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In mammals, the reptilian brain possesses the four emotional and motivational circuits—presented in all capital letters to emphasize their universality—that Panksepp , considers necessary for survival. The FEAR circuit detects and responds to danger by enabling an animal either to freeze or to take flight. The RAGE circuit helps an animal respond to danger with the self-protective instinct to fight, whether for food, territory, or sexual opportunity. Finally, the genetic imperative toward sexual activity to spread genes far and wide finds fulfillment in the LUST circuit.

With the later evolution of mammals came the addition of the social emotions, as supplied by the limbic system , once called the paleo-mammalian brain that sits atop the reptilian brain MacLean Within the mammalian brain, the limbic system extends from subcortical roots in the periaqueductal gray and hypothalamus , through midbrain structures like the amygdala and insula, into the higher centers of the cerebral cortex—the nerve center of language, symbolic thinking, and conscious reflection, including self-reflection.

The autonomic nervous system sympathetic and parasympathetic branches operates in conjunction with limbic circuitry by regulating stress as well as the intensity of emotion. In mammals, the limbic system provides three more emotional and motivational circuits alongside the four possessed by the reptilian brain. The CARE circuit adds the attachment system by which parents love, care for, and protect their babies, who in turn, become attached to and highly dependent on their parents for a sense of internal comfort and external safety.

The PANIC circuit operates in conjunction with the attachment system to signal separation anxiety and grief upon the loss of significant others. The PLAY circuit, which offers potential for the most complex behavior of all, generates joy as it dictates the rules, roles, and relationships of social and cultural engagement.

Whereas in most mammals, play is restricted to the rough-and-tumble variety of interaction, in humans play extends to the symbolic movement of the mind and flight of the imagination. Human Attachment Needs. Animals, such as amphibians and snakes, are characterized by closed neural loops, such that rigid wiring within brain circuitry limits animal response and behavior to a few fixed action patterns. Crudely speaking, frogs are limited to the four Fs: they fight or flee moving objects larger than themselves, feed on moving objects smaller than themselves, and copulate with moving objects the same size as themselves.

Due to these limited response patterns, frogs among other amphibians, are born fully equipped to launch into the world without additional help from parents. From the perspective of evolutionary strategies, reptile babies do not need further care partly because they play the numbers game: so many of them hatch from eggs that at least a few are likely to outlast hungry predators. Human families come in much smaller numbers. The attachment system ensures that each child is precious to parents who are wired to provide protection to their offspring.

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Human babies do not usually encounter predation in the same way other animals do. We are mostly safe from hungry beasts yet nonetheless subject to other sorts of predation from within our species, such as kidnapping, human trafficking, or sexual abuse, as the case to come explores. Mammals differ from reptiles in their capacity for learning and for exhibiting complex and flexible responses.

Hide and Seek : The Psychology of Self-Deception

As opposed to closed circuits, open circuits include feedback loops that take in information from the environment and allow for experience-dependent learning. Because human children develop much more slowly, they change radically as a result of their social experiences, while their brains develop in typical fashion. Because of our need for maternal care, mammalian babies are born in smaller batches that can readily remain under the watchful eyes of parents. Whereas some species of mammals, like horses or giraffes, can walk and feed themselves from birth, human babies emerge from the womb helpless and dependent.

Horses learn to walk in minutes; human babies take many months. Both in the critical prenatal and perinatal developmental windows, the brain matures in a particular order.

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From an energetic perspective, this developmental trajectory resembles an oak tree whose entire form is embedded in the seed of an acorn. Both oak trees and the brain grow from bottom up and from inside out. The bottom of the brain consists of subcortical structures that regulate primitive aspects of survival, like breathing, internal homeostasis, and sleep-wake cycles.

Higher up in the neocortex, which is unique to the human brain, midline structures are central to developing a sense of self. The brain also grows from back to front. The back of the brain involves sensory areas for taking in information, and the ancient structure of the cerebellum, critical to motor sequences. The last structures to mature lie at the top and front of the brain—the frontal lobes—seat of morality, judgment, and decision making.

The frontal lobes do not become fully functional and integrated with the rest of brain circuitry until young adults reach their mid- to late twenties. The interactions of parents and babies during the two years after birth lay down the critical, lifelong emotional and social foundations for the brain Schore , When the primary care giver, usually a mother, is highly attuned to the physical and emotional needs of her child, the infant feels safe in the world and full of agency, or personal power, for having her needs met.

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Young infants are filled with shifting, intense emotions. One crucial task they learn is called emotional regulation, which involves helping babies tolerate the quality and intensity of their needs and feelings. Emotional regulation begins interactively, as a two-person enterprise, requiring intimate coordination between mother and child of the rhythms of need and response. There are two major aspects to interactive regulation. When a baby is upset, she cannot help but involve her whole body in crying. Once mother soothes her, the baby returns to a calm, alert state.


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During the first couple of years, babies lurch from one feeling state to another, from fear to joy or anger to satisfaction, in a discrete, choppy, manner. As young children develop, they can increasingly blend emotions in more complex and integrated ways.

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An older child might feel disappointed he or she is not allowed ice cream after every meal, but simultaneously understand this is better for his or her body. In this way, the neocortex of the human brain differs from other primates. Examples of these later developing, blended emotions include jealousy and righteous indignation.

The critical brain structure for assessing nuances of safety and danger in the environment is the amygdala , a bilateral meaning we each have two almond shaped structure, located near the hippocampus seat of memory and learning , toward the front of the temporal lobe. The amygdala is a subcortical limbic structure that develops fully by the eighth month in the womb, equipping the baby with the ability to perceive safety, danger, and emotional nuance from the start of life. In this way, the words matter less than the underlying emotional climate, and nothing goes hidden.

Because human children are born completely helpless, all infants depend upon primary care givers for meeting their earliest needs. Over time the child becomes increasingly able and empowered to feed, clothe, and protect itself, including the ability to self-regulate his own emotions. The CARE circuit helps develop the adult capacity to love and empathize with others and maintain lasting connections, but the PLAY circuit helps develop our imagination and creativity and our ability to manipulate objects and produce symbols.

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