The Importance Of Play: An Interview with Dr. Jaak Panksepp

All people have emotions — although some are more in touch with them than others — but most people don’t know how emotions work. Dr. Jaak Panksepp, a neuroscientist, psychologist, and psychobiologist, coined the term “affective neuroscience” to refer to the study of the neural mechanisms of emotion.

Panksepp, the Baily Endowed Chair of Animal Well-Being Science in the department of veterinary and comparative anatomy, pharmacology and physiology at Washington State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine and emeritus professor at the department of psychology at Bowling Green State University, wrote the book “Affective Neuroscience: The Foundations of Human and Animal Emotions” and has authored more than 400 scientific articles dealing with the physiological mechanisms that underlie motivated behavior. He also co-edited such works as Handbook of the Hypothalamus and Emotions and Psychopathology, serves as editor of the series Advances in Biological Psychiatry, and currently serves as research co-director of the Hope for Depression Research Foundation, which promotes research into the origins and treatment of depression. An expert on brain mechanisms of emotions, indeed laughter in nonhuman animals, Panksepp recently spoke with Brain World about the importance of fun, laughter, and play for children.

Brain World: What exactly is play?

Jaak Panksepp: I would say the only thing we can be sure about is the kind of physical play that animals enjoy. And, of course, we are animals, so our play is very similar. There is no ambiguity among young children; they instinctively know what play is. Academics get confused, parents get confused — calling what their children are doing “naughty,” “aggressive,” “being bad” — but kids are having fun, so we know that there is that one play system in the brain.

We know there is at least one that controls physical and social play. There is also exploratory play and object play, for instance a kitten playing with a ball of yarn, which require much more interpretation, because there are no demonstrated brain systems for these. And they are much harder to study in the laboratory. We were the first ones who developed standard techniques for studying play in  the laboratory. They are robust, so anyone can now systematically study play, at least in laboratory rats.

BW: How did you create the robust environment for play?

JP: First of all, the animals have to be comfortable and safe. The animals also need to be young, and the animals need to be hungry for play. Just like when you study food intake or water intake, you have to be hungry or thirsty; likewise, we can induce a hunger or desire for play by depriving animals of play for a while. If you don’t make the animals hungry for play, they won’t be as motivated to play when you test them. Often they just explore. But if they haven’t played for a while, they are very eager for playful interactions.

BW: Kids like to play games, read books or go on the internet and engage in social networking. Is that play?

JP: I think so. But the main kind of play is when animals physically engage each other in rough-and-tumble activities. Physical play is fun. But playing games is also fun. However, if we didn’t have a play instinct, maybe neither kind of play would exist. However, playing games is not primary-process play. The most primitive parts of the brain generate various primary process emotions, including physical play. Playing games is likely to be a secondary process, dependent on learning and memories. Few people are studying the primary processes. To do that, you must think in a very Darwinian way, and understand that emotions emerge first from very ancient regions of the brain, which connect up to more recent, higher brain regions that control learning and thought. This is a very important principle. Mother Nature built some important things into ancient regions of the brain — we don’t have the clear image of that, all the other knowledge of the brain is very weak, except senses such as vision. They are pretty straightforward.

BW: So you think play is a primary or primitive process. What are primary processes?

JP: These are “memories” that evolution built into our brain — various senses such as vision, various emotions and feelings. There are both primitive and modern parts in the brain. The primitive parts contain “tools” that all people need to live. On top of that all animals have learning and memory, and some even have thoughts.  But to understand the brain we also have realize that certain experiences, such as emotions, arise from very ancient brain regions. Without those primitive brain systems, people wouldn’t survive; they would not have children or social attractions.

Animal research is needed to understand such ancient parts of mind. Indeed, in human brain imaging, up to 95 percent of neural activity is is in a category called “dark energy,” with scientists only seeing maybe 5 percent of the fluctuating brain activities. The other 95 percent of the brain often is not seen, and many primary processes are happening there. They are easier to see in animal behavior than in human brain imaging.

BW: Can you tell me more about your research of laughing rats and the relationship between laughing and emotion?

JP: Without laughter there will not be much joy in life. It’s a little shocking how little we know about how brains generate positive feelings. When we discovered laughter-type sounds in rats, I think people laughed at us a bit. But now know more about the “laughter” of rats than humans. And we have learned that a study of these happy sounds can illuminate human problems, even drug addictions and depression. Even though we cannot do detailed research on these systems with humans, we have mapped out the brain networks in rats along with some of the controlling brain chemistries, and currently it is one of our major measures of depressive feelings in animals. This allows us to focus on the feelings of rats rather than just their behavioral changes. Laughter and joy are aspects of both brain and mind. We still have a science that respects animal behaviors and brain molecules more than mind functions they create. That should change as we learn to understand the minds of other animals.

BW: How do you recognize that the rats are laughing?

JP: We actually looked for it, first in the form of “play vocalizations.” Since rats communicate with very high (ultrasonic) sound frequencies, we need special equipment to listen in, and when we did there were lots of “chirps” when rats were playing, especially when they are very excited and chasing each other. We had already shown that play was somewhat dependent on hearing, and very dependent on touch. Of course hearing is special form of touch — we hear by sensing air pressure waves along our cochlear membranes vibrates. With our ultrasonic equipment we had been studying play vocalizations for half a dozen years, when I woke up one morning with the thought: What if that sound was laughter? And we promptly went ahead and tickled some rats, and those sounds were provoked very easily. We brought them under “experimental control.”

BW: Do you have a playground for rats? And what is the ideal play environment?

JP: We don’t really have a playground, just regular test boxes. We were interested largely in how the brain controls social play. “Playground” usually means there are objects. As soon as there are objects, the rats can be distracted by them, and real play goes down.

I think young children rarely get as much play as their brains need in our country. Physical play is at times considered bad behavior, and medications for ADHD, such as Ritalin, all reduce play. By doing this, we are taking the desire to play away from our children. Human problems need to be dealt with in human ways. We have to develop a society that understands play, and the many good things it does for children’s brains and minds. We developed the concept of having “play sanctuaries,” where children have safe environment to play and develop their own games. We have much to learn about how good play is for the brains of our children.


  1. I just started a MOOC course about ‘Play’ and was not happy to find Panksepp’s material not mentioned in these early stages of the course. I am rectifying this by providing name and links likes yours in the comments section of the course. It is too early to know what the course convenors think of this addition but I assure you that having open access to such important material widens the input of this well attended MOOC. Thank you for providing so much to use as reference.

  2. Fascinating. As soon as I can get to it I am going to get one of your books. I really appreciated your information.

  3. I am extremely interested in looking at excessive alcohol consumption in youth as a form of play. If our children are not experimenting through play as as you say not developing fully their capabilities to interact with each other. Then they will find other ways of creating that space.
    Young people play so many games particularly physical ones when they drink. In Australia this occurs more frequently in parks where a series of games are undertaken.

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