Affective Neuroscience and the Mammalian Brain

Following is an exerpt of theory from my master thesis on “Animated Documentaries – Emotions, Realism and Genre”

Jaak Panksepp (1943-2017) was a neurologist and psycho-biologist studying animal emotions through neuroscience. His claim in the book “Affective Neuroscience – The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions” (1998) was that we can learn a lot from our own emotions, by studying the mammalian brain and animal emotions. He uses the term affective neuroscience in the combined disciplines of ethology, behaviorism, cognitive sciences, sociobiology, evolutionary psychology and clinical psychology to describe the processes of basic emotional operating systems of the mammalian brain. The central theme Panksepp presents is that our emotions are a result of evolution reflecting our experience of the state of the nervous system (Ibid., p. 9). The main point of using Panksepp’s theory is to understand the way our brain process emotions which later will be expanded in relation to film by Torben Grodal. Panksepp uses the concepts adapted from Paul MacLean’s Triune Brain (1990) to illustrate and summarize the neural infrastructure of emotional processes. The model should be seen as highly schematic and simplified, but illustrates three strata of evolutionary progression (Panksepp: 1998, p. 42) as a way of summarizing the neural infrastructure of emotional processes[1]:      

(MacLean’s model of triune brain concept. ibid. p. 42)

Starting from the deepest and most ancient layer is the reptilian brain, also known as the basal ganglia or extrapyramidal motor system. In this layer, many of our basic body-movements are located as well as many of our basic motor plans, including primitive behavioral responses. The next layer is the limbic system or visceral brain. I will use the term ‘limbic system’ to easily navigate between Torben Grodal’s theory, which will later be explained, and the brain processes suggested by Panksepp. The limbic system contains ‘newer’ programs related to social emotions. The third layer is called the neomammalian brain or neocortex and is not a neural substrate but can be influenced by emotions. The human cortex can attempt to understand and influence feelings but cannot generate emotionality without the ancient subcortical functions of the brain (Ibid, p. 43). It generates higher cognitive functions such as reasoning and logical thought. Panksepp describes the difficulty of defining emotions, but suggest the following in attempt to define them:                  

When powerful waves of affect overwhelm our sense of ourselves in the world, we say that we are experiencing an emotion. When similar feelings are more tidal – weak but persistent – we say we are experiencing a mood. (…) To be overwhelmed by an emotional experience means the intensity is such that other brain mechanisms, such as higher rational processes, are disrupted because of the spontaneous behavioral and affective dictates of the more primitive brain control systems.
(Panksepp: 1998, p. 47).

To clarify; when we experience emotions, it is because our more primitive brain systems are taking over, as a result of external changes. We have feelings because they serve a purpose of what he calls affective functions as an important part of especially our long-term survival. Feelings are a result of a long neural evolution because of the emergence of emotional tendencies in the brain (Ibid., p. 48). For example, we feel hunger because the brain needs to signal a low amount of energy, an evolutionary trait that was encoded as an affective anticipatory tendency – meaning that we in this way could warn our body of a certain need, before it turned into an energy emergency (Ibid., p. 39). Feelings therefore serves a function of the body; we can anticipate possibilities before we need to act upon them and in that way, prevent possible fatal outcomes. This point is important because it leads us to understand the foundation of our action tendencies and basic value system. The value system is another important evolutionary system which means that the brain rewards itself with positive emotions when we fulfill a need. Furthermore, he explains that the urges which comes when one’s self interest is compromised is a part of an emotional system in the mammalian brain. He distinguishes between urges related to the primitive preceding systems in the reptilian brain or basal ganglia, as mentioned in the Triune brain concept, and the urges with a socioemotional purpose common with mammals (Ibid., p. 54). In total, he presents seven primary basic emotional systems:



The first three urges are labelled as a part of the primitive preceding systems in the reptilian brain and represents primitive behavioral responses; the search for mating or companionship (LUST), the urge to avoid pain or destruction (FEAR) and the urge to express oneself forcefully (RAGE). In addition, we have more sophisticated social systems in the limbic system; the search for food (SEEKING), maternal acceptance (CARE), separation distress (PANIC) and exploration of social interactions (PLAY).  Torben Grodal expands some of the concepts regarding the reptilian brain, the limbic system and the neomammalian brain from a cognitive approach focusing on film and the film experience which will be presented in the next section.

[1] A newer alternative model to the Triune Brain model is suggested by A.B. Butler and can be found here: (

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