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How A Rat-Tickling Neuroscientist Influenced a Local Composer’s Music

San Diego State University music professor Joseph Waters tends to invite a mixed group of musicians to his annual music festival. But this year, one of the people he's bringing isn't a musician at all.

He's a pioneering neuroscientist named Jaak Panksepp, famous for establishing emotion as a subject of serious inquiry.

Aired 4/29/13 on KPBS News.

San Diego composer Joseph Waters tends to invite a mixed group of musicians to his annual music festival. But this year, one of the people he's bringing isn't a musician at all.

Joseph Waters (left) draws upon the neuroscience research conducted by Jaak Panksepp (right) when composing his music.

"I was the first one that ever asked scientifically, 'what is an emotional feeling,'" Panksepp says, lounging near the percussion instruments in Waters' La Mesa home.

Panksepp has always been comfortable hanging out with artists. Waters says that, as a composer hoping to elicit strong emotions from his listeners, he has found Panksepp's theories about the brain's seven fundamental emotions revelatory.

"Being able to understand our emotional systems at a very basic level and a very deep level has given me tremendous insight," Waters says about reading Panksepp's books. "It has changed my way of thinking about music and actually my way of thinking about people."

So what exactly can neuroscience tell us about music and emotion? Well, if you've ever felt the chills while listening to melancholy music, Panksepp says you have something in common with mothers separated from their infants.

"The child cries, and that sound actually produces a feeling in the mother that is similar to the child," Panksepp says, explaining the evolutionary basis behind this common response. "It's a feeling of coldness, panic — in a milder form, it's sadness. So it's sad music that produces the chills."

At this weekend's music festival organized by Waters, Panksepp will be introducing a new piece by Waters called "Electric Animal." Waters says one movement is inspired by Panksepp's famous rat tickling experiments, which proved that rodents can laugh similarly to humans.

"Jaak sent me this recording of him tickling rats," Waters recalls. "I was listening to the whole thing and I thought, 'let me write a piece about tickling.'"

You can hear this movement, called "Tickle," and other works on Saturday night at the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Hillcrest.

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