The Fluidity Of Emotions

Disclaimer: These are huge concepts that are far to big to depict accurately in a graphic, so these designs are just to help us visualize these intense concepts. These are not literal representations.

Many people think about Panksepp’s Emotional Systems as something that is turned off and on, like with a series of light switches. But it’s so much more fluid and moving than that. I like to visualize the systems more like music or sound waves. There are volumes, depths, rhythm, and flow. There are parts that harmonize and work together while others that contradict and clash. Emotions ebb and flow, work together and influence each other all in response to the external and internal environment.

Most systems work together with each other in different scenarios. The SEEKING system is the most active system working with all the others. SEEKING is used both for finding relief from the emotions that feel bad (FEAR, PANIC, RAGE) and for finding what is desired in the good feeling emotions (CARE, PLAY, LUST). This is easy to conceptualize, SEEKING is what drives our behaviors, what tell us to perform to get what we need or avoid what harms us. In this description you can see quite easily where these emotional systems land within the learning quadrants. However it is much more complex than just that. Some bad feeling emotions might actually feel ok in the right scenarios and some good emotions might be uncomfortable at times.

We see this flip in emotional value often when the system becomes too high or too low. For example, a little FEAR can be fun when engaged in PLAY and SEEKING, while the CARE system is also providing the support the individual needs to feel confident. We might see a young horse cautiously approach a ball sniff, explore, and push the ball and run off bucking – only to return to more exploring. This level of FEAR is low level, comfortable, and the other systems are offering the support the individual needs to be comfortable with this. While should the FEAR spike too high it may shut down the PLAY system and plummet the comfortable CARE feelings that were keeping the learner strong, switching the SEEKING from having fun to finding escape and comfort. The foal may buck away from the scary ball and run to mom, maybe perform a CARE behavior like nursing (even if they are not actively getting milk) to soothe themself. RAGE can also be utilized in fun with PLAY, sparring with peers, but if it gets too high we can see it stop being fun. We see this a lot in children rough-housing when suddenly one says β€œthat was too much!” and the laughter turns to tears. Those emotions that feel bad might be instigating and fun when the individual feels safe and secure in their world, but when it becomes a higher level it returns to being uncomfortable, even really aversive to the learner.

While good feeling emotions tend to become unpleasant when they are too low, the feeling is not being maintained. We see this most often with CARE and SEEKING, but we may also see it with LUST or PLAY. If a horse is young and active, a lack of PLAY outlet can result in frustration. If a horse is in season, looking to reproduce, that LUST system can start to feel uncomfortable and irritating. We’ve all seen our mares get pretty darn frustrated when the geldings just can’t quite figure out what they need. πŸ˜‰ But CARE and SEEKING are where we really see the depletion become aversive to the learner. When the CARE system doesn’t feel it’s needs met the horse’s anxiety will rise, their PANIC increases as these systems work like a teeter totter (as one goes up the other goes down). And PANIC is almost always a terribly aversive feeling. Feeling isolated, alone, and insecure in yourself and your family (as a social species) it can be extremely upsetting for horses. When SEEKING is depleted we usually see this in animals who are shut down, depressed, or afraid of punishment. This lack of try and effort, lack of desire to meet their needs will result in a reduction of the other system, no longer looking for relief or reinforcement. It often results in a quicker turn toward the uncomfortable emotions, FEAR, PANIC, RAGE.

We could go on forever with examples and combinations. These systems work with a rhythmic ebb and flow, supporting or contradicting each other, encompassing all things we, as living beings, feel. We can see how they work within our behavioral quadrants, but we can also see how there is room for flexibility. As we understand how to systems interact and what feels good for our learners, we can use this to help support an emotionally healthy learner all around. By supporting their CARE system, engaging their PLAY system in healthy and appropriate ways, and by really promoting the SEEKING system in ways that feel good, we move our horses towards being happy, confident, and engaged.

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