“Why Do I Do That?” The Emotional Processes That Shape Our Behavior in Relationships

For many years, researchers looked at behavior only from the top down. Think of Pavlov’s dogs, drooling in response to a sound they’d been taught to associate with food. But Jaak Panksepp challenged that. A neuroscientist and psychobiologist at Bowling Green State University, Panksepp was the father of affective neuroscience, the study of the neural mechanisms of emotion. He described a bottom-up and top-down interaction between the brain and the body, and presented overwhelming evidence that all mammals are driven by four positive affective processes (seeking, care, play, and lust) and three protective ones (fear, rage, and panic).

These are unconscious processes, neither driven nor altered by words, and they guide us throughout our lives. Panksepp asserts that all of these processes guide our relationships, and all but lust shape the core personality. (Lust does not kick in until after the core personality has been formed.)

Seeking is universal. We’re all curious, and we are energized by new experiences. No one has to teach a puppy or a young chimp or a toddler to try to leave its playpen. They want to, and the urge cannot be dulled; it can only be facilitated or frustrated. Exploring is self-reinforcing through chemical processes in the brain that reward us for discovering new things. (This is also why we love to shop.) If you’ve ever felt “in the zone” in an activity, such as work or a hobby, that’s the seeking urge. This desire to engage with the world also drives us to seek love, support, and comfort from others.

Care, in Panksepp’s context, is not about priorities, but about our natural capacity and desire to care for others, especially the young. More than anything else, care builds resilience in children. This is why nature takes care very seriously. Giving and receiving care triggers opioid activity in the brain. “Pregnancy brain,” also called “baby fog,” is the result of the brain downplaying certain processes in order to prepare the mother to focus on her helpless infant. The effect can be contagious. Men who have been around pregnant women and mothers will have more oxytocin (sometimes called “the love hormone”) and estrogen in their systems and less testosterone. The care urge also makes us want to cuddle baby animals or help someone in need, perhaps even a stranger.

Play is not frivolous. It is as crucial to development as it is fun. Play is the process through which children learn about behavioral limits and empathy, the foundations of socialization skills. Evidence is mounting that play and movement are critical to analytical thinking and academic performance, as well. As Catherine Tamis-LeMonda, a professor of applied psychology at New York University, explained in The New York Times, “We think that all domains of development are informed by children engaging in play.”

Lust is driven by testosterone in both males and females. And contrary to common belief, testosterone does not stir aggression directly but rather heightens desire, possibly to the point of resorting to coercion or violence to obtain the object of that desire. Because lust emerges later in life, its manifestation is influenced by personality and environment. Sex is genetic, but gender is psychobiological and therefore is far more flexible in its manifestation. Among all mammals, only humans are known to exercise conscious choice in mating.

The fear response is inherited, hardwired, and cross-cultural. There are many things that frighten nearly all humans: darkness, enclosed spaces, heights, spiders—though, of course, we can learn to fear things, too. At a low level, fear freezes and focuses us. What was that sound? Is something moving over there? How will I get out of this crowded plane if something goes wrong? At high levels, fear compels us to flee.

Fear is different from panic. Panksepp describes panic as the response to feeling alone, unloved, and possibly unlovable. Babies and children may cry out of a sense of panic over not knowing where Mom is. Adults may or may not cry over separation or isolation but will feel grief.

We typically use the word rage to refer to an extreme verbal or physical outburst, but to Panksepp, rage is no less powerful when it’s quiet. When an attachment wish is not met, it can evoke rage. We wish to flee or to fight, but we can’t do either. We all get frustrated when our plans are thwarted or when people let us down. Recently the seventeen-year-old who lives in my house got mad at the twenty-two-year-old who lives in my house because the twenty-two-year-old had been wearing some of the seventeen-year-old’s clothes. The younger one found the older one’s favorite socks, took scissors to them, and posted video of the act on Instagram. When they brought this dispute to my attention, I told the seventeen-year-old she could have handled it better, but it was an interesting way to express her rage over being denied the respect she seeks from her older sibling.

We carry all of these within us. The positive processes compel us to enter into and navigate relationships, and the protective processes kick in when relationships are threatened or lost. Relationships are fundamental to all mammals, and especially critical for humans. Relationships shaped and define us as a species.

Adapted from Building Together: How Relationships Make Families and Communities More Resilient by Benjamin Kearney, Ph.D.

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