Thursday, February 25, 2010

Emotional Command Systems, Predatory and Affective Aggression, and Natural Assassins

(Rubens, Daniel in the Lions' Den)

Emotions and Decision-Making

Today's blog entry will be focused primarily on the concept of "emotional command systems" that has been heavily researched and described by Jaak Panksepp and his colleagues. I will be drawing from Panksepp's seminal book Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions. It is a serious and rigorous study, and I believe it deserves recognition as a real tour de force, with applications to a remarkably broad range of disciplines. Panksepp's research dovetails nicely with the works of Helen Fisher and John Gottman, it provides an underlying neuroscientific support for evolutionary psychology, and it will also provide a platform for future blog posts here that will delve into esoteric topics such as combat mindset, the psychological burdens of trading and investing, and a number of others.

A series of philosophers have put forth the view that emotions are the enemy of reason, and suggested that an emotionless man would be a kind of logic-driven, objective, purely analytical thinker, something like the Spock character of Star Trek fame. We now know that those who suffer damage to the limbic system do not become hyper-rational Bayesian demons, but instead become severely handicapped in terms of cognitive function, in part because they are unable to effectively prioritize. The limbic system plays a critical role in assigning priorities and tasks to the neocortex, which can then (hopefully) execute these tasks with a high-performance strategic/analytical toolkit. If the priorities that are handed off have been sabotaged by a malfunctioning limbic system, the executive neocortical apparatus may just seek clever ways to pursue maladaptive goals or sheer folly (to "rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic").

I will begin with the simplified, cartoon version of the brain that is represented by MacLean's triune brain system. In MacLean's model, the brain has three major layers, with the oldest being engulfed by the newer layers in an evolutionary progression. The lowest layer, the extremely old "reptile brain" (or "extrapyramidal motor system"), is tasked with instinctual, basic action tendencies and habits that relate to the most primitive and immediate needs. The second layer, the "mammalian brain" (limbic system), is the seat of our social emotions. Finally we have the "neomammalian brain" (neocortex), which is the source of the higher mammals' access to declarative knowledge---propositional and abstract, hypothesis-driven facts and concepts about the world.

Panksepp writes that "Although the cortex can be powerfully moved by emotions and the human cortex can rationally attempt to understand and influence them, it apparently cannot generate emotionality...we cannot precipitate emotional feelings by artificially activating the neocortex either electrically or chemically..."

Today we will focus in on the limbic system and, to some extent, some very primitive emotional circuits that do touch on parts of the reptilian brain. To understand Panksepp's research, it may be best to think of the emotional world as being directed towards solving survival problems on that "approach---withdraw" continuum that we have discussed in a few posts. The emotional command systems work within that continuum, but add sophistication and nuance.


At the simplest level, world events can produce approach or withdrawal, but careful analysis of the evidence now suggests that both of these broad categories contain a variety of separable, albeit interactive, processes that must be distinguished...These systems help create a substantial portion of what is traditionally considered universal "human nature."

John Gottman:

What exactly are these emotional command systems? Imagine your nervous system as a railroad and your emotions as its trains. The emotional command systems are the tracks on which your emotions run. They take your feelings in various directions, depending on the service you need to perform---exploring your surroundings, seeking sex, making friends, and so on.

In reality, emotional command systems are nerve-based circuits that coordinate electrochemical signals in the brain. Using a variety of experimental methods, scientists have proven the existence of at least seven separate systems. These pathways transmit messages from one nerve cell to the next until various body parts get the information they need to carry out the service desired.

Seven Emotional Command Systems

(mammalian brains---even those of solitary apex predators like this snow leopard--appear to share at least seven identifiable neural circuits that, when stimulated, reliably trigger specific emotional responses)


The overall lesson seems clear: Higher animals are not simply passive reflex machines responding to environmental stimuli in stereotypical ways; rather, they are spontaneously active, spontaneously flexible generators of adaptive some point in brain evolution, behavioral flexibility was...guided by internally experienced emotional feelings. I will argue that these emotional values are a fundamental property of emotional command systems...

And how many basic command systems for emotionality have in fact been reasonably well identified? At least four primal emotional circuits mature soon after birth. as indexed by the ability of localized brain stimulation to evoke coherent emotional displays in experimental animals, and these systems appear to be remarkably similarly organized in humans. The four most well-studied systems are (1) an appetitive motivation SEEKING system, which helps elaborate energetic search and goal-directed behaviors...; (2) a RAGE system, which is especially easily aroused by thwarting and frustrations; (3) a FEAR system, which is designed to minimize the probability of bodily destruction; and (4) a separation distress PANIC system, which is especially important in the elaboration of social emotional processes related to attachment.

In addition to the preceding primitive systems that are evident in all mammals soon after birth, we also have more sophisticated special-purpose socioemotional systems that are engaged at appropriate times in the lives of all mammals---for instance, those that mediate sexual LUST, maternal CARE, and roughhousing PLAY. Each of these is built around neural complexities that are only provisionally understood.

Panksepp's emotional command systems have been verified by means of direct stimulation to the brains of lab animals. The systems truly are circuits---stimulate one electrically and the animal will show behavior that corresponds with the particular emotion being controlled. Thus, a zap to the RAGE system will cause an animal to become extremely aggressive.

As I continue with more of Panksepp's words on the four primary systems, keep in mind Helen Fisher's taxonomy of personality types that we discussed previously, as well as the four drives (Learn, Bond, Defend, Acquire) that were described in Driven.

1. The SEEKING system. ...This system makes animals intensely interested in exploring their world and leads them to become excited when they are about to get what they desire. It eventually allows animals to find and eagerly anticipate the things they need for survival, including, of course, food, water, warmth, and their ultimate evolutionary survival need, sex. In other words, when fully aroused, it helps fill the mind with interest and motivates organisms to move their bodies effortlessly in search of the things they need, crave, and desire. In humans, this may be one of the main brain systems that generate and sustain curiosity, even for intellectual pursuits.

2. The RAGE system. Working in opposition to SEEKING is a system that mediates anger. RAGE is aroused by frustration and attempts to curtail an animal's freedom of action. ...This system not only helps animals defend themselves by arousing fear in their opponents but also energizes behavior when an animal is irritated or restrained. Human anger may get much of its psychic "energy" from this brain system. Brain tumors that irritate the circuit can cause pathological rage, while damage to the system can promote serenity.

3. The FEAR system. A FEAR circuit was probably designed during evolution to help animals reduce pain and the possibility of destruction. When stimulated intensely, this circuit leads animals to run away as if they are extremely scared. With weaker stimulation, animals exhibit just the opposite motor tendency---a freezing response, common when animals are placed in circumstances where they have been previously hurt or frightened. Humans stimulated in the same brain areas report being engulfed by intense anxiety.

4. The PANIC system. To be born a mammal is to be born socially dependent. Brain evolution has provided safeguards to assure that parents (usually the mother)take care of the offspring, and the offspring have powerful emotional systems to indicate that they are in need of care (as reflected in crying, or, as scientist prefer to say, "separation calls"). The nature of these distress systems in the brains of caretakers and those they care for has only recently been clarified; they provide a neural substrate for understanding many other social emotional processes.

(Jaak Panksepp)

I would not suggest that Panksepp's primary SEEKING, RAGE, FEAR, and PANIC circuits for emotional commands and enhanced mammalian survivability correspond perfectly with Fisher's four personality types, the "Four Temperaments" of the classical world (also used in Steiner's "Anthroposophy' education model), and the four drives of human nature that Lawrence and Nohria describe (for instance, the drive to acquire could be seen as a property of SEEKING, RAGE, or FEAR, depending on how it is defined). However, I would say that the convergence is at least interesting.

Simplified Construct


RAGE---Director---Drive to Defend
FEAR---Builder---Drive to Acquire
SEEKING---Explorer---Drive to Learn
PANIC---Negotiator---Drive to Bond


Predatory Aggression: Natural Born Killers

One of the interesting findings that Panksepp and his colleagues have made is that mammals have two distinct, core systems for aggression: a predatory aggression system, which is designed to chase down and kill prey items; and an affective or emotional aggression system, which is for everything else (self-defense, maternal defense of young, inter-male territorial aggression for establishing dominance, and so on).


Distinctions among neural pathways for aggression have been effectively made by the careful psychobehavioral analysis of aggressive sequences evoked by direct electrical stimulation of the brain (ESB). The fact that coherent patterns of aggression can be produced in this way is remarkable in itself. If, as many scientists used to believe, aggression is largely a learned response rather than an intrinsic potential of the nervous system, it would be unlikely that localized ESB would evoke attack behaviors...A substantial amount of evidence now shows that affective attack and quiet-biting (i.e., predatory) attack systems are quite distinct in the brain.

One might be immediately comfortable with the idea that carnivores would certainly have a predatory system, but current research suggests that this circuit is also present in the minds of omnivorous/scavenger animals that we would normally consider to be prey. Animal behavior researcher Temple Grandin writes that:

Predatory aggression isn't just something predatory animals do. Prey animals also have the neural circuits for predatory aggression in their brains, though these circuits don't get activated very often...Research with rats, who are prey animals, shows that you can elicit a biting attack in some rats by stimulating the same part of the brain that you would stimulate to elicit a biting attack in a predatory animal like a cat. Even though a rat rarely hunts prey in the wild, he has the innate, built-in capacity to do it...The actual moment of the kill, called the killing bite, is a hardwired behavioral sequence...Scientists call (these behaviors) fixed action patterns because the sequence of behaviors is always the same. Fixed action patterns are turned on by sign stimuli or releasers. For all predators, rapid movement is a releaser that turns on predatory chasing and (killing).

Over the years, I've read various reports where a person has been injured or killed by a "tame" lion or tiger. In almost all of these accidents, the cause was rapid movement. The person who was bitten fell down, suddenly bent over, or dropped a tool, and the sudden movement triggered a predatory fixed action pattern.

Is it fun to kill...? The answer is "yes". ...behaviorists call predatory killing the quiet bite because predatory killing is not done in a state of rage. We know from brain research that during a kill the RAGE circuits in the brain are not activated...killing bites are nothing like the loud, screaming fights you'll see two animals from the same species get into....According to Jaak Panksepp, (studies) show that predatory killing comes from...the SEEKING circuit, which produces the pleasurable feelings of curiosity, intense interest, and eager anticipation...When the SEEKING circuit is turned on, animals and people seek the things they want, like food and shelter, or a perfect pants suit at a department store or an advanced degree in physics.

Perhaps the darkest, yet most fascinating, aspects of predatory aggression and the dopamine-stimulated SEEKING circuit involve the proclivities of highly intelligent mammalian predators. When the heightened brainpower is combined with these killing instincts and the ability to experience "fun", the result can be complex death-dealing behaviors. Grandin's perspective was forever changed when she watched a video of killer whales hunting for sport:

The different pods had each developed a different killing specialty. Some pods killed tunas they stole from fishing lines; some killed seals; some didn't do a lot of active killing. They just swallowed the fish whole...But one pod had become killers for sport. The cameraman filmed the pod separating a baby whale calf of another whale species from its mother and killing it. They crashed their bodies on top of it over and over again, pushing it underwater repeatedly until finally it drowned. It took them six or seven hours to kill the baby. Then they ate the tongue and nothing else. It was horrible.

With dolphins, researchers have pretty much reached the conclusion that much of the killing they do serves no (direct) evolutionary purpose. Dolphins will slaughter hundreds of porpoises at a time. The evolutionary reason for this would be if porpoises compete with dolphins for the same scarce resources, like food. But they don't. Porpoises eat different food from dolphins. Killing a porpoise doesn't increase a dolphin's chances of surviving and reproducing. The only conclusion is that dolphins kill porpoises because they want to.

Dominance, Challenge, Rage: Affective Aggression

Aggression related to the SEEKING circuit is experienced as pleasurable; aggression related to the RAGE circuit is experienced as emotional pain. The reason that animals engage in affective, or rage-based aggression is not because it feels good, but because a threat or rival in the environment is making them feel bad and they want the pain to stop. While the SEEKING circuit drives hunting behaviors and the killing of prey, then, the RAGE circuit typically drives intraspecies aggression: violence that takes place to secure access to scarce resources (status, sex, etc.) and to defend the animal against an attack.

The distinction between the two can very important to understand, because the RAGE circuit promotes "loud" behaviors---physical posturing to make the animal seem larger and stronger, growling or yelling, and so on, while aggression related to the SEEKING circuit promotes "quiet" behaviors---stalking, ruse, deception, concealment. A victim of human violence who is accustomed to thinking of violence in terms of bar fights or domestic blow-ups may not recognize threat cues in an environment in which he or she is actually being hunted by an intraspecies predator.


This brings up the question of dominance. All animals who live in groups---and that includes most mammals---form dominance hierarchies. Social animals are not democratic and there is an alpha animal, and often a beta animal, too. Dogs have an alpha male who is dominant over the others, as well as a beta male who is second in line to the alpha.

This may come as a surprise, but huge social animals like cattle are often more dangerous to handle than big solitary predators like tigers. A bull can attack a person to achieve dominance, but a tiger won't, because a tiger doesn't care about dominance; constant jostling inside a social hierarchy just isn't part of a tiger's life. You have to be extremely careful not to trigger predatory aggression in any big cat, obviously, but that's all. Every year several ranchers and dairymen are killed by cattle challenges, and it's my opinion that the best way to prevent dangerous attacks on people is to raise highly social grazing animals like cows and horses strictly with their own kind. They should look up to people as a benevolent higher power.

Although both testosterone and the RAGE circuit are implicated in dominance-driven behaviors, it is not yet clear how testosterone and the neural system for RAGE interact. Panksepp notes that, "It is possible that testosterone modulates activity in the RAGE system in a way quite comparable to its effects on intermale aggression systems, but the evidence is not definitive."

It appears that testosterone does not trigger the affective aggression and violent rage by itself; rather, testosterone causes a massive increase in the perception of a need for massive retaliation. In studies in which male human subjects were given doses of testosterone and then tasked with playing games that give players the opportunity to both cooperate and compete, the testosterone-doused subjects were not statistically more likely to initiate competition, but were far more likely to retaliate massively if the other players initiated first.

The current thinking on affective aggression is that it is usually sensitized by another command system, perhaps the FEAR circuit, which seeks to avoid threats. If an animal or human being is effectively cornered, either literally or by a social situation such as a closed group dynamic, escape is no longer an option and the RAGE circuit serves as a sort of psychological Maginot line. An overly sensitive RAGE system creates a power-hungry individual because he or she sees threats, competition, and resource scarcity everywhere, and the attainment of power helps to build a reserve against those hostilities so that the world can be seen as more predictable, controllable, and safe. In a crowded world, this person becomes a ticking bomb, and it is only a matter of time before he or she become frustrated or threatened.

Thus, there is truth---even at the individual level of resolution---in Sun-Tzu's advice to "leave the enemy a way out" if possible, and in numerous studies of conflict management that have shown how important it is to find ways to de-escalate situations by allowing a rival to withdraw from the field with his dignity and honor intact. Furthermore, as discussed in a previous post, the mistaken-but-popular belief that raw, negative emotional disclosure serves some kind of beneficial purpose in intimate relationships is revealed to lead to great neurochemical volatility, as RAGE circuits ignite in both parties and retaliations and counter-retaliations escalate in an irrational spiral of commitment to attack and dominance.

This also helps us to understand some of the seemingly-psychotic behavior that frequently occurs during divorce: because the RAGE circuit sees things in relative terms of advantage and access to resources, it would rather have both parties lose---perhaps by paying lawyers---than for both to notionally "win", but one party be perceived to "win" or benefit a bit more. In short, I might rather that both of us get nothing and the $100 to go to attorneys than for a rival to get $65 and me to get $35, even though this might superficially appear "irrational" to a behavioral economist who does not appreciate the concept of environmental rationality.

Dogs Need a Boss

(my Akita showed characteristics of a strong, dominant personality even when she was just a furry little puppy)

In regards to domestic animals and dominance hierarchies, Grandin reminds us that:

A human owner has the responsibility to understand and respect his pet's nature. Dogs and cats are predator animals. Dogs are hyper-social predators who live in dominance hierarchies. If you interfere with the hierarchy you can get the low-ranking dog or dogs killed by their own pack mates. You have to work with an animal's emotional make-up, not against it...dogs need friends, and if you're going to be away at work all day I recommend owning two dogs, preferably a male and a female. But I'd stop at two, because more than two dogs in one house can be a big problem if the dogs are too evenly matched in size, age, and strength. With closely matched animals the dominance hierarchy may not stabilize, because no leader is able to emerge and the dogs continue to challenge each other.

Following Grandin's line of thought and extending it to humans (I note that the concept of whether or not true alpha-dominant status can exist in humans is not without controversy), there is the intriguing possibility of a circular aspect to alpha behavior: because even-matched rivals increase the intensity of the dominance-seeking behavior (through frustration in the RAGE circuit), the ultimate alpha male would be expected to return to a "Mr. Nice Guy" behavior pattern and to not exhibit much in the way of social posturing or dominance-matching. Why? Because our mythical being doesn't have rivals: the superhero dominates other people in every competitive arena---social, athletic, intellectual, economic, whatever---so completely that his RAGE and FEAR circuits are suppressed. What remains may be an individual who is able to see the social world in terms of detached cost-benefit calculations.

I believe that I have witnessed this phenomenon a few times and will explore this a bit further in my next blog post, where I will describe the almost-unnaturally modest and social confrontation-avoiding behaviors of a former member of one of Britain's most prestigious special warfare units. In contrast to the usual Hollywood representation of an uber-alpha as an abrasive, hot-headed bully who "doesn't suffer fools" and acts impulsively, this real-life version comports himself with great dignity and self-possession because he is essentially in his own disassociated psychological world. While he does not predate upon humans under normal circumstances, he is, in effect, a solitary apex predator who exists outside of social dominance hierarchies, much like Grandin's tiger.

Intraspecies Predatory Aggression

I think it is notable that animals who are set up by experimental design to be able to self-administer stimulation to the SEEKING circuit will do it to the point of complete exhaustion, and will lose interest in virtually everything else. The SEEKING circuit stimulation is addictive. However, animals will avoid stimulating the RAGE circuit as much as they possibly can. Thus, we know that predatory forms of aggression feel good to the animal, but affective aggression feels bad.

(SEEKING circuit + predatory aggression = a delighted Bruce Willis in The Jackal)

Interestingly, any long-term training program designed to facilitate more effective aggression in humans should probably aim at creating a "predator" mindset and a sense of non-competitive play and exploration, as the student will find the training pleasurable and self-actualizing rather than something to suffer through if forced. In fact, the idealized, ultra-high-end, psychologically-optimized assassin would have a perspective that saw other human beings---or, at least, his target---as if they essentially belonged to a different, prey item species. Thus, he would naturally predate upon them rather than viewing them as potential rivals or competitors for scarce resources. Perhaps the classic fictional version of this mindset would be the way that vampires view human beings as primarily a food source.

We do have, to some extent, a real-life version of this and that is the mind of the true psychopath. When researcher Robert Hare and his team of graduate assistants sent out EEGs (electroencephalographs---brain wave tracings) of psychopathic brains as part of an article submitted for peer-review, his paper was rejected because the editor said that "those EEGs could not have come from real people." The psychopath, who Hare considers an "intraspecies" predator, may give us a chilling insight into the psychological component of an ideal assassin. Essentially you have an individual who finds stalking and killing members of his species pleasurable, a dark extension of a neural circuit that is "meant" for inspiring curiosity and anticipation.

We will return to speculations on how to physically, intellectually, and psychologically build the perfect assassin in the future, because I think it is such a fascinating intellectual exercise. I will just note for now that we might expect both an intraspecies human predator and an uber-alpha male to behave in very similar ways, as both would be free from dominance-matching (albeit for subtly different reasons---one sees humans as prey items or amusing snacks, and thus sees himself as a predatory Homo superior; the other is socially serene because he lives in the elegant, confident world of assumed or demonstrated broad-spectrum superiority)

Among the interesting ramifications of the interplay between emotional systems, psychological screenings, and personality types are the natural tensions between almost-diametrically opposed traits that organizations may desire. For example, military psychological tests tend to look for Fisher's Builder and Director types, as the motivational techniques that can be used to encourage desirable battlefield behaviors (willingness to sacrifice for one's own side and kill members of the opposing team) are well-known: creating strong unit cohesion through traditions, rituals, and appeals to patriotic loyalty; dehumanizing the enemy as much as the situation allows; using friendly casualties to motivate a controlled anger; and so on.

On the other hand, Directors are usually defined, emotionally, by their overactivated RAGE circuits; it is the RAGE circuit that makes them seek power and control (dominating the environment reduces frustration levels and thus placates the RAGE circuit). A group which has a high percentage of Directors who are roughly even matched in terms of size, strength, age, and overall capabilities will suffer the same sorts of problems that Grandin mentioned in her discussion of dogs: individuals who are constantly positioning themselves to dominate others, the construction of a hierarchy, and the punishment, sometimes to very cruel "Lord of the Flies" extremes, of the weakest members of the team.

The solution to this is well-established: very strict, pre-organized dominance hierarchies must be externally imposed on these groups (and this is more or less successful, with success rates increasing if the dominance hierarchy that is artificially imposed closely tracks the hierarchy that would have existed in the free conditions of a "state of nature". Combat leaders who look the part and who have backgrounds in combat sports or contact sports tend to fit naturally into these roles).

However, problems related to dominance-seeking and posturing can re-emerge in the most elite units, which tend to feature far less formality, less in the way of external sources of discipline, and more meritocratic decision-making. The selection processes used by units such as the British Army's legendary Special Air Service looks for a very different type of mentality than you would find in a conventional unit. Self-motivated loners with hidden, internalized agendas start to appear, and they can certainly game most of the standard psychological tests. This can create a tension between the traditional virtues celebrated by the military, and those that are needed for work in the murky world between small-unit special warfare operations and clandestine intelligence missions. Military psychologists---at least in the most combat-ready units---are generally suspicious of Explorers, because the motivation of an open-minded, novelty/fun-seeking individual to pursue battlefield experiences is at best unclear, and at worst judged as sociopathic.

In the aftermath of major combat operations, a nation-building program would almost certainly want to emphasize Fisher's Explorers and Negotiators, as these stand the best chance of being to cross cultural boundaries and display qualities associated with very strong interpersonal skills (tolerance, empathy, etc.). Natural Negotiators, perhaps normally seen as lacking killer instinct, may be just what is required in these new circumstances.

The SEEKING Circuit, Dopamine, and Schizophrenia

The SEEKING circuit creates a pleasurable feeling when insights about the world---predictive patterns would have clearly been very useful to us in our ancestral environment of evolutionary adaptation---are discovered. Panksepp notes that "arousal of the SEEKING system spontaneously constructs causal 'insights' from the perception of correlated events. Indeed, all forms of inductive thought, including that which energizes scientific pursuits, proceed by this type of...thinking. An intrinsic tendency for 'confirmation bias' appears to be a natural function of both human and (test animal) rat minds."


Thus, the seeking circuit can promote many distinct motivated behaviors, and the underlying neural system is prepared to jump to the conclusion that correlated events reflect causal relationships. It is easy to appreciate how this may yield a consensual understanding of the world when the underlying memory reinforcement processes are acting normally (i.e., yielding a "reality" that most of the social group accepts). It is also easy to understand how it might yield delusional conclusions about the world. If the system is chronically overactive, it may be less constrained by rational modes of reality testing. The fact that the mesolimbic dopamine system is especially responsive to stress could explain why paranoid thinking emerges more easily during stressful periods, and why stress may promote schizophrenic thinking patterns.

While it is still a bit difficult to discuss this publicly, I feel that I should add that Panksepp's discussion of the SEEKING circuit has assisted me in better understanding the hellish, private mental world that my late brother Dominic, who suffered from both PTSD and schizophrenia, must have endured. What appears to happen in the brain of the schizophrenic is that a hyperactive dopamine-regulated SEEKER system is in play, with the net effect being that the individual draws inferences and causal relationships from the world around him that are not true (or, possibly, not true for the vast majority of the individual's peers---there is the chance that, in some rare cases, the schizophrenic may in fact be the one seeing reality and the rest of us are living in a consensus hallucination of some description or another).

Under stress, the intensity of the faulty correlation mechanism appears to grow stronger, with the mind turning on itself as the victim of schizophrenia finds it more and more difficult to determine which situations and connections are real and which ones are not. "Voices" and "angels" may start to appear, as disparate features of the world converge on one highly personalized nightmare. Before he went on his medication regimen, Dominic began to feel that voices on the radio were talking to him directly.

My brother's illness manifested itself during his tour of duty as an Army National Guard infantryman in Iraq. It has been noted in many cases how NG units can suffer additional stresses due to the fact that the soldiers' lives are normally not specifically organized around military deployments (as an active-duty soldier's life would be). Soon after his return home and discharge, Dominic began constructing increasingly complex and paranoid theories regarding conspiracies of forces that were aligned against him. Blessed with an IQ at least one standard deviation above "genius" level, Dominic would use his intelligence to defend these theories against any attempts to establish that they were incredibly unlikely, if not impossible. I was amazed at the intellectual acrobatics and research efforts he would go to to preserve a conspiracy theory in the face of strong conflicting evidence.

Panksepp again:

If the normal functioning of this system is to mobilize the organism for seeking out resources in the world, then we begin to appreciate how the SEEKING system might also generate delusional thoughts. Apparently when this emotional system is overtaxed and becomes free-running, it can generate arbitrary and unrealistic ideas about how world events relate to internal events...we may have a great deal more to learn about schizophrenia from a study of the SEEKING circuits that mediate (this) behavior in animals.

As there is general agreement that paranoid schizophrenia is characterized by excessive brain (dopamine circuit) activity, anti-psychotic drugs reduce dopamine activity in key receptors. One of the most cruel realities of the illness becomes obvious when we consider how important dopamine and the SEEKING system are to an individual's motivation level, ability to approach the world with optimism and anticipate good results, and reward system. I know from personal experience that as the anti-psychotic effects reduced Dominic's paranoia symptoms, they simultaneously caused his quality of life to plummet and his ability to concentrate to fall off dramatically after a few weeks. Unfortunately, the tendency is to want the victim to "get on with life" and find satisfaction in work or school or relationships, when in fact the ability to do these things is being attacked by the very medicine that is used to treat the schizophrenia.

(in this picture taken at our parents' home back in the 1990s, my late, younger brother Dominic is on the left and I am on the right. We changed "covers"---military for "hats"---in the picture. Dominic was a U.S. Marine at the time and a member of a prestigious ceremonial unit stationed in Washington, D.C.)

I have previously noted that my own personality falls strongly into Fisher's Explorer category, and that as a consequence I have a fairly low threshold for boredom, strong drive for intellectual novelties, etc. If I am not careful, a strong interest in reductionist analytical frameworks and explanatory models for system behavior may lead me to see patterns and causal relationships where only noise actually exists. It appears that my brother's case was, to put it simplistically, a hyper-amplified version of the same type of personality, with his overactive dopamine circuit driving him to aggressively search his environment for patterns to recognize. Ultimately he saw things as overdetermined and could not contend with the idea that sheer randomness and coincidence were major players in his world.

I find it difficult to imagine what this must have been like except to try to conceive of living in a permanent state of nightmares---yet being awake. I also cannot easily articulate what it was like to see someone suffering from an illness that so distorted reality and made virtually everyone, including immediate family members, out to be the enemy.

Gottman, Positive Psychology, and the Command Systems

John Gottman feels that an understanding of Panksepp's mammalian emotional systems can be very useful for the individual who is seeking to improve his or her relationship management capacities. His approach seems to have three layers:

1. Understanding, in approximate theoretical terms, what the command systems are so that you can objectify them and gain a kind of metacognitive ability to monitor your emotions a bit better.

2. Finding how your own emotional life may have some systems that tend to be underactivated and some that tend to be overactivated (under- and over-activation both cause emotional distress).

3. Learn about the relative activation levels of your family and closest friends so that you can be better equipped to communicate with them effectively and make their environments happier.

I will speculate here that social groups may organize around particular, homogeneous clusters of relative emotional system activation levels, and this may represent an opportunity for psychologists to investigate the "emotional culture" of organizations.


...Two employees are invited to a weekend team-building retreat with the rest of their staff. One employee is quite social and feels very comfortable when her (social attachment system) is highly activated. She stays in a chipper mood for most of the event. But the other employee, who consistently prefers to spend time alone, is more comfortable when (the same system) stands idle. Working in groups for long hours leaves her feeling tense and drained. By the end of the weekend, she's had it. Three weeks later, however, the situation is reversed. The employee who has high (social activation needs) feels tense and frustrated at spending so much time alone. And the enployee who has low social activation needs feels serene and energized...

At the risk of being overly reductionist, I believe that we could, assuming it was possible to have detailed knowledge of an individual's various emotional command system "settings", begin to make fairly accurate forecasts about a number of social, political, and economic preferences that the individual would display. For instance, a woman who has a chronically overactivated RAGE circuit, which craves power and control, and PANIC circuit, which fears being alone in the world, would prefer social arrangements that A) feature groups (thus turning off the PANIC circuit); and B) feature opportunities for her to plan and direct the group's activities (thus temporarily satisfying the RAGE circuit). Politically, we might expect this person to be sympathetic to central planning/collectivist policies provided that she was in agreement with them, and hence able to feel more "in control" (i.e., she would be highly partisan).

In contrast, imagine that she was sent on a long business trip with a woman who had a chronically underactivated SEEKING circuit, which enjoys learning and creative freedoms, and an underactivated PANIC circuit, so that her default setting is to be fine with solitary activities. Ceteris paribus, we would expect this person to enjoy highly individualistic, exploratory opportunities, with travel schedules that are deliberately kept very loose and which feature lots of options, and to view the needs of the other woman as a kind of tyrannical egomania. Politically, we would expect this person to be a libertarian.


Your ability to regulate how much stimulation each of your emotional command systems receives can affect your life moment by moment as well as over the long term. In the short term, feeling out of sync with your current lifestyle or with those around you may put you in a bad mood. Over lengthy periods, it can influence your whole personality. People whose emotional command systems are chronically overactivated or underactivated may develop personality characteristics such as pessimism, irritability, fearfulness, belligerency, or melancholy.


In the next blog, I will try to finish the series on Gottman, Fisher, and Panksepp with some prescriptions. Gottman's "emotional bid" concept will be presented, as will some initial thoughts on an integrated, applied framework that will attempt to combine almost everything we have discussed thus far.


  1. Seb, what an a-m-a-z-i-n-g post! You know I tell things as I find them. Can't wait for the next one! :)

  2. Wow. A tour de force, here--great synthesis and structure.

  3. Great synthesis, Seb. One thing I find interesting as you expand more on different personality taxonomies is the disconnect with MBTI. In an earlier post you drew some parallels between Fisher's taxonomy and MBTI, but those don't seem to fit in well with the characteristics discussed in this post. I wonder if this has to do with the introversion/extroversion issue: the parallels you drew earlier between MBTI and Fisher seem to me to hold well only for the extroverted version of the MBTI profile. For example, I test as INTJ in the MBTI taxonomy, but I don't fit the "rage-director-defend" profile at all. Most ENTJs would fit it well.

    One other taxonomy (DISC) claims that many people have a "professional" profile that can be quite different from their personal/family/friend profile. I am not sure how true this is, but it may be useful for modeling people who seem to act differently depending on context.

  4. Jay, Anja thanks for the kind comments!

    Jay, I think that Fisher shares your concern and she mentions this in her book on profiling...she felt that extroversion was an extremely complex trait. Builders have a lot of friends but often avoid deep conversations; Directors may have fewer friends, but thrive on deeper topics and levels of analysis; and so on.

    I think she also found that many self-described "people person" types were actually good at making others feel socially uncomfortable (but would be marketed as smooth social operators), while intros could respect privacy and boundaries in ways that made them seem to have more sophisticated interpersonal skills. The MBTI extro/intro blunt-instrument failed to capture this and risked sabotaging the effectiveness of the match-making algorithm she was working on for

    I totally get what you are saying about the growing disconnect from MBTI. I wish it all was neater and more crisp and clean, but the various studies and testing batteries don't seem to support each other as well as one might hope.

    How do you think you would test out on a Fisher personality screen?

  5. Rather than speculate, I went to and took the free test. I came out as "EXPLORER/director". It seemed like the questions were oriented toward the extroverted traits of the personality types (such as spontaneity in the explorer type and dominance in the director type). I suppose this makes sense for a taxonomy that is oriented toward matchmaking.

    I am by no means an expert on MBTI, but I have always felt that the introvert/extrovert attribute was misnamed, because it seems like it has more to do with how the other attributes are directed (that is, inward or outward) rather than whether one is simply a "people person" or not.

  6. Seb, the segment about your brother's struggle with schizophrenia is particularly touching to me, as I went through the same thing with a very close friend. Observing a highly intelligent person dedicate their mental horsepower to both craft and explain delusions is fascinating and terrifying.

    The metaphor that I use to describe how these delusions really get out of control is that of the baseline - you or I can think about a variety of topics and then go back to our baseline. The subject has been explored, the investigation is complete, and it's time for something else. Perhaps this topic and that topic are related, but likely not. Let's not get ahead of ourselves. These individuals lose that, and their thoughts pile on each other into one tangled mess from which they have to derive a reality.

    The feeling of a schizophrenic break can be experienced by the average person on a strictly temporary basis in various ways - having that experience was educational for me, and gave me access to this metaphor that actually helped a few of my friend's family members understand the mechanisms (not) at work.

  7. Kyle, thank you very much for that post---I got a lot out of your insights.

  8. Sebastian

    Kit here. Incredible, and poignant post. I just discovered your blog and have been reading up - thanks for putting your stuff out there.

    RE: Predatory Aggression - shades of some of the old International Hoplology Stuff: