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What motivates people? What makes them venture into uncharted territories despite doubts and apprehension? What pushes people to constantly experiment? Why do people look for new solutions when they could just as well use the tried and true methods and processes? There is only one answer: the brain makes them do it. Curiosity can be a motivational force.

Neural Basis of Emotions

The same chemistry that makes our pets search their surroundings, makes people explore the world and look for meaning. How do we know this? The phenomenon was researched by Jaak Panksepp, a neuroscientist and psychobiologist, who was interested in neural mechanisms of emotion and coined the term “affective neuroscience”. Panksepp’s approach to researching emotions significantly differed from the classic psychological theories of emotions, because it was based in biological sciences.

According to Panksepp, words (narrations) and the influence of the environment does not fully explain behaviors of people and animals. However, the behavior can be explained by the processes that originate in the brain. In the course of his long term research, Panksepp (1998) came to distinguish seven emotional systems in the brains of mammals. Some of these systems are primary evolutionary behaviors, such as seeking, rage/anger, fear/anxiety, and lust/sexuality. Another three have evolved as forms of evolutionary adaptation in mammals and include care/nurture, panic/separation, and play/joy. Each of these systems may be activated when separate (though sometimes overlapping) areas of the brain are stimulated. However, most of the time they work together to improve the adaptation of emotions, thoughts, and behaviors of an individual (Davis i Panksepp, 2011).

Emotional Systems According to Panksepp

Firstly, emotional systems belong to the subcortical neural networks. The lower parts of the brain have the evolutionary advantage in the development of basic emotions and affects (learning and higher functions of the brain may be regarded as secondary and tertiary processes).

Secondly, according to the current research, emotional systems are located in the evolutionarily older parts of the brain and to a large extent are homologous in all mammals. Moreover, the chemistry of these systems is similar in all mammals.

Thirdly, emotional systems generate instinctive behavioral reactions, which are directly linked to primal affects that accompany these reactions. Further, the integrity of these seven systems is demonstrated in the possibility of evoking specific and cohesive emotional reactions and/or linked affects, through the localized brain stimulation. The integrity is further confirmed by the ability of subcortical innerventions to mediate the functions of “reward” and “punishment” that control the process of learning (Cwojdzińska i Rybakowski, 2015, s. 103).Systemy emocjonalne wykazują częściową odrębność ze względu na swoje umiejscowienie w mózgu i działające w ich obrębie mediatory neurochemiczne (szczegółowe omówienie biologicznych podstawy systemów emocjonalnych: patrz np. Panksepp, 1998; Panksepp, 2005 czy Panksepp, 2011). Co więcej, systemy te pozostają praktycznie nienaruszone u osobników, którym na wczesnych etapach rozwoju chirurgicznie usunięto korę nową (za: Davis i Panksepp, 2011; s. 1948).

Emotional systems show partial distinctiveness due to their localization in the brain and due to the neurochemical mediators located there (for a detailed description of biological foundations of the emotional systems see Panksepp, 1988, Panksepp, 2005 or Panksepp, 2011). Moreover, these systems remain practically untouched in individuals who have had the neocortex surgically removed, at an early stage of development (as per Davis i Panksepp, 2011; s. 1948).

Emotional System and Seeking System

Generally, all emotional systems are linked with the seeking system and the seeking system is responsible for the motivational processes. The seeking system differs from the other systems in that it participates in all processes that take place in the body of someone who is focused on a goal (Wright i Panksepp, 2012).

The biological foundation of the seeking system includes nucleus accumbens, the ventral tegmental area, the lateral hypothalamus area, the mesolimbic pathway, and the mesocortical pathway. The main neuromodulators, i.e. messengers, that are engaged here are dopamine, glutamic acid, opioids, neurotensin and many other neuropeptides.

How Does the Seeking System Work?

The seeking system is activated by indicators of a potential reward. An individual is motivated to look for the resources in his/her environment, which range from the basic ones, such as water, to the higher ones, like knowledge that helps to make sense of the world. The activation of the seeking system is coupled with a specific emotional state, i.e. psychological energy and excitation linked with anticipation. This feeling occurs in many situations and is connected with various aspects of one’s engagement with the environment. Every time you are deeply interested in something, when you are looking for answers and you discover them, your seeking system is working. The source of these feelings of engagement and excitement comes from the ascending dopamine pathways that are the core of neural systems. The higher regions of the motor cortex are also encouraged to act by dopamine. According to Panksepp (1998) “without dopamine our potential and passions are asleep.”

Animals often act in a mechanical way, most likely without a detailed analysis, but some data indicates that planning stems from an interaction between the seeking system and the higher instances of the nervous system, such as prefrontal cortex or hippocampus. The activation of this system in people is linked with curiosity, excitement and anticipation (Panksepp, 1998). It is a very pleasant feeling, however it takes a form of euphoria rather than a sensory pleasure (Wright i Panksepp, 2012).

Curiosity and interest are relatively stable personality traits and they are often present at all times rather than being activated occasionally. We know that the state of curiosity and the curiosity trait are strongly correlated. They are also linked with positive emotional states and with the popensity for stimuli seeking (Panksepp, 1998).

Overagitated/Underagitated Behavioral System and Types of Behaviors

Some data indicates that if the seeking system is pathologically agitated (overagitated), it may lead to symptoms of psychosis or delusion. On the other hand, a pathologically underactive seeking system may be the reason why an individual is not able to experience arousal or euphoria and by this may be predisposed to depression. Changes in the activity of this system may also contribute to the development of addictions, fixations or obsessions (Wright i Panksepp, 2012).

Animal research indicates that the probability for development of different behaviors depends on the initial activity level of the seeking system. Individuals, whose seeking system is easily agitated, might have a tendency to react impulsively. On the other hand, individuals, whose seeking system is mildly agitated, might lean towards compulsive behaviors (Wright i Panksepp, 2012).

Panksepp’s model and the knowledge it provides on the SEEKING system inspire the development of new approaches in the treatment of addictions, schizophrenia, depression and anxiety (Alcaro i Panksepp, 2011; Coennen i Schlaepfer, 2012; Panksepp, Knutson, B. i Burgdorf, 2002; Panksepp i Yovell, 2014; Wright i Panksepp, 2012).

Curiosity Killed the Cat, but Satisfaction Brought It Back

Curiosity, searching and discovering are very rewarding states. If you are able to awaken these feelings in yourself, they will often make your fear and sadness go away and they will create a new meaning. It does not mean that everything is so simple and that it is enough to become interested in something. However, it might be useful to realize that we are a seeking spices and that we are able to survive in any climate on this planet, thanks to the fact that we tend to live in herds, that we help each other and that some individuals are driven, by curiosity to move forward.


258 anna cwojdzinska

About the author

Anna Cwojdzińska – psychologist and therapist specializing in working with children and adolescents. Graduate of Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań. Currently, she is a doctoral student at SWPS University in Warsaw and a lecturer at SWPS University in Poznań. Member of the Association for Contextual Behavioral Science (ACBS) and Chair of the Board at KIND Kolektyw, an association for the promotion of kindness, in Poland.


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