the subjects were rats.  The scientists participated in this play by tickling and wrestling the little animals with their hands (I’ve done that with juvenile ground squirrels.) and discovered that they were making high-pitched chirps that they interpreted as laughter and joy.  (Same with the ground squirrels, though I could only hear the sounds in my hearing range.)

“And if you understand the joy of play, I think you have the foundation of the nature of joy in general. Part of its benefit is simply taking away the psychological pain of separation. Play is engaging in an attachment-like way with strangers, which you have to do later in life.”

“Humans go back to the Pleistocene [about 2.5 million years ago], but the emotional part of the brain goes back much further, all the way to the time when ancestral mammals evolved away from reptiles. Primary processes, based in deep subcortical regions, manifest evolutionary memories that are the basic emotional operating systems of the brain. Secondary processes, based on a series of way stations known as basal ganglia, are enriched with the mechanisms for learning—for linking external perceptions with associated feelings. Then on top, the tertiary level is programmed by life experiences through the neocortex, engendering our higher cognitive processes such as thinking, ruminating, and planning. Our capacity to think is fueled by our storehouses of memory and knowledge acquired by living in complex physical and social worlds. But the ancient feeling states help forge our memories in the first place.”

So the original question hinges mostly on attachment.  Does a bonobo attach to a specific other animal or is it attached -- even addicted -- to the act of connection with a specific and unique other?  They seem affectionate and protective with their babies. They don’t seem particularly invested in seeking.  No need.  Everything is at hand.  Is Eden, as the Buddhists might suggest, a place free of yearning and attachment?  Does a bonobo fall into depression if their special buddy departs?  Or only if they aren’t getting the basics: enough to eat, a comfy spot to sleep?   Does the attachment we associate with lovers depend upon the existence of jealousy?  And even scarcity?   Here’s another take on this brain-monitoring-emotion thing.  These people were asked to conjure up their strongest inner love while the fMRI watched.  The scientists, cleverly understanding human competition, set it up by asking “who has the strongest love?”   Not only are there differences, which rather surprised me and showed that “love” is subjective, but also the winner of the contest -- who was the married man whom one scientist predicted (me, too) -- was recognizable from the outside, from his own description.  But wait !!  The runner up was a total surprise to everyone!  One commenter said he didn’t tear up until he saw who it was!   What does it mean?  (It was NOT a bonobo.)
Jaak Panksepp

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