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The 3 Processing Levels


During his research in the field of Affective Neuroscience, Dr. Jaak Panksepp has identified "3 Levels of Control" in the brain, which, if we'd peel back layer after layer, would reveal the passage of evolution.  In fact, the brain is the only organ that shows evidence of evolution. The 3 Levels of Control are:


(1) The Primary Process Level

The Primary Process Level, being the oldest of the three, is deeply subcortical and located in the bottom center of the brain. Within this level, the brain regulates sensory experiences from outside of the body (exteroceptive sensory), homeostatic affect (such as hunger, thirst, body temperature, etc.) and also the 7 Primary Emotional Systems of SEEKING, RAGE, FEAR, LUST, CARE, PANIC/GRIEF and PLAY (the 7 PES are also referred to as faw affect).

This Primary Process Level with its emotional systems is innate and fully developed at the time of birth and does not rely on environmental exposure to function. However, at the time of birth, the emotional systems are mostly "objectless", hence raw affect. "Objectless" means that due to the lack of exposure, they haven't been tied to environmental stimuli, and until such time, they only respond to innate triggers that were genetically imprinted. On the flipside, the same is true for environmental events; they too are meaningless in an affective sense until they are given affective value when raw emotions meet the environment, at which time brain activity moves upwards.

(2) The Secondary Process Level

Though primary emotional systems are fully functional at birth, they have little affective ties to things outside the body until they experience the environment in ways that evoke either pleasure that wants to be pursued or discomfort that wants to be avoided. When that happens, associative/conditioned learning takes place and memories are created. The mechanism that allows for this to happen lies in the still subcortical upper limbic system and forms somewhat of a secondary process (Secondary Process Level). But that's not where the "conversation" ends, as a bit further up there is another layer; one that relies heavily on what's happening below.

(3) The Tertiary Process Level

And this is where it gets a bit more familiar, for now we are entering the neocortex - the thinking brain; the part of the brain responsible for reasoning, decision making, more complex feelings (not to be confused with raw affect), even "free will". From an evolutionary point of view, this layer of the brain is the youngest, and while all mammals and even some birds and reptiles have similar limbic systems, the cortical brain differs in complexity and/or size depending on species. 

Unlike the primary emotional systems, the neocortex is pretty much a "blank slate" at birth and relies heavily on input that comes from the bottom up for "programming". Once the cortical brain is a bit more educated and operational, the conversation between the three Levels of Control starts reciprocating in that the flow of information moves bottom-up as well as top-down.

The process

Simply put, raw affect meets the environment, learning happens and memories are created for future use; the cortical brain receives information which is then processed accordingly and helps shape the brain. As the cortical brain develops, and memories are more reliable, the neocortex can use previously stored memories as well as cognitive thinking and reasoning to overwrite hasty, innate emotional responses to certain environmental events. Depending on species and on individual resiliency, the ability to do so varies greatly.

It wasn't that long ago when we believed that brain development ended with genetics and shaping; we believed that what went into the brain was written in stone. But today we know better. We know that between epigenetics and neuro-plasticity, the brain is quite flexible and can be reshaped, which is one of the reasons why understanding how the brain works is so beneficial for our relationships, whether human to human or interspecies.


What this means for our relationships

When we engage with our dogs, the dog evaluates and processes everything we do or don't do a little more emotionally than cognitively (which is even more the case in young dogs). The 7 Primary Emotional Systems are designed to help an animal survive and thrive. Cognitive abilities depend greatly on the dog's age and also on how we allow them to learn about and cope with "the world" around them WITH us but in THEIR ways. In other words, a dog's brain, just like a child's, works from the bottom up. An adult human, on the other hand, approaches life more cognitively, thus from the top down, in which case thinking and reasoning can overwrite raw affect.

So, what happens when our tendency to reason tries to meet the emotional canine brain?

Ideally, we would help meet our dogs' needs, which always start on an emotional level, by tapping into our own emotional systems to build better relationships; to connect first and build a trusting foundation before we start "structured" training. Learning happens a lot quicker when emotional needs are met and the dog feels safe, maybe even joyful. Since emotional needs can fluctuate from moment to moment, it would be beneficial for us to know how to help dogs cope. Then maintain a degree of CARE and PLAY in all our interactions.

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