“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.”
― T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets
Research from affective neuroscience suggests we have seven basic emotional systems. These systems make an organism an active agent in the world. These systems help us to engage and understand the world.
The first of these systems is the SEEKING system. It is a generalised emotional system that the other systems depend upon, that, in particular, is central to motivation. Sometimes it is misunderstood as the ‘reward system’. While mild arousal of the SEEKING system does feel good, this is not the whole story. The SEEKING system is the source of excitement, a lot of which comes from the pursuit of reward, rather than reward itself. The SEEKING system must be activated for most activities to be done effectively. It is central to learning in education, healing in psychotherapy, and productivity in work.
You can think of the seeking system as being personified by an active ‘explorer’ within the brain. Who comes to mind when you think of somebody who embodies this exploratory state of mind? Perhaps an adventurer like Hillary or Shackleton; scientists like Einstein or Newton; or poets like Whitman or Blake.
The ‘explorer’ within seeks to find new resources, make new discoveries, and learn new things. This system is the source of all our aspirations, dreams, hopes, longings and desires. In fact, it is sometimes referred to as the ‘desire’ system. The chemical dopamine charges this motivational system. It moves us into engagement with the world as we seek goods in our environment and to find meaning in daily life. Jaak Panksepp points out that this system is the foundation of what drives our ‘intentions in actions’.
The SEEKING system is an adaptive and healthy orientation. But there is a down side to it. All addictive patterns come from the push and craving of the ‘positively motivated’ SEEKING system. Thought can influence this system but the strong message from this system is to move in goal-directed, ‘appetitively aroused’ ways, moving towards rewards, and safety in times of danger.
Research shows that this system contributes to sexual bonds, loving feelings and even the thrill we get from listening to music. Instead of thinking of this as the ‘reward’ system, Panksepp argues, it is better understood as the ‘well-being’ system.
The SEEKING system can link up with higher brain regions, connecting with cognitive systems associated with thought and learning. This leads to awareness, and what Panksepp calls ‘thoughtful appraisals. The SEEKING system is central to our functioning because it is the substrate for all other emotional processes. Might we consider the SEEKING system one of our greatest internal resources?
As you digest the above information what do you notice? Were you (or are you now) aware of the activation of the SEEKING system, that ‘inner explorer’ within you? What does that experience feel like in the body and in the mind? Is there a sense of reward, or perhaps excitement, present?
In your life more generally, when do you notice the seeking system coming ‘on-line’? To what extent is it active in your work life, when you are socialising, learning, or enjoying leisure? It might be interesting to monitor when this ‘positively motivated’ system is most active and when it is dormant or de-activated. What contexts bring it alive? How might you seek (!) to use this consciously and activate this system more in your daily life to increase your well-being?
It might be helpful to make a list of all the activities that arouse the SEEKING system in you. For example, listening to music, reading a book, going for a walk, talking with a friend, travelling etc. Then make a conscious effort to engage more in these activities. Then list those areas in your life where motivation and interest is lacking and see if you can find a way to activate SEEKING, perhaps by looking for the potential rewards associated with that activity. The SEEKING system can be compared to a muscle – it grows with greater use.