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Affective Neuroscience and the SPE Scales


The study of brain science has become a wonderful window into human behavior. This report uses our understanding of brain systems to provide interpretations of SPE scales. Specifically, these interpretations focus on the brain systems involved with emotions. The area of research studying these brain systems is often called Affective Neuroscience (ANS). The term "Affect" is simply a more specific term for emotion that specifically refers to the "feeling" component of an emotional reaction. Scientists also often prefer the term affect, since the term emotion is so frequently used to describe emotions in general such as "He's a very emotional person." The term Neuroscience is derived from the root "Neuro" referring to nerves, since our brain is part of our nervous system.

This discussion does not focus on traditional personality theory, since most theories of personality predate the rapid advances in brain science that began in the latter part of the 20th century. In the early period of psychology, personality theorists such as Carl Jung based their theories on personal observations and beliefs, since there was little scientific data on which to base their thinking.

It is important to know that the SPE uses scales based on the "Five Factor Model" (FFM). The FFM has gained wide spread acceptance among psychologists in recent years and holds that there are five main personality traits that can be reliably measured. These five traits are usually labeled Extraversion, Agreeableness, Conscientiousness, Emotional Stability, and Openness to Experience. The SPE measures these five traits along with eight additional characteristics that seem to statistically combine elements of the five main traits.

By themselves, SPE scales based on the FFM remain largely descriptive rather than theoretical. In other words, the FFM describes you by stating you exhibit more or less of a particular behavior, such as talkativeness and social outgoingness. But that description, regardless of how accurate, does not explain why you exhibit those characteristics or how you came to be that way. The FFM is based on statistical analyses of psychological test data rather than psychological theory. The solid statistical basis of the FFM makes it a very reliable tool for describing personality but does not address the important area of personality interpretation.

Fortunately, ANS is beginning to provide some answers about the brain foundations of the FFM and the SPE scales. Specifically, there is a great deal of evidence supporting the existence of six brain systems linked to the experience of six different emotions. The following paragraphs explain links between these affective brain systems and SPE scales.

ANS Brain Systems

In 1998, Oxford University Press published Dr. Jaak Panksepp's book entitled "Affective Neuroscience." In the book Dr. Panksepp carefully documented brain systems involved with the experience of 6 "blue ribbon" emotions. These six major affective systems were PLAY, CARING, SEEKING, FEAR, ANGER, and SADNESS. The first three are associated with pleasant feelings while the last three have aversive qualities.

Each of these six emotions -- or affects -- is defined by its own brain chemistry and brain anatomy. Likewise, each system generates its own unique set of feelings, behaviors and activities.

  • PLAYFULNESS involves having fun vs. being serious, playing games with physical contact, humor, and laughter, and being generally happy.
  • SEEKING includes feeling curious, feeling like exploring, striving for solutions to problems and puzzles, feeling inspired, positively anticipating new experiences, and having a sense of being able to accomplish almost anything.
  • CARING consists of nurturing, being drawn to young children and pets, feeling softhearted towards animals and people in need, feeling empathy, liking to care for the sick, feeling affection for and liking to care for others in general as well as liking to be needed by others.
  • FEAR encompasses feelings of anxiety, feeling tense, worrying, struggling with decisions, ruminating about past decisions and statements, losing sleep, and not typically being courageous.
  • ANGER comprises feeling hotheaded, being easily irritated and frustrated, experiencing frustration leading to anger, expressing anger verbally or physically, and remaining angry for long periods of time.
  • SADNESS includes feeling lonely, being sensitive to social rejection, crying frequently, thinking about loved ones and past relationships, and feeling distress when separated from friends or loved ones.

Affective Systems and the FFM

Davis, Panksepp, and Normansell (2003) designed psychological scales to measure the expression of these six primary emotions and published data relating these six scales to the FFM. Their study has opened some interesting new insights into the relationship between personality and emotion. Our results found:

There were close relationships between

  • High Extraversion scores and PLAY as well as
  • High Openness to Experience scores and SEEKING.

There was a more complex relationship between

  • High Agreeableness scores and CARING as well as
  • Low Agreeableness scores and ANGER.

There was also a strong relationship between

  • Low Emotional Stability scores and all three of the negative emotions: FEAR, ANGER, and SADNESS.

This research suggests the following interpretations:

  • The PLAY system may provide the basis for Extraversion. Extraverts are people who have strong urges to play and experience laughter with others. They enjoy kidding and "ribbing" each other, and their play is likely to be louder and involve more physical contact.
  • The CARING system may contribute to high Agreeableness scores. People with high scores on Agreeableness have strong urges to care for others. They approach others with warmth and kindness. They like to nurture others and care for the sick. They are especially drawn to children. They often feel like touching the people they are with.
  • The ANGER system may contribute to low Agreeableness. People with low scores on Agreeableness have strong tendencies to feel irritation and frustration. These feelings, if strong enough, emerge as angry outbursts. They are inclined to display a cool attitude towards others and may have difficulty expressing warmth.
  • The SEEKING system is likely to be the basis for Openness to Experience. Individuals with high scores on Openness to Experience have strong seeking urges. They tend to experience stronger curiosity than most. They enjoy novelty. They are also inclined to feel stronger "wanting" and experience strong anticipation of meeting their wants. In the extreme, these seeking urges are associated with a sense of being able to accomplish almost anything.
  • FEAR, SADNESS, and ANGER all contribute to low Emotional Stability. Low Emotional Stability represents a combination of negative emotions and is really a measure of what many psychologists call "Negative Affect." FEAR, SADNESS, and ANGER accumulate to form a general perception of negative emotional volatility. We especially seem to mix feelings of Fear or anxiety, and Sadness or separation distress. However, if low Emotional Stability scores are combined with low Agreeableness scores, Anger, with associated irritation and frustration, may be the primary contributing driver.
  • The SPE/FFM Conscientiousness scale does not seem to be as strongly associated with the six primary emotions. The hypothesis, which needs additional confirmation, is that Conscientiousness represents our ability to regulate our basic urges and drives, especially the powerful motivations emerging from our Fear, Sadness, and Anger systems. The regulation of these strong negative emotions may have a more cortical orientation, perhaps largely focused in the ventral medial pre-frontal cortex of our brain. It is possible that when Conscientiousness levels become very low, we may have difficulty controlling our impulses with frequent change and rule-following become issues. On the other hand, very high Conscietious scores may suggest the overcontrol of impulses to the point of rigidity.

Old Brain vs. New Cortex

The six primary emotions are largely based in "old" brain systems shared with other mammals and in some cases even with reptililes. These are ancient adaptive systems which have been evolutionally important for basic survival. When these old brain systems are activated by environmental events or by internal cues, they generate powerful instinctual urges that are difficult to ignore. Using these strong urges or drives, Mother Nature insured that we would avoid dangers (FEAR), not become separated from our social group (SADNESS), guard important resources (ANGER), that children would obtain the social experience they needed from playing (PLAY), that parents would care for their young (CARING), and that we would try new things and become more energized as we came closer to our goals (SEEKING). These compelling feelings still serve us. As the supporting brain systems are weakened or strengthened we become, for example, 1) less playful and less socially-oriented or 2) more fearful, anxious, and perhaps neurotic.

Because these feelings and their associated behaviors and habits are so compelling, changing our ways and personalities is often difficult. Since these old brain systems are centered in the older "core" of our brains rather than in the evolutionally "newer" cortical areas, just having the idea that you want to change is usually not sufficient. Ideas are usually preempted by the deep affective urges. Just like the "all thumbs" phenomenon, in which it is difficult to perform fine motor skills when very anxious or in a big hurry, our best intentions are often "trumped" by our basic urges. This observation is, of course, very familiar to anyone who has worked at controlling their diet. The Davis, Panksepp, Normansell research suggests that changing most behavior really becomes a matter of learning to deal with, controlling, and personally regulating basic urges.


Davis, K., Panksepp, J., and Normansell, L. (2003) The Affective Neuroscience Personality Scales: Normative Data and Implications. Neuro-Psychoanalysis, 5, 57-69.

Davis, K., and Panksepp, J., (2011) The brain's emotional foundations of human personality and the Affective Neuroscience Personality Scales. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 35, 1946-1958.


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