Behavioral and Brain Sciences

Target Article

Toward a general psychobiological theory of emotions

Jaak Pankseppa1

a1 Department of Psychology, Bowling Green State University, Bowling Green, Ohio 43403


Emotions seem to arise ultimately from hard-wired neural circuits in the visceral-limbic brain that facilitate diverse and adaptive behavioral and physiological responses to major classes of environmental challenges. Presumably these circuits developed early in mammalian brain evolution, and the underlying control mechanisms remain similar in humans and “lower” mammals. This would suggest that theoretically guided studies of the animal brain can reveal how primitive emotions are organized in the human brain. Conversely, granted this cross-species heritage, it is arguable that human introspective access to emotional states may provide direct information concerning operations of emotive circuits and thus be a primary source of hypotheses for animal brain research. In this article the possibility that emotions are elaborated by transhypothalamic executive (command) circuits that concurrently activate related behavior patterns is assessed. Current neurobehavioral evidence indicates that there are at least four executive circuits of this type – those which elaborate central states of expectancy, rage, fear, and panic. The manner in which learning and psychiatric disorders may arise from activities of such circuits is also discussed.