Over the past 60 years, scientists and researchers have identified seven primary or fundamental emotions, sometimes called the seven ancient emotions. They are:
These seven emotions are so fundamental that they have similar functions across species, from people to cats to rats. So what feels good to us feels good to animals, and what doesn’t feel so good won’t feel good to other mammals. Four of the ancient emotions are positive: seeking, lust, care, and play. Rage, fear, and panic are obviously not positive.
What makes these seven emotions different from other emotions like frustration or love is that they do not originate from the cerebral cortex, which is the area associated with complex thought in humans. Instead, these come from deep, ancient brain structures, including the amygdala and the hypothalamus. These are the old structures that developed to ensure our survival. One important function of the amygdala is connecting emotional meaning to memory. The hypothalamus controls body temperature, thirst, hunger, sleep. So you can see how integral these brain structures are to basic survival.
Neuroscientist and psychobiologist Jaak Panksepp spent years researching how to stimulate different parts of the brain to produce different emotions. He worked primarily with rats and earned the nickname ‘the rat tickler.’ Tickling was how he referred to electrically stimulating parts of the brain, and he could tell when he was stimulating the Seeking system because the animal would begin exploring and sniffing.
After decades of research, Panksepp deduced that the most important of the seven emotional systems is the Seeking-Expectancy system. It impels us to seek out information from our environment. Our urge to seek is so powerful that it can lead us to choose potentially painful and unpleasant outcomes that have no apparent benefits, even when we have the ability to avoid these outcomes altogether!
In one experiment, people facing a situation that was uncertain (and had a high potential for being negative) would investigate—despite almost certain discomfort.
College students in a lab thought they were waiting for a different experiment to begin. The researchers “left” some colored pens on the table and told the students the pens had been from a previous experiment. By setting it up this way, students assumed they weren’t being observed, so their interactions with the pens were unaltered by the observer effect.
The researchers told the students that
● green pens were innocuous
● red pens would deliver an electric shock if clicked
● yellow pens might deliver a shock if clicked, but it wasn’t a sure thing.
Some yellow pens and all red pens did generate electric shocks of approximately 60 volts. Which was painful but not dangerous.
“Participants clicked more of the uncertain-shock pens than both the certain-shock pens and the certain-no-shock pens. Apparently, their desire to resolve the uncertainty (curiosity) led them to click those pens, and thereby exposed them to painful electric shocks,” the researchers write. Our irresistible urge to know and understand may lead us into unpleasant experiences illustrating just how powerful our Seeking desire is.
In Panksepp’s research, he also found that when one of the negative emotions like Panic/Grief is being experienced, it shuts down the Seeking system, which in turn causes depression. Without the seeking function encouraging us to forage, explore, investigate, be curious, become interested and experience expectancy, we don’t feel happy. And when the Seeking system is turned off too long, it can result in depression.
Seeking is so innate to our make-up that we might have a difficult time at first identifying our own seeking behaviors. But, the minute you wake up, the Seeking system is active.
Where is the coffee? What will the weather be like? Should I take a sweater? Where is my cell phone? What’s in the news? Are the stocks up or down? Where are my shoes? What should I eat for breakfast? What does your schedule look like? How many appointments do I have today?
The Seeking System is implicated in everything from our constant desire to derive meaning and make connections to its most excessive manifestation—addiction. Cravings are the very definition of seeking behavior going too far, to the extent that it is harmful.
Interestingly, in observing both people and rats, Panksepp found that it is not the reward that makes us feel euphoric, but the search itself.
So, scientifically, the process IS the purpose and certainly the area where we experience the most joy and fulfillment. And seeking is what we should do this month.
Interestingly, the Hebrew words for the months are less ‘words’ than letter constructions based on specific letter combinations with some Aramaic influence. So in the word Kislev (Sagittarius) we find our first clue. “Kis” comes from ‘kisui’ meaning concealment.
This month we understand that things are going to be hidden and also that we can find blessings and Light in places we normally cannot. So, in essence, this month is all about seeking, and it’s our most powerful asset for our spiritual work.
The reason we do spiritual work is because we know that we came to this world for a specific task. We want to understand that task, so we get curious, we explore, we learn, we ask questions because that is the purpose—our never-ending desire for fulfillment.
Seeking, that innate instinct, was given to us to make sure we are constantly seeking the things that give us fulfillment, like evolution, growth, and connection. It’s why seeking is hard-wired into our being.
If we stop seeking, we stop growing. We will never feel fulfilled. It’s really that simple.
How you feel and what you think about first thing in the morning is a good indicator of how strong your seeking desire is. If most days when you wake up, you are inspired, you are excited, that is an indication that you are on the right path. If not, then change something. Do something else. Seek out a different path.
I often set goals for myself, and then I work diligently, often for years, to achieve them. And once I have, I never take a moment to celebrate them. I do think it’s important to celebrate our accomplishments, but for me, the joy and fulfillment are really derived from the process. Also, I know that there is always a next step and always a higher purpose, so I’m never satisfied with where I’m at today. I am always seeking the purpose for why my soul entered this world. And that purpose will crystalize more and more as I push myself.
Chanukah is later this month and, with it, the opening of an energy that kabbalists call the “concealed Light.” During Chanukah, the “Gates of Heaven” open to us more than any other time of year. It is a time of abundant Light. To access this abundance of Light, we have to believe that we are capable and worthy of receiving it. After all, what we know about ourselves is who we become.
To reveal the concealed starts with dismissing all the limitations that you believe you have. You are only limited by your consciousness. The concealed Light is actually the light that is within you. It is concealed by us. Because we limit ourselves, we limit our consciousness.
We can tear down the barriers that we ourselves have built by seeking new ways of thinking and changing the way we think about ourselves. We can seek out new opportunities, new connections; we can seek the limits of our certainty, push to the very limits of our strength and will. We can believe that we have enough power to alter our lives and influence the happiness and fulfillment of our friends, family, and the world.
Because that is what is available. We all have the responsibility to seek it out.