Fuselier: The Seeking Emotional System

Los Alamos

Some thoughts from science, life, and ancient religious texts

Los Alamos

Some thoughts from science, life, and ancient religious texts

In an earlier essay, I touched on the choice that we share with all animals: either to go forward towards resources that sustain us or to draw away from that which can cause us harm. The emotional system that controls our forward motion has been labeled the Seeking emotional system by the noted neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp. While it’s needed for life, this emotional system can lead us into a lot of trouble.

Such is the way of all our emotional systems. They’re neither bad nor good. They’re simply neural circuits designed over time to help us survive the challenges of life by influencing our perspectives of our ever-changing world and, in turn, influencing our response to our world. And influence us they do.

As humans, we have another area of our brain that allows us the potential to recognize that we are influenced by our emotional systems, which is a critical first step to reaching our true potential. Through this same area, our neocortex, we have the ability to influence our emotional systems. Thus, as humans, we have a choice: we can either let our emotional systems control our lives or we can take time to understand how they influence our thoughts and actions and, with more time, learn how to control that influence.

The purpose of the Seeking emotional system is to set up a state of mind that allows us to endure hardships as we go about obtaining the resources we need to live. It’s an extremely pleasurable state of mind. The pleasure of the Seeking system is not derived from the goal we eventually obtain. Rather, it is simply the feeling of desire: what we sense when we decide we want something.

Obtaining the goal sets off other reward systems in our brain that allow for a nice landing from the high of the Seeking emotional system, which shuts down immediately once the object is obtained. The Seeking system also shuts down immediately if the object of our desire becomes out of reach, leaving us with a withdrawal pain we know as frustration. We all know to be careful around anyone who has just lost a prized goal.

The state of mind we call desire is fueled by dopamine, a neurochemical that also activates many neural systems we sense as extremely pleasurable. We don’t sense much pleasure when dopamine is at baseline levels. However, once we think of something we want, the levels increase rapidly, giving us the amazingly pleasurable feeling we call desire. Our fantasies are all about elevated dopamine levels.

On the other end of the spectrum, without a normal baseline amount of dopamine, we become like zombies, barely responsive to the world around us. The patients of Dr. Oliver Sacks made famous in the movie Awakenings had lost the ability to activate their Seeking emotional systems as a complication of viral encephalitis. Dr. Sacks was able to revive them by using L-Dopa, which is a precursor to dopamine. Unfortunately, L-Dopa eventually failed to maintain sufficient dopamine levels and most of the patients returned to their earlier, non-responsive state. For a period, however, they were able to experience what we consider routine life.

Dr. Sacks shared some of his patients’ thoughts in his book Awakenings. One patient known as Magda D. said this about her death-like existence before L-Dopa: “I ceased to have any moods … I ceased to care about anything. Nothing moved me – not even the death of my parents. I forgot what it felt like to be happy or unhappy. Was it good of bad? It was neither. It was nothing.”

Another patient, Leonard L., described his awakening with L-Dopa: “I feel saved… resurrected, reborn. I feel a sense of health amounting to Grace… I feel like a man in love. I have broken through the barriers which cut me off from love.” The descriptions of a life without an operating Seeking emotional system as one close to hell and a life with it operating correctly as one of love and heaven are reasonable metaphors that highlight the critical importance of this emotional system in our experience of life.

Those of us who don’t have a disease that leaves us without dopamine are always activating, consciously or not, our Seeking emotional system. Some of us make a conscious effort to activate it through external sources such as cocaine and amphetamines. Both chemicals increase pharmacologically the dopamine levels that activate the Seeking emotional system. But we don’t need external sources to activate the pleasurable Seeking system. We can do it on our own simply by thinking of objects to desire.

We run into a lot of problems with our desires, especially when they are aimed at objects possessed by others. Societies across the globe and throughout time have worried about the desires of their members. In an attempt to control the consequences of unbridled desire, successful cultures, through their religions, created taboos against the most troublesome of desired objects (they also created sacrificial systems, but that’s a topic for later). The many taboos surrounding food and women suggest that our ancestral males’ desires for both have been a source of trouble throughout history.

The wiser leaders of our great religions advised us to lose our attachment to our desire of earthly objects and to seek to give of ourselves to others. From a philosophical view of desire, seeking to help others could be seen as a desire for an object that is both always available (people in need) and is a desire that others can imitate without much risk for conflict. For us human, this avoids two problems that can worsen the consequences of desire: scarcity of resources and conflicts that arise from the imitation of another’s desire.

Editor’s Note: See part two of the third essay of a series by author Bob Fuselier on emotional systems viewed through the lenses of science, life, and religion in next week’s print edition. These essays are based on his book, From Violence to Freedom: The Short-Term and Long-Term Survival Strategies of Our Emotional Systems. Fusilier also has written a children’s book that deals with loss called, Tip and Blue.