Stalker (and films) seen through Panksepp’s psychology

the skin i live in

Part of human nature is to seek, look and search for motivations. We are led by curiosity that this intensive search will turn into reward and satisfaction. That is what psychologist Jaak Panksepp affirms about our mammalian motivational engine that keeps us living each day.

Films may feature characters going through a journey, and highlight the wishes, needs and curiosity that lead these people to achieve the goals they have set since the beginning. These goals can be planned or simply unconscious, but there is an engine that will be part of each decision they make. That’s how in Almodovar’s The Skin I Live In (2011) Vera Cruz is going through a paradoxical journey of despair and hope by the idea that she will achieve freedom anytime soon. Or that is how Don Lockwood, from Singing in the Rain (1952), makes whatever it takes to do a great movie in the new sound era, because he’ll have the reward of still being relevant in the entertainment business.

singing in the rain

In his words Panksepp says that this emotional function of the brain, “the basic impulse to search, investigate and make sense of the environment” evaluates the importance of events around us and stores that knowledge for future use. with this perspective, we can understand the slow approach that  François Marin, the teacher in the movie The class (2008), takes when he wants to be a great professor to these racially mixed students from Paris and will try to reach this goal, getting to know each of their stories so he can understand them.

entre les murs

This human state of wanting something, and working until we can achieve it (or not), it’s the backbone of movies, since they express one of the deepest emotions of mammals, to be motivated by something to keep on living.

With Stalker (1979), director Andrei Tarkovsky introduces us to a film where seeking is protagonist. We’re part of an expedition of three men that will try to fulfill their deepest wishes by getting to a room, within The Zone, that can do so. A journey of risk, adventure and danger. The persistent desire to achieve this goal, can affect their lives, which, in the end, is what they want to improve.


The film begins with a couple fighting for a watch, for time, for fear that the Stalker will go into the Zone. Since that moment we live in the time that Tarovsky wants us to be in and we witness the fear that guides the adventure of these men that desperately try to find themselves with intern fights of wishes, self-confrontation and doubt. We can clearly see this in the second part of the films where each one has the opportunity to talk about the motivation of pursuing this room.

Panksepp says: ‘All mammals go into search mode when their bodies are hungry thirsty, cold or desirous of social /sexual companionship”, as these men that have the ambition of tranquility and fulfilled wishes. “Each animal has a spontaneous tendency to explore and learn about his environment. When an animal has established a knowledge of its local terrain, it can move about the flexibly and efficiently to find the things it needs”, continues the author, and this can reflect how they go through different stages of this difficult task, putting their lives in danger, just so they can get the best out of it, just how they have imagined, how they wanted it.

But that changes when, at the end, they get to the wanted room, and they don’t do anything. Again, they seem to fear reaching the purpose of their journey and instead, each one gives us a piece of their minds. Even if, as mentioned before, this seeking system is determined too by the incentive cues of reward, and we have an urge for more, the author says: “Rewards in the world are meaningless unless animals can search them out”. We can adapt this premise to the idea that as long as they are looking for the room the will have a stimulation that, over satisfaction (find the room), keeps our brains more euphoric.

The monologues recited by the characters and the fights they have, through the journey, but especially at the end, once they’ve found the room, can also be explained from Panksepp’s  vision of the Seeking System. First because he affirms that, “arousal of the seeking system spontaneously constructs casual ‘insights’ from the perception of correlated events. Some of the relationships may be true, but others are delusional”. When they tend to remember, they go back, they feel frustrated and they explain the reason of being there. They give us a wide perspective of their past, and their unfulfilled dreams.


On the other hand, the fact that mesolimbic dopamine system is especially responsive to stress “could explain why paranoid thinking emerges more easily during stressful periods and why stress may promote schizophrenic thinking patterns”. The men have frustration, anger and seem hopeless, when they’re shown just outside the room.

These patterns may occur too in response to internal cues rather than to real-life events, says the author, and I have to agree since they reveal themselves to these other two strangers, accumulate bad feelings remembering and looking their lives in perspective, and want to deposit all their frustrations eliminating the room, or fighting with each other.  At the end, fear takes the leading role again and they decline the idea of why they were there in the first place.



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