‘Master rat-tickler’ bows out, taking his art with him

2017-04-20 12:55
(Robert Hubner)

(Robert Hubner)

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Cape Town – There could have been no more honourable title for the late neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp than ‘master rat-tickler’.

By playing with the common rodent in a lab, he systematically gathered evidence that their chirps paralleled human laughter.

“Although no one has investigated the possibility of rat humor, if it exists, it is likely to be heavily laced with slapstick,” he said in a paper published in the Science magazine in 2005.

“Although some still regard laughter as a uniquely human trait, honed in the Pleistocene [about 2.5 million years ago], the joke’s on them.”

It was this dedication to taking animal emotions seriously that the 73-year-old shed light on understanding human ones.

Panksepp, who was born in Estonia, died earlier this week. He coined the term ‘affective neuroscience’.

This field was to become a bridge between animal behaviourism, the psychological basis of the human mind, and neural systems in mammals.

His ground-breaking research pinpointed emotional networks in the brain that had similar functions across all mammals.

All of the systems, in capital letters because they are so fundamental, emerged from deep, ancient brain structures. They are SEEKING, RAGE, FEAR, LUST, CARE, GRIEF AND PLAY.

PLAY was something that Panksepp became intimately familiar with after tickling rats.

Rat-tickling, as it turns out, was quite an art.

In an interview with Discover Magazine, he said they tried tickling machines. But there was nothing like the joyful touch of the human hand.

“These animals would begin to enjoy our company and they would start to play with our hands, and wherever we would put our hands, they would follow it,” he said in one video clip.

“And when we tested these animals to ask whether they were enjoying this kind of activity, the unambiguous answer was yes.”

The rodents would let out a high-pitched chirp in positive social situations, audible only with special equipment.

Some scientific journals balked at publishing the research because Panksepp likened the chirps to human laughter, his wife Anesa Miller said following his death.

After being in the field for half a century, Panksepp admitted in a fascinating Tedx talk that it had been “fairly lonely”.

“No one knew what emotions were, how we get these feelings.”

He was adamant that neuroscience was the only path to understanding “how we feel”.

Panksepp is survived by his wife, son Jules Panksepp and two stepdaughters.

Miller revealed that a book he co-wrote on the neuroscience of personality would be published soon.

Watch as Panksepp plays with rats and explains why play and depression may be opposite ends of the coin:

Read more on:    science

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