The main ideas of this book were first formulated by Jaak Panksepp, the psychobiologist and neuroscientist who became a wee bit famous outside the field for his research about laughter in non-human animals, especially laughing rats. He died before it was finished, and this volume could be considered his crowning achievement. The Emotional Foundations of Personality: A Neurobiological and Evolutionary Approach is hard to review, as I’m not really the target audience.
The book is definitely not without merit, but for the general reader there are some problems. For starters, let me try to break those down.
Afterwards I’ll highlight what this reader found to be the interesting take-aways. That list should be of interest to those readers of this blog who don’t care for criticism of this book, but do care about their emotions and their brain
1) I was generally underwhelmed. “Is this it?” seems to be an adequate summary of my basic reaction. This stems from the fact that the basic premise of this book seems so obvious. Of course our emotions are rooted in biology. Of course we share our basic emotions with other mammals. Of course these things evolved. But apparently these things aren’t considered as basic facts among a lot of psychology & personality scientists – that fact was new for me, and maybe one of the most interesting things I’ll take away from reading this. As this is first and foremost a book written for that academic community, it makes that for me a big part of the book read as a defense of the obvious. Then again, common sense is not science, and what this book does extremely well is make these insights irrefutable, drawing on lots of research papers and actual experiments.
2) As another defense mechanism, the book also firmly embeds itself in the scientific tradition, and as such can also be used as a basic textbook. A few chapters deal with the history of personality science, going as far back as Darwin, tackling William McDougall’s comparative psychology, the Big Five model, the history of brain imaging, etc. It does this rather extensively, and it is generally interesting – I didn’t know Darwin’s third book dealt with emotions, for instance.
But while it is generally interesting, there is also too much detail, as the authors carefully try to position their own theory in relation to the dominant Big Five model and other models (Eyseneck, Gray, Cloninger). This should be of interest to people in the field, enabling a thorough comparison. But as it is made (convincingly) clear that the Big Five model isn’t sufficient anymore in the light of knowledge today – firmly backed up by biological evidence, not only by common sense – for the general reader these parts are rather uninteresting, for why would you spend lots of pages dealing with models that are shown to be faulty and incomplete?
3) The authors have chosen an approach that makes it possible to read each chapter more or less independently. That’s a valid choice for an academic text, of which students and scientists might only be interested in specific parts they need for their own research. For the general reader however – or for the scholar who wants to digest the entire book – this results in tons of repetition, smearing the reading experience big time. Even taking the authors’ intention into consideration, the book would have benefited greatly from a bit of editorial trimming.
4) The title is both extremely well chosen, and at the same time a bit misleading. Do not expect to gain a lot of insight in different personalities, if any. The book defends the thesis that our personalities (and a part of our sense of self) are based on our emotions, and that these emotions have a biological basis that has evolved, a base which we share phylogenetically with mammals. The result, personality, is not tackled as such, although paradoxically the authors’ research has culminated into a new personality test: the ANPS – Affective Neuroscience Personality Scale – version 2.4 of which is included in the book.
5) I expected a bit more on the cross-species sections. Again, there’s rigorous references to lots of research, grounding the basic idea well, but as a result the chapters on rats and dogs and great apes and the stickleback fish read more as a listing of all relevant research papers throughout the field’s history, and not so much as insightful chapters on the personalities or emotions of animals.
6) Certain sections were too specific for me. I don’t really care about whether this or that system is situated in the the ventrolateral caudal PAG, the lateral PAG or the dorsomedial rostral PAG – the PAG being the periaqueductal gray.
7) A final, more specific beef – and not a surprise for recurrent readers of this blog. On two occasions the authors stress all this biology and the instinctive grounding of emotions does not make animals or humans “mechanical robots”. I’m baffled why they would include this – possibly because there are still a lot of adherents to free will in the field of psychology, and these people need to be catered too?
I’m baffled because it’s such an inconsiderate statement in an otherwise intelligent book. The statement seems to be based on a misconception of robots and the word ‘mechanical’. Robots are contrasted with animals and humans, the latter being “active agents engaging and adapting to their worlds”. I have no idea why robots could not be active agents, engaging and adapting. And biology being the marriage between physics and chemistry, I also have no idea how this engaging and adapting would happen without mechanics – electric brain movement included.
What will I take away? I want to stress that this list is not a comprehensive summary, the book covers more ground, as you might have noticed from the above. These are just the tidbits that stuck.
1) Lots of descriptive psychology says more about the nature of language than about our biology.
2) The “Nested BrainMind Hierarchies” model seems more apt than other models that I’ve come across in the past. Let me try a quick summary: there’s the primary process (of emotions & affects) which is deeply subcortical, the secondary process (learning) which is largely upper limbic, and the tertiary process (cognition, language) which is largely neocortical. The first process influences the second process, which influences the third, and there’s obviously also a top-down regulation and response, from three to two, and two to one.
3) Emotions come before language, obviously. The neocortex doesn’t generate feelings, it can’t. It does however parse them with language (to a degree that is, since emotions are qualia).
4) There’s 7 prime emotions we can distinguish in the brain stem. SEEKING, PLAY, CARE, FEAR, RAGE, PANIC and LUST. (Panksepp chose to write these in all caps to indicate the difference with the regular vernacular. PANIC for instance actually is separation distress.) What we consider as emotions too, like shame, jealousy, admiration and guilt, are more complex and as such probably of another biological nature, although the authors admit these are much harder to study in animals via invasive brain experiments, which are necessary to get to the nuts & bolts. (I have to say I was quite surprised by the dualistic nature of lots of animal research, that’s often still based on simply dichotomies like reward & punishment or seek & avoid.)
5) The neocortex is developmentally constructed, not genetically. This new brain structure emerged because of one gene. As language resides in the neocortex, this is a problem for people like Chomsky who claim language to be innate. This actually is the biggest thing for me, I can’t really wrap my head around it, should it be true.
6) Defensive violence and predatory violence are not the same. They are based in different brain systems.
7) I knew of this next item already, but it was nice to read a bit more about it. At the turn of the century Michael Meaney’s research group has shown that the amount of maternal licking and grooming of rat newborns in the first week of life has significant influence on how the rats develop. To put it bluntly, rat babies that are licked and groomed a lot become more intelligent, more resilient and more inquisitive than rat babies who are licked and groomed less. This has been confirmed in different settings, and is not the result of genetics – offspring was switched from high licking mothers to less licking mothers and the result was the same. This obviously has huge implications for how kids should be raised in the first few years of life. For those who doubt one could link all this to humans, this rat research has already led to a successful diagnostic blood test for depressed humans.
8) You can breed animals (dogs, rats, fish) for happiness and playfulness. In other words, you could breed a chronically depressed breed of dogs too.
9) Cognitive therapy goes only so far in doing the job. It has a top-down approach (see the three systems above), thinking that “creating more realistic cognitive beliefs will result in healthier, less distressing feelings”. But the cognitive way to do this is via language, and both cognition and language are much more recent systems that evolved much later than the emotional systems – evolutionary preceding language by well over 100 million years. The authors don’t claim CT has no merit whatsoever, but point out it’s hard to distinguish how much of CT’s success is due to therapists that CARE for their patients and as such trigger better emotional well-being.
A good example of bottom-up regulation of feelings is something most couples will have already experienced: resolving a conflict often is easier just by touching each other and creating physical tenderness – this works better, evoking positive thoughts and perceptions, rather than the “purely cognitive top-down process” of trying “to convince your partner that his or her thoughts and ideas are the ones that are distorted”.
10) It’s kinda obvious, but good to end this list with: emotions guide our decisions, and emotions are learning systems.
I’m no psychologist or brain scientist, so I have no idea about how widespread or influential the work of Jaak Panksepp is, just as I have no idea of how revolutionary his insights were. But judging from the acclaim by fellow scientists on the back cover (I know, I know) this seems an important book for the field.
So is this recommended?
I guess it’s a significant body of research for any serious scholar of the topics this book deals with. Guessing aside, I am sure it’s a solid textbook, with both a diachronic and synchronic approach – if I may borrow those terms from linguistics. It also has an extensive bibliography for further reading, 28 pages of small print.
The general reader might be interested too, but beware of the caveats above.