—The SEEKING-VIGILANCE Construct:
As we discuss in Emotions are Hard-Wired in the Brain: Introduction to Ancestral Brain Systems, scientists have identified at least seven instinctual emotional systems in the mammalian brain: SEEKING, FEAR, PANIC/LOSS, RAGE, PLAY, MATING, and CARE. Based on the reading I have done, I propose that there is also a VIGILANCE system that operates in concert with the SEEKING system. I call this the SEEKING-VIGILANCE construct.
Referring to the emotional systems he delineates in his book, Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions (1998), Jaak Panksepp writes: "These circuits organize diverse behaviors by activating or inhibiting motor subroutines and concurrent autonomic-hormonal changes that have proved adaptive in the face of such life-challenging circumstances during the evolutionary history of the species."
Through the use of criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, health care providers, drug companies, as well as the general public have come to think of disorders such as ADHD, OCD, PSTD, Tourette Syndrome, trichotillomania, and compulsive skin picking as separate and distinct illnesses. This approach
focuses on symptoms without regard innate brain systems. I would like to propose that researchers, practitioners, and patients first focus on the operating system for the mammalian brain. In this way, we can come to better understand how different disorders emerge from common origins and in illuminating the origins of illness, we will come up with better ways to treat symptoms. I conceptualize this master operating system as the SEEKING-VIGILANCE system, comprised of the SEEKING system, as Panksepp defines it in Affective Neuroscience and what I am calling the VIGILANCE system, based on my reading of Panksepp, some of Grandin's and Johnson's observations, and a Gary Aston-Jones's research summary titled "Locus coeruleus," particularly section 4.4.
Panksepp eloquently explains that "the nonspecific SEEKING system, under the guidance of various regulatory imbalances, external incentive cues, and past learning, helps take thirsty animals to water, cold animals to warmth, hungry animals to food, and sexually aroused animals toward opportunities for orgasmic gratification." I believe we humans are one such animal. But long-term survival is not merely the seeking of life-sustaining opportunities. Long-term survival is also about minimizing dangerous circumstances.
Panksepp observes that many distinct emotions "share generalized components such as acetylcholine, norepinephrine, and serotonin systems for the control of attention and general arousal functions."
In Animals in Translation: Using the Mysteries of Autism to Decode Animal Behavior (2005), Temple Grandin and Catherine Johnson conclude: "Since a prey animal has to start running before the lion does, that means it has to be hyper-alert all the time, keeping a watch out for danger." Grandin and Johnson later discuss what they call an "orienting response" which can, in perceiving a threat, immediately trigger the flight-or-fight response. Then they illuminate the importance of what I call the VIGILANCE system, pondering "if I'm God and I'm designing an animal I don't want to give him only a fight-or-flight system. I want to give him vigilance as well, because I want him to keep a lookout. I need two different systems because if he just chronically flees every potential threat, he's going to use up his energy reserves. The reason I [Grandin] think vigilance may be linked to anxiety is that anxious people are always on guard, always watching for trouble."
The following statement is extremely oversimplified but I am going to write it anyway. I conclude that serotonin-mediated awareness and norepinephrine-mediated vigilance somehow converge with dopamine-motivated motivation and motion in our brains to function as an integrated system fine tuned for survival. To put it another way, in my view, the SEEKING-VIGILANCE construct includes: 1) an awareness function that balances VIGILANCE with waking and sleep, 2) a motivational function that prompts animals to SEEK life-sustaining opportunities, and 3) a salience function that ascribes meaning to stimuli in the environment, thereby informing the VIGILANCE and SEEKING functions and possibly triggering subordinate emotional systems such as FEAR and MATING. I should note here that the term salience is used often in science to describe the feelings, relative to our own existence, that we attach to events, places, beings, or objects. In a previous discussion Vilayanur S. Ramachandran and Lindsay M. Oberman provide a great overview of salience.
I see the SEEKING and VIGILANCE systems as conceptually inseparable because one without the other would probably not produce a mammal that could survive and evolve into higher forms. Panksepp writes: "Existing evidence suggests that NE [norepinephrine] promotes sensory arousal, while DA [dopamine] promotes motor arousal. As we would expect from such functional considerations, NE terminals are concentrated in sensory projection areas of the cortex, while DA terminals are more prominent in motor areas."
In Evolving Brains (2000), John Allman writes: "The predatory act of wolves involves a series of distinct behaviors—stalking, chasing, grab-biting, and kill-biting—that are acquired in progressive stages as wolves mature." Allman goes on to say: "Dog breeders have selected against some of these behaviors. … Dogs have brains that are about two thirds the size of the brains of wolves of comparable body size; the process of domestication leads to a reduction in brain size."
So it seems that over time, as the difficulty a species encounters in staying alive and thriving increases, so does the size of the brain in that species. As Nietzsche famously said, "That which does not kill me makes me stronger."
As it continues to move into urban territories, the coyote is an excellent archetype of the SEEKING-VIGILANCE construct. In "Mysteries that Howl and Hunt" (New York Times, September 28, 2010, D1, D4), reporter Carol Kaesuk Yoon interviewed Dr. Laura Prugh, a wildlife ecologist at the University of California, Berkeley. Prugh says her work with coyotes in Alaska was "like working with a ghost species." In her interview with Prugh, Yoon reports that to have any chance of catching a coyote, "traps must be boiled to wash away human scent, handled with gloves and then hidden extremely carefully with all traces of human footprints brushed away. Even then, the trap is likely to catch only the youngest and most inexperienced of animals." Not only are coyotes vigilant in avoiding entrapment in their effort to survive, they have become extremely savvy hunters. Yoon writes:
Not only do coyotes hunt singly and in packs, they have even been observed hunting cooperatively with other species. In Wyoming, scientists have seen coyotes hunting with badgers, large burrowing creatures that enjoy a nice bit of ground squirrel. As badgers dig toward squirrels in their tunnels, coyotes wait above for the squirrels to pop up for a quick escape, or perhaps to be chased back down to be eaten by a badger. Teams may work together often for an hour or more, the coyote mock-chasing or otherwise playfully inviting the lethargic badger to activity when it pauses, and to good purpose. Coyotes hunting with badgers had to work less and ate more than solitary coyotes in the same area. These teams were so effective that researchers reported often seeing the same pairs working together again and again.
In addition to the interplay between the SEEKING and VIGILANCE systems, from the reading I have done, it seems that the SEEKING-VIGILANCE function, informed via salience functions, can trigger subordinate circuitries and innate responses including those for FEAR, PANIC/LOSS, RAGE, PLAY, MATING, and CARE. We will discuss all these emotional systems in Part 2 of MyBrainNotes.com
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