Seeking is the Granddaddy of Emotional Systems



A friend sent me an article about what gets us out of bed each day. 

It’s “Seeking.” 

According to Jaak Panksepp,  “Seeking” is the granddaddy of our emotional systems.  It goes beyond fulfilling our physical needs.    We end up in a crazed state of foraging, curiosity and expectancy. 

The rewards we seek don’t have to actually solve our needs and they don’t need to be physical.  Just exploring ideas or coming up with new “ah has” is enough to keep us going.

In the article, Seeking, How the brain hard-wires us to love Google, Twitter, and texting. And why that’s dangerous, Emily Yoffe writes about Seeking.

Key Take Aways

Here are my key take aways from the article:

  • You can’t stop doing it.   You have an insatiable need to search.  It’s stronger than the basic drives for food, sex, and sleep.  We’ll even seek at our own expense.
  • Seeking is the granddaddy of the systems.   “Seeking” is the master emotional system that influences the rest of our emotional systems.
  • Each stimulation evokes a reinvigorated search strategy.  It’s self-reinforcing.  Stimulating the lateral hypothalamus puts mammals in a loop of foraging, excitement, and craze.
  • Seeking is the motivational engine that gets us out of bed.  “Seeking” is the natural drive that motivates us each day.
  • Abstract rewards excite us as much as tangible one.  Our “Seeking” circuits are the ones firing when we get thrilled about the ideas or make intellectual connections.

What’s powerful for me is having a name for the motivational system that drives us (Seeking), knowing that we can get stuck in a detrimental loop, and knowing that we get just as excited about abstract rewards as tangible ones.

Seeking is the Granddaddy of the Systems

It’s an emotional state you can characterize with curiosity, interest, foraging, anticipation, craving and expectancy, but Panskepp settled on the name seeking. 

Yoffe writes:

“Panksepp has spent decades mapping the emotional systems of the brain he believes are shared by all mammals, and he says, ‘Seeking is the granddaddy of the systems.’”

It’s the Motivational Engine that Gets Us Out of Bed

“Seeking” is the motivational engine that gets us out of bed.  Imagine life without “Seeking”? 

Yoffe writes:

“It is the mammalian motivational engine that each day gets us out of the bed, or den, or hole to venture forth into the world. It’s why, as animal scientist Temple Grandin writes in Animals Make Us Human, experiments show that animals in captivity would prefer to have to search for their food than to have it delivered to them.”

Abstract Rewards Excite us as Much as Tangible Ones

All it takes is an interesting idea or a finding some new insights to keep us going. 

Yoffe writes:

‘’For humans, this desire to search is not just about fulfilling our physical needs. Panksepp says that humans can get just as excited about abstract rewards as tangible ones. He says that when we get thrilled about the world of ideas, about making intellectual connections, about divining meaning, it is the seeking circuits that are firing.”

The next time you’re searching or twittering or texting, ask yourself if it’s your next best move or if you’re just satisfying the inner-seeker in you.

Photo by Danard Vincente.


  1. Hi JD and Emily – thanks I agree. Fortunately I realised very early that I needed to focus on the task at hand. So I don’t really waste time looking.

    However sometimes I do see things that I would never have seen had I not been on the net .. and that can be invaluable.

    I do think before I search or seek usually.

    Thanks – good point – it can be addictive for some.

    Hilary Melton-Butcher
    Positive Letters Inspirational Stories

  2. While this is true by all appearances for me and for you, for most people this is just not so. Most people don’t seek, do not want to seek, and are so far out of the habit of seeking that they would be puzzled how to start. In fact, most people just want to get through the day with as little pain and awareness as possible.

    It is delightful to construct around one’s self a circle of manic seekers, but don’t then conclude that anyone outside those circles shares anything of that mania. They don’t. Just look at the news–facts are trampled by shouting.

    “The idea that everyone wants to be President of the United States or have a million dollars is simply not the case. Most people want to go down to the corner and have a glass of beer.” –John Berryman.

  3. I love the article on seeking, I think it is one of those ideas that can help you gain a new perspective on human behavior (including your own).

    I don’t think it means people are seekers in the sense of seeking philosophical enlightenment, or amazing impactful results, or even new meaningful knowledge. Some people are, but that’s not the norm. Eric’s comment above is right about that. The people who do amazing things have channeled their base-level seeking to achieve more powerful results, plus they have the innate capabilities that allow them to get those results. As a species we are seekers for tidbits, like mice searching for nuggets of food. The base level seeking impulse is very simple. Search for something that fulfills a simple need (food, shelter, comfort, etc). Its the searching for something that matters. The acquisition matters less and wears off quickly. Then we are off to seek again.

    Its the happiness conundrum. You think you will be happy if you get X. Where X could be money, partner, knowledge, results, reputation, house, status, etc. But this is where we are tricked by our own biology. We are not meant to be happy or satisfied for extended periods of time. We are restless creatures and our biology gives us the happiness ‘high’ for a small amount of time and takes it away. We go back to seeking. If we were truly happy and satisfied we would stop seeking and evolutionarily that is a very bad thing.

    We think happiness is good, therefore we seek it (its a meta-search if you will :)). But the search for happiness is endless and we will never truly reach the goal. So what are we to do? I think there are two choices, not necessarily mutually exclusive. While its cliche, I think we can choose to enjoy the journey – the seeking – as much as possible. If you consciously realize you are seeking and are ok with that, not fooled into thinking this search will end your constant seeking, then I think you can choose to enjoy it for what it is. The other choice is to try to make a conscious decision to be satisfied. I think satisfaction means you are happy with what you have and what you are. You can rest for a while and maybe stop seeking. Careful though – stay satisfied too long and you may become like the little creatures in H.G Well’s “The Time Machine” who have evolved into a state of feeble satisfaction due to having conquered all possible challenges in their environment.

  4. Hi J.D.

    I am with Hilary on this one, I don’t seeking as much as most. I normally seek with a purpose. I see too many people become a seek monster.

    Great post, wonderful information.
    Thanks for sharing.
    Giovanna Garcia
    Imperfect Action is better than No Action

  5. hi JD
    Your blog brought out some very good discussion points! I believe the real issue in our society is personal responsibility. We fear and run from it, rather than believe we have the power to co-create/authorize our own lives. Often we give up our power with the payoff that we can have our illusory freedom, which is actually procrastinating the decision-making process (the practice work to lead us to our greatest potential). Sadly, it often takes a crisis to awaken the seeker, which then presents an opportunity to change our direction. As long as we believe we must search for, we cannot be. To be, is to discover rich truth like a glowing light from within. Thanks for sharing such an important topic with us! Namaste, Jen/Sharmila

  6. I found that most of my clients are not seeking as in a drive, but they are constantly working on what they think will make them Paris Hilton or have enough bling to be appreciated and loved.

    I was an Itinerant Social Worker and I can not tell you how many people just are seeking the cash and do not wish to learn anything new. “My boys were being sexually molested by my boyfriend, so I found another boyfriend so I could move away and he would pay my bills.” That is all the seeking – relief from stress.

    It burned me out because I want to be my best self, not just get out of one misery into another.

    Interesting information and I truly do like your format for sharing.
    Thank you another great post

  7. Hi JD,

    That is an interesting article and I think the use of the word “seeking” can conjure up all kinds of images. For example, some people are always seeking a way to feel good and they are not thinking of their personal development. So they seek joy in drinking or shopping or whatever to fill the void.

    Then there are those who seek to find answers to what is life all about and so they look for meaning and work on themselves. So the use of the work “seeking” depends, in my mind, on the purpose of the person who is doing the seeking. Are they seeking to fill a void and escape or are they seeking in an effort to grow?

  8. @ Hilary

    An interesting point in the article is that dopamine levels play a role. This might explain why some people show different levels of seeking behavior.

    @ Eric

    I agree, most people aren’t out seeking awareness or achievement. Seeking is more primitive than that. It’s simply a basic emotional system in our brain, influenced by dopamine levels. Different people respond in different ways, based on personal, social, and structural influences.

    @ Positively Present

    Thank you. If anything, now we can do more mindful seeking 😉

    @ Jason

    Great perspective and I like your elaboration. I think you nailed the essence with “happiness conundrum.” It’s the loop of tension and release or seeking/finding or hungry/satiated.

    @ Giovanna

    I love your term “seek monster.”

    @ Jan

    > As long as we believe we must search for, we cannot be
    Beautiful point. I find some people look outside for what’s already inside. I always think of Dorothy, the Tin man, the Cowardly Lion and the Scarecrow. They all had it all along. They just needed a reminder.

    @ Patricia

    Thank you. I think the theme you’re hitting is where people mistake the meands for the ends, and don’t have their ladder up against the right wall. It sounds like you used your self-awareness to change your path and find your path to be your best self. Way to go.

    @ Nadia

    I like that you used seeking and conjure together, and yes, it does conjure up all kinds of images. In fact, when I first heard it I imagined a frail wizard in a dark robe seeking the ultimate magic. So yeah, that was pretty off from the article, but it was fun. Next, I thought of seeking insight and then I thought of captain James T. Kirk and his endless quest to boldly go where no man has gone before. The idea that stuck with me was that it’s the reason why we get out of bed in the morning.

    The thing that really stuck for me is how we can seek abstract rewards just as much as concrete ones.

    I thought I was a seeker of profound knowledge. Really, I’m just a seeker of profound results, and knowledge is my way.

  9. What a great article! Truly captures what gives me resilience in the face of challenge. Your comment at the end is perfect – it’s all about WHAT we seek.

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