Who’s Driving Now?

crazy-taxi-driverImagine you are traveling in a mysterious taxi where the cabby transforms into another driver. Everything suddenly seems to be different since there is a new person in charge, the driving style changes: the destination changes, as does the mood, music selection and the conversation. This unusual scenario is not too disparate from our day-to-day lives. As our emotions vacillate, a new “driver” takes charge and everything in our experience changes. Our emotional shifts can range from subtle to dramatic, and once made we experience different thoughts, feelings and motivations. We may find that we have a different outlook on life and access to different memories or perhaps an alternative interpretation of memories. In spite of these transformations, we feel like the same person. Our perception of continuity between drivers is provided by our observational self, the passenger in the back seat. This passenger has always been there, through it all — our deepest and most steadfast sense of self.

salmonSince the limbic (emotional) brain evolved earlier than our neocortex (executive) brain [see The New Arrival], its preexisting controls over the body were built into the wiring of the newer system. The limbic systems’ influence is thus expanded, not replaced. While the neocortex can have an impact on the limbic system, this influence runs upstream like a spawning salmon and must fight the more powerful emotional current. The more intense the emotional experience, the stronger the current our “neocortex’s salmon messengers” must struggle against. The neocortex evolved to serve the organism, which includes the limbic system and other bodily systems. By providing increased flexibility and adaptability to new environments, this executive system allowed humans to colonize the globe and even escape our terrestrial orbit. Yet, to the chagrin of our executive sense of control, these pre-existing systems did not evolve to serve the neocortex and, as a result, our minds are primarily organized around emotional states. As our emotional states shift, so will our mental life and behavior.

Jaak Panksepp, Ph.D. is a researcher in the field of affective neuroscience. His work focuses on understanding how various emotional processes are evolutionarily organized in the brain. He also explores the linkages of these processes to psychiatric disorders and drug addiction. Dr. Panksepp mapped the neural circuitry of seven mood states, which he refers to as “executive operating systems” (EOSs). So named because when active, these “drivers” take control and impact our emotions, perceptual biases, memories, and behavioral inclinations. These EOSs evolved to deal with crucial challenges our evolutionary ancestors faced in dealing with basic functioning, survival and procreation, as well as necessary social behavior. Judith Toronchuck and George Ellis added two more EOSs to Panksepp’s seven, rounding out the list to nine primary emotional systems: SEEKING, DISGUST [Toronchuck & Ellis addition], RAGE, FEAR, LUST, PANIC (which relates to separation distress), CARE/nurturing, Play and POWER/dominance [Toronchuck & Ellis addition]. Capital letters are used to remind us that these labels refer to the “system” and not just the emotion. The emotions, thoughts and motivations within each system can range in magnitude, for example, the RAGE EOS might involve a spectrum of feelings that extend from mild frustration to intense anger.

Living and dealing with other people leads to interactions between multiple sets of EOSs. These interpersonal encounters can be categorized on a cooperative to conflictual continuum. Social engagements have the potential to shift in dramatic, often unexpected ways, depending on which EOSs are driving and whether challenge or opportunity is perceived. It is our subconscious mind that dispatches the drivers, and this dispatcher is extremely fast and conditioned by experience. When our subconscious mind is triggered, the appropriate driver/EOS is instantly dispatched to deal with the circumstance. So when the emotional current is particularly strong, by the time the neocortex’s messenger has traveled upstream to deliver a potentially contradictory message —  for example, “don’t say it” — the dispatcher has replaced our driver, who has already said it. All the while, our observant passenger quietly notices the dramatic play unfold.

Panksepp, J. (1998). Affective Neuroscience. New York: Oxford University Press.

Toronchuk, J. A., & Ellis, G. F. R. (2012). Affective Neuronal Selection: The Nature of the Primordial Emotion Systems, Frontiers in Psychology.  3(589)


John R. Lucy, Ph.D. is a psychologist in private practice at Decatur Psychology, LLC.

 

 

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