Jaak Panksepp (on left) receiving the Order of the White Star in 2011 from the former President of Estonia Toomas Hendrik Ilves.
Dr. Jaak Panksepp
Come join us for a celebration of the scientific accomplishments of renowned Washington State University scholar Dr. Jaak Panksepp. Dr. Panksepp is known worldwide as the father of “Affective Neuroscience”, a field of study that examines the neurobiological basis of emotions. His early work was performed at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio. In 2006 he moved to Washington State University to accept the Bernice and Joseph Baily Chair in Animal Well-Being in the College of Veterinary Medicine. He held the Baily Chair until his unfortunate death on April 18, 2017.
Jaak was a prolific researcher with over 270 research publications and 12 books, of which the most famous are the seminal textbook Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions (1998) and his more recent book with co-author Lucy Bivens The Archaeology of the Mind: Neuroevolutionary Origins of Human Emotions (2012). He is best known in the popular press for his work on rat “laughter”. In the 1990’s, Jaak and co-workers discovered that when young rats engage rough and tumble play, or when “tickled” by a human hand that mimics rough and tumble play, they emit a high-frequency vocalization that is imperceptible to humans. Because the vocalization or chirping was associated with “tickling”, it became informally known as “laughter”. Follow up work by Panksepp and colleagues, as well as others, have shown these vocalizations are associated with several positive emotional states and the brain structures involved are being mapped, thus providing a sound neurobiological foundation for positive emotional affect.
While rough and tumble play and rat laughter may sound simple, there is a very serious element to Jaak’s work. Major depression is a serious disease that impacts over 16 million Americans. A major component of autism, which affects an estimated 1 in 68 children, is failure to engage in normal social behaviors, including play. As debilitating as these diseases are, modern medicine has made little headway in devising treatments to mitigate their impact. A major reason for the lack of progress is the limited understanding in scientific and medical communities of the neurobiology of basic emotions including joy, social bonding and play. Jaak’s seminal contribution is the simple concept that emotions did not originate with humans, but emotions have a long evolutionary history and are present throughout the animal kingdom. Further, he would argue that accepting this premise (focus on the evolutionarily old structures, not the cortex) is the first step towards developing a deep scientific understanding of emotions that is necessary if we are to alleviate the very real human burden of emotional dysfunction.
Jaak’s thinking has had profound impact from basic neurobiology, to human-animal interactions, as well as in the psychiatric community. We have assembled an outstanding slate of researchers and clinicians to celebrate Jaak’s accomplishments, from those who worked closely with him, to those who are significantly influenced by his thinking. The focus will be on the science and its application, as Jaak would surely have wanted it to be. Please join us for what will be an exhilarating and enlightening day.
-Dr. Steve Simasko, Professor and Chair
Department of Integrative Physiology and Neuroscience
Washington State University