Affective Science of Emotions

Emotions are what gives us (all animals) the ability to survive and thrive, it interprets our environment into sections based on how it influences our survival. Without our emotions we wouldn’t respond appropriately to our environment, allowing us to learn and adapt, and thus thrive. Especially in the more evolved social species, without emotions we simply wouldn’t be successful in co-existence and cooperation.

Most modern animal trainers and researchers look to Jaak Panksepp’s study and categorization of the emotional systems as his is the most current and up to date research. In his study of the brain and nervous system he’s found the 7 Afffective Systems that exist within all primary process species (animals with a brain and nervous system). This gets more advanced with the ability to learn and adapt to our environment in Secondary Process species and even more advanced in species with Tertiary Process. The tertiary process (the neocortex) is used for creating and abstract thinking, this is more advanced in highly social and cognitive species like great apes, whales, dolphins, elephants, etc… While it’s less advanced in horses it’s still there, but we can see how this would inhibit their ability to fabricate lies (if someone tells you their horse is just pretending, they are not, they have either learned a behavior or are honestly displaying an emotion).

We social species have 7 basic systems that contribute to our ability to live, cooperate and thrive in our environment and social unit. These include 3 that feel bad to the individual (most of the time), 3 that usually feel good, and 1 that is uniquely working to maintain our ability to meet our needs and learn from our experiences.

Of the 3 that feel bad we have FEAR, which is responsible for our physical safety, protecting us from threats in our environment. While it’s important to understand and respond appropriately to, it’s not something we want involved in our relationships or training. If a peer or member of a social group is a source of FEAR (a physical threat) they’ll be avoided. Which could result in PANIC/GRIEF this is like FEAR, but relates to our emotional/social wellbeing, this is why it feel bad to be socially isolated or to lose a trusted member of your social unit. RAGE is a vital emotional system that comes in to fulfill our needs when they are not being met. If we’re afraid for our lives but can’t escape, if we’re unable to find food but are desperately hungry, the RAGE system will come on to help us satisfy those needs. It may appear in fight/flight, or may appear as frustration, agitation, or lashing out. It’s come into us because our other emotional systems are out of a healthy balance. I say these usually feel bad, but in some instances, in the right combination they can feel a little good. A little FEAR or RAGE mixed into PLAY might actually be a bit exciting, when one feels confident enough to explore this. But I can’t imagine a scenario where PANIC/GRIEF would ever feel ok, social isolation, loss, sorrow, these aren’t something we’d like to mess with.

The 3 that feel are CARE, LUST, and PLAY. CARE is our social bonding, starting with our maternal nurturing and compassionate upbringing. We learn how attachment works within our species and learn how to build healthy social bonds. This is where we learn to live within our social units appropriately and comforts us, providing us a sense of safety and security in our social lives. CARE is the most important emotion in a social species, if we don’t feel safe in our social lives and secure in our attachments it’s difficult to meet the rest of our needs, being lost in PANIC is overwhelmingly distracting from our ability to survive. LUST is what encourages our reproduction which is a vital part of survival as animals. LUST can feel bad at times if left insatiated, but is generally a good feeling. Then there’s PLAY, this is another important emotional system to our survival. While most often we think of it as something only for the young, it’s actually something for the securely attached and eager to learn. This is a system we should hope to see our animals in when with us and training. Between CARE and PLAY is where comfort and learning thrive, when we feel safe to explore, try new things, and take on the world.

Then finally there’s SEEKING. This is the system responsible for meeting our physical and emotional needs. If we are hungry, we SEEK food sources, if we are in PANIC (feeling lonely), we SEEK CARE (comfort from a loved one). This system is responsible for our ability to live in our environment, and learn from the consequences of our behavior. SEEKING is not just looking for ways to earn positive reinforcement, but relief as well. It’s important to remember that the SEEKING system is searching for homeostasis at all times, so it’s active within positive and negative reinforcement.

So while the SEEKING system works within both reinforcement quadrants, the 2 good feelings we want to see in our training only appear in 1 learning quadrant. CARE, PLAY and SEEKING should be active in the positive reinforcement quadrant (when done right, when it’s actually positively reinforcing to the animal learner). However FEAR, RAGE, and sometimes PANIC are apparent in the other 3 quadrants, in either Punishment something is added or removed and creates the feelings of FEAR, RAGE or PANIC. Maybe we’ve punished our horse for being caught because we take them from their herd and they feel PANIC. Now being caught is something they don’t want to do, because it feels bad. While Negative Reinforcement relies on the removal of one of these emotions. If the horse is feeling FEAR, RAGE, or PANIC, and that feeling is relieved, they have been negatively reinforced. So if the horse bucks off their rider and gallops back to their field with their friends, their PANIC has been relieved and thus the behaviors have been negatively reinforced 😉

Emotions are our great interpreters, they determine how we feel about our environment and the changes within it. As a result of our behaviors our feelings tell us if we are working towards our goals to survive, thrive, and potentially reproduce, or if we’re moving away from those goals. Emotions tell the individual how well they’re doing in life and if their behavioral choices are helping them or working against them. As trainers we should aspire to work within those good feeling emotions as much as possible, be aware of the aversive feelings and respect them for what they are while helping our animals feel secure enough to stretch those boundaries.

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