Toward a cross-species neuroscientific understanding of the affective mind: do animals have emotional feelings?


  • Jaak Panksepp

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    1. Baily Endowed Chair for Animal Well-Being Science, Department of Veterinary and Comparative Anatomy, Pharmacology and Physiology, Washington State University, Pullman, Washington
    • Baily Endowed Chair for Animal Well-Being Science, Department of Veterinary and Comparative Anatomy, Pharmacology and Physiology, Wegner 205, McCoy Hall 212, Washington State University, Pullman, WA 99164-6520
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  • Adapted from keynote presentation at the 2009 Conference of the American Society for Primatology, San Diego, CA.


Do we need to consider mental processes in our analysis of brain functions in other animals? Obviously we do, if such BrainMind functions exist in the animals we wish to understand. If so, how do we proceed, while still retaining materialistic–mechanistic perspectives? This essay outlines the historical forces that led to emotional feelings in animals being marginalized in behavioristic scientific discussions of why animals behave the way they do, and why mental constructs are generally disregarded in modern neuroscientific analyses. The roots of this problem go back to Cartesian dualism and the attempt of 19th century physician–scientists to ground a new type of medical curriculum on a completely materialistic approach to body functions. Thereby all vitalistic principles were discarded from the lexicon of science, and subjective experience in animals was put in that category and discarded as an invalid approach to animal behavior. This led to forms of rigid operationalism during the era of behaviorism and subsequently ruthless reductionism in brain research, leaving little room for mentalistic concepts such as emotional feelings in animal research. However, modern studies of the brain clearly indicate that artificially induced arousals of emotional networks, as with localized electrical and chemical brain stimulation, can serve as “rewards” and “punishments” in various learning tasks. This strongly indicates that animal brains elaborate various experienced states, with those having affective contents being easiest to study rigorously. However, in approaching emotional feelings empirically we must pay special attention to the difficulties and vagaries of human language and evolutionary levels of control in the brain. We need distinct nomenclatures from primary (unconditioned phenomenal experiences) to tertiary (reflective) levels of mind. The scientific pursuit of affective brain processes in other mammals can now reveal general BrainMind principles that also apply to human feelings, as with neurochemical predictions from preclinical animal models to self-reports of corresponding human experiences. In short, brain research has now repeatedly verified the existence of affective experience—various reward and punishment functions—during artificial arousal of emotional networks in our fellow animals. The implications for new conceptual schema for understanding human/primate affective feelings and how such knowledge can impact scientific advances in biological psychiatry are also addressed. Am. J. Primatol. 73: 545–561, 2011. © 2011 Wiley-Liss, Inc.