PANIC, SEEKING and PLAY in Psychotherapy

In the second of a series of articles on the relationship between neuroscience and psychotherapy, Roz Carroll  looks at the usefulness of Jaak Panksepp’s description of ‘emotional operating systems’ for thinking about dynamics in the therapeutic process.

To psychotherapists working with the complex dynamics of the human psyche, it may seem that ethology, the study of animal behavioural biology, lacks the material and means to provide us with insight into the intricacies of the therapeutic process. But in a new era of interdisciplinary thinking, the work of Jaak Panksepp, a neurobiologist and psychiatrist, provides real food for psychotherapeutic thought. Indeed, when he spoke in July at the Institute for Arts in Education and Therapy, there was a substantial turn-out and an enthusiastic response from the audience of psychotherapists. Panksepp makes rigorous use of ethology, experimental psychology and neuroscience to elucidate deep organisational principles of human behaviour. Here, I want to outline some of his conclusions, extrapolating them into and exploring their relevance to the clinical context.

Intrinsic potentials

In his landmark work, Affective Neuroscience, Panksepp maps out seven specific neural circuits and integrated cognition/affect /behaviour patterns which he calls ‘emotional operating systems’. (He capitalises the names of the systems to distinguish their precise usage from the ordinary uses of ‘fear’, ‘rage’, ‘play’etc) He regards these not as drives per se but as regulatory mechanisms emerging from the intrinsic potentials of the nervous system as it has evolved in all mammals. Panksepp reframes basic questions about instincts by looking closely at their function in other mammals and its adaptation during evolution. The advantage of drawing on animal research – as a complement to other sources of information - is that the core structure of the brain is very similar across species: the main difference is in the outer newer layer, the neo-cortex which is significantly more developed in human beings. Whilst human behaviour is very complex, because our enlarged cortex facilitates inhibition, manipulation and elaboration of basic instincts, in mammals these underlying structures  - mating, nurturing, defending territory, etc - are explicit observable activities within a relatively predictable range. The neural circuits and neurochemistry which underpin and correlate with these fundamental behaviours  in mammals are closely paralleled in human neurobiology, despite the modification and complications of language, and social and cultural learning.

Drawing on a wide range of sources, Panksepp has put together information identifying seven ‘emotional operating systems’, but the story will undoubtedly not stop here. It is very early days in the history of affective neuroscience. In his book – possibly the best introductory textbook to the field -there are chapters considering each system in depth with good diagrams and brief summaries of evidence from research, discussing the implications and the provisional conclusions to be drawn. It is important to state that his formulation of connections between neurochemistry, affect and behaviour are made with due sensitivity to complex issues of socialisation.  Panksepp is a serious scientist with a well-developed humanism, not a populist or an apologist for a crude biologism. He admits concern that :

I am trying to impose too much linear order upon ultracomplex processes that are essentially ‘chaotic’ (in the mathematical sense of nonlinear dynamics) […]

The basic emotional operating schemes may act as “strange attractors” within widespread neural networks that exert a certain type of ‘neurogravitational force’

on many ongoing activities (Panksepp: 3)[i]

The fundamental obstacle to integrating the rapidly-evolving neuroscientific data in psychological models is that it has in the past been used in quite a reductionist manner, with models generated from  statistics which cannot capture enough variation, dynamic and complexity.  But now that complexity has a sound theoretical framework in science, there have been great leaps in understanding the intricate interdependence of biology and environment. (Carroll 2002, Schore 1994, 2001)  Panksepp gives repeated examples of this complex relationship: often certain neurochemicals are initially required to stimulate certain behaviours, which, once learned, and therefore internalised in the body-brain micro-structure can then be reactivated from memory without necessarily requiring the presence of neurochemicals. For example, a first time mother needs the presence of oxytocin (the key neurochemical involved in bonding) to establish a nurturing connection with her infant. Once this behaviour is learned, the active presence of oxytocin is not required for nurturant behaviour, including with subsequent new babies.

Oxytocin is turning out to be critically involved in the establishment and maintenance of social bonds – its involved in sex, birth, and social contact, and  there are much higher levels of  it in women than men. A surge of oxytocin (such as accompanies orgasm and breastfeeding) is correlated with deep feelings of contentment and love. But it still depends on the actual social environment to make it relevant – putting oxytocin directly into rat brains doesn’t make them happier unless there are other rats to play with.

What goes wrong with the emotional operating systems designed to maximise an optimal human life (in evolutionary terms) is territory not covered in depth by Panksepp. (In contrast, Allan Schore’s work on trauma and the regulatory function of attachment relationships is beginning to give us a deeper understanding of how complex neurochemistry with a particular developmental timetable, can go seriously awry. When developmental needs are not met, the dysregulation of ‘body-brain-mind’ organisation has serious life-long mental and physical health implications (Schore 2000: 40, 1997 ). But what Panksepp evokes so well is the vividness and potency of basic drives, and the relentless trajectory towards realization of what in essence is homeostatic balance, when the organism feels right in relation to its environment..

I find this way of thinking useful in understanding both what makes therapy work, and how it fails. Psychotherapy needs to engage these intrinsic potentials in a manner which enables them to come into focus in a relationship where they can be felt and understood. Although this is not Panskepp’s emphasis, other interdisciplinary work on attachment shows very clearly the role of (internalised) relationship in modifying, elaborating and making conscious sense of feelings. The difficult task  of therapy is captured in the idea that an emotional operating system has to be activated – it has to be ‘live’ and ‘real’ in order to be explored on a variety of interrelated levels (what Panksepp calls ‘supervenience’ – the linkage between levels of organisation). Where there are developmental failures, and consequent interconnected breakdowns in  regulating systems  and complex compensatory defences,  it is hard to evoke the spontaneous life-affirming responses that are the gift of good health. What is also tricky is that these basic emotional operating systems are embedded in sub-cortical structures: when they are over-activated, thinking (ie processing at the cortical level) is often inhibited. At these moments, the therapist’s function as an ‘auxilliary ego’ is very important. 

These emotional operating systems can be divided into the primordial set – FEAR, RAGE,  and SEEKING – basic to survival; and the social set – LUST, PANIC, CARE and PLAY which are characteristic of mammals, which depend on the creation and maintenance of social bonds for survival. Any of these systems can be activated on a spectrum from raw and primitive means and ends to highly elaborate abstract expressions of the human spirit, depending on the complex interactions between systems, and the internalisation of values. These reflect the individuals history, and the chemistry literally embodies the object relations.[ii]

The SEEKING system

Whilst some of these categories are predictable, others radically re-formulate our established categories of affect with surprising implications. Most fascinating to me is the SEEKING system, its name chosen after much debate because it has also been conceived as a reward system (but has subsequently found that it is not the possibility of reward per se that stimulates it), as anticipation, and it is manifest in states of curiosity, excitement and pursuit. Its prototype is foraging behaviour, the search for resources – food, shelter, a mate etc. Its chemistry is characterised by dopamine, a neurotransmitter described as the ‘power switch’ because it turns on, energising and invigorating the individual in relation to their environment. Dopamine is similar in chemistry to cocaine, and it has the same effect on the individual – creating states of high arousal and focus. In animals it is quickly spotted : sniffing and persistent forward locomotion are indicators of the SEEKING system in action. Dopamine is linked with the pleasure of discovery, and the drive to formulate meaning and causality via spontaneously active associative networks.

Dopamine appears to be discharged during REM sleep and dreaming, suggesting that dreams are linked with the SEEKING function. Other dream phenomena, such as the startle reflex, are also linked with the physiology of orientation. (Hunt) As with each of these systems, they operate across a spectrum from the immediate and concrete, eg looking in the fridge when you are hungry, to much more elaborate needs such as  a sense of where we are ‘going’ on all levels, in which dreaming plays a role).  Dysregulation of the SEEKING system leads to an excess of meaning-making with a tendency to confirmation bias – manic activity which is ungrounded and unstable. Paranoid schizophrenia is characterised by excessive dopamine activity, and anti-psychotic drugs work by reducing dopamine activity at specific receptors, thereby inhibiting both the negative and positive behaviours of the SEEKING system. (Panksepp: 162)

The SEEKING system is critical for survival – when new resources are needed, it provides the motivation and force to keep going, to move forward, to follow the scent. It engages the frontal cortex which is involved with ‘fore’ thought, planning, and expectancy. Without the activation of this system, there is a lack of hope – we feel flat, or stuck in a process of mourning which knows no end: the SEEKING system strongly activates the cortex, whereas intense grief can close it down. Investigation of  this neurobiological system, can help us understand why we are driven to search for meaning in psychotherapy (and elsewhere) and why its elaboration is so intrinsically satisfying, quite apart from the benefits to be gained from insight. Psychotherapy depends on the SEEKING system: it holds out the possibility of sense, meaning, self-discovery; it plays a key role in learning and making connections. For the client in despair of getting any help from psychotherapy, it may be the awakening of curiosity which provides initial and  continued motivation for coming. Freud’s cocaine use, his interest in dreams, his whole drive to investigate the unconscious, shows him very much consumed by the phenomena of  SEEKING..

But the over-activation of the SEEKING system can be a trap. If therapist and client get seduced by the process of exploring and making links, without attending enough to the shadow side of seeking (frustration, disappointment, lack) in the relationship, therapy may border on the self-indulgent. It can act in the service of denial, simply by re-orienting attention away from what is painful. Dopamine creates a sense of empowerment, it’s the high that accompanies the idea of starting again – leaving the job/partner/therapist who is not satisfying. It’s the visionary chemical of the positive thinking proactive you-can-heal-your life  feeling – obviously open to be used for highly constructive change as well as ‘this time it’ll be different’ or ‘creating your own reality’. Although SEEKING can be used in the service of relationship, it can also be highly self-sufficient and potentially obsessive. Dreaming, investigating, pioneering, journeying -  activities which don’t need an other, which in fact  generate extraordinary amounts of pleasure and satisfaction that can lead away from social contact, are the hallmark of SEEKING. So there is  a delicate balance to strike between its riches and its diversions.

The SEEKING system is often strongly activated by a perceived threat to survival. I associate it with an experience  common to clients whose history includes abuse, violence and neglect: it’s a revving up, a sudden strong impetus to move or act, or to speak in a determined manner, with a strong disavowal of a relationship or context which is facing them with overwhelming feelings of distress and/or rage. The client feels a sense of positive motivation and challenging them to think about the conflicts in the relationship – often the therapeutic relationship – can feel like an attack, as if the therapist is trying to take away something good (ie acting out of envy, or a need to control). The SEEKING system may be part of the mind-brain-body make  up of narcissism and grandiosity.


PANIC is the name given to separation-distress which is part of the attachment system. Attachment is the emotional operating system which has been most thoroughly explored by psychologists and psychotherapists, and its role in regulating affect has been extensively theorized especially in the work of Allan Schore.(Schore 2001) Schore in fact makes a closely argued case for the attachment relationship in humans being the overarching regulator of  affects, thus implicitly placing attachment in a hierarchical relation to the spectrum of emotional operating systems. (Schore 1994)

In Affective Neuroscience Panksepp doesn’t locate the PANIC system in relation to the now fairly extensive body of attachment theory, but his neurochemical-ethological emphasis highlights some fascinating details. He points out that this system is crucially linked to respiratory and vocalization circuits. As he puts it, we are wired to cry and wail when we feel abandoned. In body psychotherapy, the chronically held diaphragm is recognised as constricting breathing in a defence against a deeper out-breath which would release the separation cry.[iii] This correlates with another phenomena that is very familiar in therapy : the importance of crying and of voicing with feeling. Though this can’t bring back what is lost, the powerful communication of sadness and separation distress completes an intrinsic neurophysiological-emotional cycle, often allowing the client to breathe more fully afterwards and to relax and feel held. The PANIC system is fundamentally bound up with abandonment, mourning and loneliness. It is closely linked to the perception of pain as well – contact comfort releases opiates which soften pain. Separation, on the other hand, rapidly diminishes the supply of opiates, leaving the individual with very real ‘withdrawal’ symptoms facing the agonizing feeling of abandonment and loss.

The PANIC system can be correlated with what might be clinically  termed depressive anxiety, wheareas paranoid anxiety is related to the FEAR system. This system was initially identified by Walter Cannon who named it the ‘fight or flight’ reflex (to which has been added the ‘freeze’ response). It is now established that there are two circuits for fear: the long  one which takes information about stimuli and associates it to a time and place (hippocampus) and also makes it available for conscious reflection (cortex); and the short circuit which goes from stimuli to response bypassing the sense-making structures. Research into the amygdala, the key locus in the brain involved with fear, has led to significant advances in understanding trauma, memory,  psychopathology and chronic pain. (Rothschild, Scaer, Schore 2002)

Panksepp details the neurological and neurochemical structures involved in the emotional  operating systems, linking these with cognitive and behavioural aspects. All these systems have prototypical physical gestures, stances, and facial expressions, which are both action oriented and have a deep communicative  function. Movement therapists, body psychotherapists and psychodrama therapists in particular can quickly identify by observing the body which system has been activated or is chronically inhibited. One basic premise of these therapies is that support to enter the world of a gesture, to fully take the stance, or explore a strong facial expression or sound can help embody a feeling by re-stimulating the activation of a circuit. There is in fact an emotional operating system which naturally specialises in this, and Panksepp calls it PLAY.

The PLAY system, he is quick to clarify, points first towards active physical engagement and improvisation and only secondly towards symbolic or fantasy play. The rough and tumble play exhibited by all healthy young mammals facilitates the learning of physical and social skills. It engages the parts of the brain linked to somatosensory information processing and convergence. It enables us to find the limits and possibilities in our behavioural repertoire, and I suspect that it plays a critical role in helping establish good clear flexible boundaries and a good sense of others’ boundaries as well. It is important in creating and reinforcing group rapport, building on the foundations of good early attachment  relationships Its hallmark is laughter – often initiated by tickling, or its verbal equivalent, ‘ribbing’.

PLAY comes into operation only when basic needs have been met – until that point other instincts predominate, and I wonder in fact if PLAY also developed at an evolutionary later date, because it is highly sociable  and has a highly integrative  function. It is characterised by unpredictability and spontaneity – this means that it is terribly hard to fake, and depends on the other(s) even more than attachment. Attachment rituals – often addictions – attempt to stand in for the attachment process. PLAY requires the unexpected and is therefore harder to self-generate. You cannot tickle yourself! (This is not to say that the PLAY system can’t be used defensively to ward off ‘heavy’ material)

PLAY is integrative because it engages parts of the brain involved with reframing in terms of another – it is cross-modal,  synergistic, synaesthetic (combining the senses).[iv] It suggests the possibility of differentiating imagination (the bringing together of sensory elements for its own sake) from delusion (the drive to project when the SEEKING system is uncoupled with reality testing). In PLAY it seems that experimentation - a motor-sensory, intersubjective process -  strongly correlated with feelings of joy and safety is its own raison d’etre. PLAY may be involved in facilitating transitions between states,  making primordial feelings bearable. Much of Trevarthen’s work on intersubjectivity  captures the sense of this PLAY system in the sense of contingent  responsiveness and immediate expressive involvement with emotional drama around them. Much more research needs to be done to understand the interrelationships between systems, but so far the neurochemistry suggests that PLAY and SEEKING are complementary systems, Whereas REM sleep (related to the SEEKING system) has a role to play in organsising affective information, PLAY seems to exercise the motor subroutines – the trying out in action – of the same information. Panksepp suggest that PLAY may be the daytime version of dreaming.

Therapies which actively utilise experimentation (Gestalt) or active imagination (Jungian analysis, psychosynthesis) may be particularly adept at engaging this system. Its spontaneous arrival in therapy is usually a sign that the client feels more securely attached. Its also part of the healing process of ‘just being’ – ie the benefit that comes from therapy which is not about ‘insight’ or ‘working through’ necessarily but about the capacity to be with another without either party having an agenda.

The other emotional operating systems in Panksepp’s model are LUST, CARE (which is to do with nurturance) and RAGE. The research on gender and sexuality (LUST) is fascinating but beyond the scope of this article. RAGE is  the poor relation in this study – very little in the way of radical new insight has emerged to help us understand it more deeply. Rage is provoked in mammals by frustration, invasion and competition. To go beyond the detail of identifying basic emotions, affective neuroscience has to get to grips with how these systems impact on each other and interrelate. I suspect that the failure of any of the systems to fulfil itself (PANIC, PLAY, SEEKING, LUST, CARE, FEAR) could generate the frustration that underlies RAGE. The RAGE system comes into operation at the limits we encounter in life. For animals this rage is sparked by physical restraint, territorial invasion; for humans the constraints are extremely complex and pervasive – social, economic, environmental, whilst at the same time we have the imagination, awareness and desire for more. Interestingly RAGE activates the cortex more strongly than other systems, and whilst it can be destructive in its ferocity, it can be the catalyst which is the driving force for creative change.

Roz Carroll is a body psychotherapist and trainer at the Chiron Centre for Psychotherapy, where she leads a post-graduate seminar called ‘The New Anatomy: Exploring the Mind in the Body’, which brings together neuroscience, body psychotherapy and psychoanalysis. In a series for Confer, ‘Emotion and Embodiment’, she introduces the work of Trevarthen, Schore, Damasio, Panksepp, Solms and others and looks at its relevance to psychotherapeutic  practice.. Details

.Abrams, D (1997) The Spell of the Sensuous: perception and language in a more than human world (Vintage, London)

Carroll, R (2001) ‘The New Anatomy; an exploration of the body systems integrating neuroscience, psychotherapy and psychonalysis’,

Carroll (2002) ‘On the border between Chaos and Order’ in ed. Corrigall, J & Wilkinson,  Revolutionary Connections: a new relationship between neuroscience and psychotherapy (Karnac)

Hunt, H (1989) The Multiplicity of Dreams: Memory, Imagination and Consciousness (Yale)

Panksepp, J (1998)   Affective Neuroscience: The foundations of human and animal emotions (Oxford University Press)

Rothschild, B (2000) The Body Remembers: The Psychophysiology of Trauma and Trauma Treatment (Norton, London)

Scaer, R (2001)The Body Bears the Burden: Trauma, Dissociation and Disease (Haworth, New York)

Schore, A (1994) Affect Regulation and the Origin of the Self (Lawrence Erlbaum, Hove) 631.

Schore, A. (1997) Early organisation of the non-linear right brain and development of a predisposition to psychiatric disorders’ Development and Psychopathology 9 (1997) 595-

Schore, A. (2000) ‘Attachment and the Regulation of the Right Brain’ Attachment and Human development vol 2, no 2

Schore, A (2001) The American Bowlby’: Interview with Allan Schore

Trevarthen, C & Aitken, K.J. (2001) ‘Infant Intersubjectivity: research, theory and clinical application’ Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry vol 42, no 1 pp3-48

[i] Panksepp is referring to chaos theory which has been used to describe the behaviour of complex, open systems. (Carroll 2002) Attractors represent states to which systems (including the psychobiological human organism) repeatedly return. Strange attractors are sensitive to initial conditions, unpredictable, and complex – hence the parallel with human feelings, which organize into certain kinds of patterns in response to many dynamic factors.

[ii] For an extended discussion of how object relations become embodied in the macro and micro structures of the body (brain organisation, neurochemistry, muscle tone, visceral states, skeletal structure etc), see articles and details of seminars on my website ‘Thinking through the Body”:

[iii] Reich’s work on the autonomic nervous system, which focussed on breathing and muscular constrictions, critically anticipates the emphasis on neurophysiological functioning as a correlate of psychological phenomena. Reich pointed out that breathing alters the whole neurochemistry and therefore mood state of the individual.

[iv] In The Spell of the Sensuous ecologist and philosopher David Abrams argues that we have seriously neglected the synergistic function of the senses to create depth perception and enhance our sense of the living embodied quality of the other. He suggests that the symbolic function of language has begun to overshadow, and substitute for the nuance and subtley of complex sensory perception and its integrative function.

Psychotherapy, Supervision, Consultation and Training

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