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Book Review: The Emotional Foundations of Personality

The Emotional Foundations of Personality: A Neurobiological and Evolutionary Approach is the last work of Jaak Panksepp. Kenneth Davis was a student of Panksepp many years ago and became a colleague and co-author. As Davis wrote, this work was like taking a multi-year seminar with Panksepp. The result is truly remarkable. It is so filled with research, critical thought, history, and knowledge, it is difficult to know where to begin.

Emotional Foundations of Personality is a history of our ongoing efforts to define just what personality is and how to measure it. We have used language and description for most of our testing and research history. The primary statistical method has been factor analysis. John Paul Scott was a colleague and mentor of the authors and said, “statistics in psychology were just tools for determining the intensities and patterns of experimental/behavioral effects, as opposed to a way of identifying the biological sources of those effects.” Neuroscience is making it possible to move beyond the merely descriptive and to get to those biological sources. It has not been easy. Throughout the work, there is the sense that the very strong behavioral movement has made that transition difficult. At its extreme, we as organisms are just the go-between for stimulus and response. Behaviorism also has a bias against the study of emotions in animals.

Another has been the legacy of Rene Descartes. His view that the cries of animals were like the ticking of a clock and his separation of mind from the body have had a lasting and not particularly productive impact. In this work, the terms MindBrain and BrainMind are used interchangeably depending on the emphasis in context. Panksepp and Davis wanted to convey a “monistic view of the brain” as opposed to the dualism associated with Descartes.

The authors also take an evolutionary approach as proposed by Charles Darwin. Humans are animals and we all have much in common, including emotions. Panksepp had a nickname – “the rat tickler.” Panksapp and Davis look at the emotional life not only of humans, but other primates, dogs, and rats. They even look beyond mammals to fish and a little invertebrate worm, named Caenorbabditis elegans, who was around about a billion years before humans. Yet, C. elegans has five neurotransmitters found in mammals and dopamine is involved in the behavior of seeking food. Seeking may be the oldest of our emotions.

The authors take a bottom-up approach to looking at emotions. The top down traditional method has been to go to a dictionary and extract many adjectives, sometimes over 10,000 adjectives, describing human behavior and emotions and then doing factor analysis to narrow them down into basic emotions. That method had varying results with the most common being the “Big Five.” Panksapp and Davis, on the other hand, look to research like brain stimulation to see how one reacts when specific parts of the brain are stimulated. Metaphorically, it makes more sense to look for the origin in the BrainMind for the emotion rather than trying to find it in all the descriptors we have come up with in observing behavior. It is the difference between touching and tasting the apple versus writing about it. When you use just language you are caught in the circularity of language — the definitions all revert back on themselves. To paraphrase Alan Watts, using only words for the experience of something is like trying to bite your own teeth.

Their quest to find the basic emotions reminded me of a prism breaking white light into its basic components. They came up with seven major fundamental emotional systems — SEEKING, CARE/Nurturance, RAGE/Anger, FEAR/Anxiety, PANIC/Sadness, PLAY/Joy, and LUST. They are valid across cultures because they are based on “feeling states within the brain” with “each having an affective component that feels either good or bad.” From their research they developed the Affective Neuroscience Personality Scales. The book includes a copy of the test and information on how to score it. You can learn more here. The all capitals are by the authors and emphasize the primary process, instinctual, evolutionary, and inherited aspects of these emotions.

In life, emotions are not often, if at all, experienced as a basic primary emotion, but as a mix. The authors bring daily experience in with the Three Level Nested BrainMind Hierarchy. We experience emotion(s) in our interaction with the environment, we learn from that experience, and that leads to cognitive processes of thinking about the past and future. Their theory is very comprehensive.

This work also impacts mental health treatment. They acknowledge that it is hard to define what is normal. But neuroscience is rapidly adding to the knowledge of how the BrainMind body we are born with, and its interplay with the world, impact how we come to live our lives. The six systems are our “inherited cerebral tools for living.” They are ancient. The neocortex by itself cannot generate emotional feeling, and you do not need a neocortex to experience emotions. But you do need the periaqueductal gray (PAG) part of the brain. They cite William McDougall who said that “an important criterion identifying a primary instinct would be whether in its extreme expression the behavior became pathological.” The authors look at ways extreme expression of the six emotional systems may manifest in behaviors like personality disorders, depression, and more.

By the end of the book, I felt as though I had experienced an in-depth seminar with Panksepp and Davis. This is a thought provoking work. Its wealth of background and research is outstanding. The writing style is moderately academic, yet engaging. One thing I wondered as I read was, since we have so much in common with other animals, how do we justify ethically the invasive research we do on them? We have come a long way since Descartes and his treatment of dogs, but I think we have a way to go. It was a relief to learn of all the new ways we can research the brain, even deep brain structures, in humans in noninvasive ways.

The Emotional Foundations of Personality: A Neurobiological and Evolutionary Approach

W.W. Norton and Company, March 2018

Hardcover, 352 Pages

Book Review: The Emotional Foundations of Personality

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Stan Rockwell, PsyD

Stan Rockwell, PsyD, LPC has been working in the mental health field for over 40 years. He has worked as a therapist at a state hospital, a community mental health center and has been in private practice since 2009. He has also worked in disaster mental health, crisis intervention, as a client rights investigator and advocate, training and research, and graduate student supervision. He is a past chair of professional development for the Virginia Counselors Association. He has been a volunteer field tester for the World Health Organization in the development of the ICD 11 since 2013 and has been reviewing books for since 2012. He also teaches a class at the College of William and Mary that combines taijiquan and qigong with science and Chinese philosophy. He uses eastern and western methods in his counseling psychology practice. You can find him online at and

APA Reference
Rockwell, S. (2018). Book Review: The Emotional Foundations of Personality. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 29, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 11 Sep 2018
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 11 Sep 2018
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