The joke, Panksepp found, was on scientists who never realized that animals have senses of humor
Jaak Panksepp, 73, the neuroscientist known as “The Rat-Tickler” for demonstrating through rat experiments that rats are as much motivated by having fun as people are, died of cancer on April 18, 2017 at his home in Bowling Green, Ohio.
A mass media science superstar for the last dozen years of his life, during which his discoveries influenced practically every branch of animal use, as well as human psychology, Panksepp was born into a farming family in Tartu, Estonia, on June 5, 1943––almost the middle of World War II.
After that, almost anything was fun
Caught between Nazi Germany under Adolf Hitler and the Soviet Union under Josef Stalin, about 25% of the population of Estonia were killed during the war, through the Holocaust massacres of Jews and gypsies, as casualties of intense and prolonged fighting, and––after the Russians gained the advantage in combat––in Stalin’s massacres of suspected Nazi collaborators and other political opponents.
Panksepp’s parents “fled the advancing Soviet army in 1944 and sailed with their family across the Baltic Sea to northern Germany,” a journey that thousands of refugees did not survive, “where they lived as displaced persons,” wrote Washington Post obituarist Emily Langer.
The object of the Panksepps’ flight to Germany, as for most Estonian refugees, was to try to get to regions of Europe that were expected to be liberated from the Nazis by British and American troops, instead of by the Russians, and then to emigrate to the U.S. or Canada, if possible. The Panksepp family succeeded.
Learned to play in displaced persons camp
“My most explicit early play memories are from our four years as displaced persons,” Panksepp recalled in the winter 2010 edition of the American Journal of Play, “from the end of the war in 1945 to August 1949—just a few months after my sixth birthday—when we got visas to the United States, after moving across northern Germany from one displacement camp to another.”
The Panksepps settled in Bethel, Delaware, where Jaak’s father worked as a farmhand and where Jaak attended a one-room schoolhouse. “When he was in his teens,” Langer wrote, “the family moved to Lakewood Township, New Jersey— home to a sizable Estonian community — where his father found work as a mason.”
Working his way through the University of Pittsburgh as a night orderly at a psychiatric hospital––though an almost full scholarship paid his tuition––Panksepp earned his bachelor’s degree in 1965.
Initially intending to study architecture, Panksepp switched to electrical engineering, but “rapidly found out how little electrical engineering really captivated my interest,” he told the American Journal of Play. “From my sophomore year onward, I slogged from one academic major to another—first chemistry and then creative writing. I moved on, finally, to psychology.”
Panksepp added a master’s degree in 1967 and a Ph.D. in 1969, both from the University of Massachusetts.
Realized experts were asleep at the switch
Introduced to rat research as a graduate student working at the Northampton Veterans Hospital in Amherst, Massachusetts, Panksepp combined his background in electrical engineering with psychological research to produce a Ph.D. dissertation examining how electrical stimulation of brain regions affects aggressive behavior.
But already Panksepp was beginning to question whether much that had been termed “aggression” by earlier researchers was actually any such thing. German evolutionary psychologist and philosopher Karl Groos (1861-1946) had published a pioneering study, The Play of Animals, in 1898, yet for more than a century his insights went ignored, and even Panksepp was unaware of Groos’ work––which Panksepp described as “wonderful”––until after his own investigations led him in the same direction.
After graduate school Panksepp spent most of his career on the faculty at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, finishing with a stint filling the Baily Endowed Chair of Animal Well-Being Science at the Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine in Pullman, Washington.
Panksepp made his first influential contribution to science in 1979 in a paper suggesting that autism might be “an emotional disturbance arising from an upset in the opiate systems in the brain.”
Studying brain biochemistry, Panksepp and colleagues later mapped what he termed the “primal emotions of play, panic/grief, fear, rage, seeking, lust, and care.”
Inspired Temple Grandin
This research helped to inspire autistic farm animal welfare researcher Temple Grandin to investigate how finding the triggers to these primal emotions can help humans to improve animal care and handling.
Explained Grandin in her 2009 bestseller Animals Make Us Human, “The rule is simple. Don’t stimulate rage, fear and panic if you can help it, and do stimulate seeking and also play.”
While Grandin applied Panksepp’s discoveries to animal welfare problems almost from the beginning of her career, in the early 1980s, Panksepp himself remained focused on human psychology for many more years, until he realized, as he often recalled afterward, that “Every drug used to treat emotional and psychiatric disorders in humans was first developed and found effective in animals. This kind of research would obviously have no value if animals were incapable of experiencing these emotional states.”
Affective Neuroscience vs. the Behaviorists
For example, Panksepp theorized, the feeling of being alone and vulnerable, with associated stress, recognized in humans as clinical depression, might reflect activity in some of the oldest parts of the animal brain structure, which in turn might explain why animals and humans express depression in recognizable similar ways.
Panksepp’s 1998 book Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions, published by Oxford University Press, is widely credited with changing the direction of psychological research on animals, after decades during which the “behaviorist” theories of “operant conditioning” developed by B.F. Skinner (1904-1990) dominated.
This work was taken to particularly cruel depths by primate researcher Harry Harlow at the University of Wisconsin. When Harlow semi-retired to spend the last 10 years of his life at a part-time post at the University of Arizona, then-graduate students Stephen J. Suomi and Gene Sackett dismantled the lab where they had helped Harlow. While Suomi continued to do similar work until 2015, Sackett later attributed the rise of the animal rights movement in part to public outrage over Harlow’s experiments.
(See NIH kills one of last legacies of vivisector Harry Harlow.)
Gave Skinner a chance “but he blew me off”
Explained Panksepp himself in the American Journal of Play, “Historically, behaviorists were wise to focus their attention on generating rigorous methodologies for studying learned behaviors, but they were unwise to discard issues that their approaches did not—and could not—illuminate. Without brain research,” to understand the biochemistry and electronics of how animals and humans think, “the rewards and punishments” that motivate behavior “could not be studied. After the advent of modern neuroscience, they could have been, but students were even discouraged from bringing up such issues” by professors steeped in the Skinner approach.
“Skinner would never have accepted that rats have feelings,” Panksepp said. “I gave him a chance, but he blew me off. Unfortunately, animal feelings were marginalized by many influential and powerful scholars,” Panksepp recalled, “who simply could not tolerate such thinking. Instead of essential conversation, there was mostly enforced silence.”
“Scientific arrogance deeper than wisdom”
The enforced silence helped to protect the neuropsychology establishment from criticism for doing repetitive and often cruel animal experiments which, in the end, discovered little or nothing very useful. But the silence also retarded the development of much more productive research.
“The whole field continues to be influenced by too many elders whose scientific arrogance was deeper than their wisdom,” Panksepp observed.
Panksepp did not disagree with the premise of doing animal experiments. He just argued that the experiments had to take into account the complexity of animal behavior, including in their emotional lives.
“Evolutionist from the beginning”
“I was an evolutionist from the beginning and felt confident that the origins and neural substrates of the human mind could only be well studied in our fellow animals,” he told the American Journal of Play.
“Neural circuits for laughter exist in very ancient regions of the brain,” Panksepp elaborated to Peter Gorner of the Chicago Tribune, “and ancestral forms of play and laughter existed in other animals eons before we humans came along.”
Initially Panksepp only explored the biological mechanics of animal fun. By April 2005, however, Panksepp had begun to consider the importance of fun to the evolution of cultural behavior in animals, meaning the use of fun to reduce social stress, reinforce learning, and maintain the cohesion of family groups.
“Although no one has investigated the possibility of rat humor, if it exists, it is likely to be heavily laced with slapstick,” Panksepp speculated to Gorner in April 2005. “Even if adult rodents have no well-developed cognitive sense of humor, young rats have a marvelous sense of fun.”
Observed Gorner, “New investigative techniques often rely on super high-tech scanning wizardry, but the most important tool for scientists in this field is much more simple.”
“Tickles are the key,” Panksepp said. “They open up a previously hidden world.”
Continued Gorner, “Panksepp had studied play vocalizations in animals for years before it occurred to him that they might be an ancestral form of laughter.”
Affirmed Panksepp, “I went to the lab and tickled some rats. Tickled them gently around the nape of their necks. Wow!”
The tickling made the rats chirp happily,” Gorner summarized, but only among rats who knew and trusted Panksepp. Rats who did not yet know him remained silent.
Rats who were repeatedly tickled “became socially bonded to the researchers and would seek out tickles,” Gorner wrote. “The researchers also found that rats would rather spend time with animals who chirp a lot than with those who don’t. During human laughter, the dopamine reward circuits in the brain light up. When researchers neurochemically tickled those same areas in rat brains, the rats chirped.”
“Panksepp is leery of using words like morality and ethics to describe animal behavior,” wrote Michael J. Lemoneck for Time magazine in a July 2005 article that, along with Gorner’s article, helped to make Panksepp a star. “He is sure that rats and other animals do experience joy, sadness, anger and fear––because the wiring of the brain is set up to generate those feelings. Nobody has yet found the neurocircuits for ethics or morality, however, so Panksepp is reluctant to comment about those qualities. But he does accept that some animals have strict rules of behavior.”
“Cockroaches probably don’t have a sense of justice,” Panksepp told Lemoneck. “But dogs and rats, which are social animals, clearly do.”
Declaration on Consciousness
As Panksepp’s work became better known and more widely accepted, he contributed as an editor to the language of the 2012 Cambridge Declaration on Consciousness, an influential statement on the use of animals in research authored by Stanford University biochemist Philip Low.
“Convergent evidence indicates,” the declaration said, “that non-human animals have the neuroanatomical, neurochemical, and neurophysiological substrates of conscious states along with the capacity to exhibit intentional behaviors. Consequently, the weight of evidence indicates that humans are not unique in possessing the neurological substrates that generate consciousness. Non-human animals, including all mammals and birds, and many other creatures, including octopuses, also possess these neurological substrates.”
“We have lost a great scientist & a wonderful man”
Panksepp’s death was announced by Anesa Miller, his wife of 26 years, a noted writer and former faculty colleague at Bowling Green.
Said Dutch primatologist and ethologist Frans de Waal, responding to Panksepp’s death, “He was a very special man, and had to fight so hard to get science to accept his affective neuroscience. For animal lovers it is important to know that more than anyone else Jaak made animal emotions an acceptable topic to discuss and study.
“He is sometimes known as the ‘rat tickler,’ because he not only studied negative emotions, such as fear, but also the fun and laughter of animals, such as rats. We have lost a great scientist, and a wonderful man,” de Waal finished.