We're All Seekers!

More than 58 million people have watched the video of a turtle chasing a purple ball around a hardwood floor (recently posted to the Animal Family group on Facebook). It fascinates us to see a turtle fascinated by a purple ball. But why not a turtle fascinated by a purple ball? All animals enjoy novel stimulation, all of us like to be engaged by the world. In fact, that connection between being alive at all and being interested in things in the world is so very close that we can't distinguish between them. To not be interested in the world around us is recognized as a highly pathological state that goes by the name of clinical depression.

When people began to realize that zoos were populated by many depressed animals, zookeepers began adding enrichment activities that use the natural abilities and interests of each species, allowing captive animals to exercise their natural engagement with life, a high priority. Shanthi, a 41-year-old female Asian elephant at the National Zoo, likes to play the harmonica, along with other instruments.

She not only likes to make music, but she's pretty good at it. Her impromptu compositions have a beginning, a middle, and an end, typically a crescendo. Shanthi was not taught to play the harmonica, and she was not rewarded for playing the harmonica. She was simply given access to a harmonica, duct-taped to a gate, because the people who cared for her noticed how much she seemed to enjoy making sounds and rhythms at every opportunity. For Shanthi, playing the harmonica, making music, is its own reward.

You probably know some people who like to make sounds and rhythms, and you probably know some people who like to chase balls around. Other people like to collect things; they are often called pack rats, because. . . yeah.

There are different ways to exercise this desire for encounter, but the basic desire is there in all animals, even that reptilian turtle! Mammalian neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp called the brain features of this basic instinct the SEEKING system. He demonstrated its existence in a range of mammals. The SEEKING system is the most fundamental of seven affective brain systems that mammals share, and it's reasonable to think that it is present in all animals.

So the next time something fascinates you, pause a beat, and consider that the experience of being fascinated is something that all animals share: we're all seekers!