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Examining Brain’s Joy May Produce More Effective Anti-Depressants

Comstock/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- Suppose you could actually feel what it’s like to be another animal—not just guess, after observing its actions and behavior from the outside, but actually break through the prison of subjectivity and know you can feel it, as if from inside an animal’s brain.

Of course, no two species have exactly the same set of sensory inputs. For example, we lack the bat’s special sonic radar, its “echolocation” systems. So ultimately we humans could only guess what it’s fully “like.”

But one scientist’s “seemingly quirky finding”—that rats emit a sort of giggling laughter when they are tickled by humans—is opening a new path for scientists and philosophers in their quest to answer this ancient question.

It’s all about emotion, and especially joy, that great reward in the brain, which, once experienced, we then naturally seek to achieve again, and which can help “make life worth living.”

As a result of their discovery that tickling rats makes them laugh, brain scientist Jaak Panksepp and his colleagues are now producing what they hope will prove to be more effective anti-depressants—chemicals that not only dull negative feelings, but safely enhance positive ones.

Their work on how play and laughter can automatically produce the feeling of joy in the brain may also help clarify the difference between the artificially induced “high” produced by addictive drugs and the true “joy” that may be produced naturally and safely.

On the dark side, his work on animal laughter offers insights into how the group-bonding effects of play behavior may be susceptible to manipulation for cruel ends. It seems to illuminate such abuses as the Nazi’s manipulation of the Olympic Games to advance racist ideology, and even an infamous anti-Semitic board game marketed in Hitler’s Germany in 1936.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

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