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You Have Power Over Your Brain
A Positive Approach to Addiction
How to Get Back Your Dopamine
Feeling Good Nature’s Way
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Defensiveness Hinders Recovery
Stop Negative Habits and Steer Your Way to Health
You can replace an old unwanted habit with the new habit you want.
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- Your brain surges with happy chemicals when it sees something good for your survival. But it defines survival in a quirky way because it relies on neural pathways built from past experience.
- Unhappy chemicals surge when you see something bad for your survival. But your brain defines survival with old pathways, which makes it easy to feel threatened when you change, even if you’re changing for the better.
- The electricity in your brain flows down the pathways you have until you build new ones. It takes a lot of repetition to build new pathways. Repetition gives you power over your quirky mammal brain.
You may think the good life has happy chemicals flowing all the time, and no unhappy chemicals. But our brain doesn’t work that way. It needs unhappy chemicals to call your attention to threats and obstacles. It needs happy chemicals to call your attention to survival opportunities. You are designed to keep seeking happy chemicals and avoiding unhappy chemicals. You are not designed for shortcuts that eliminate the seeking and avoiding. Let’s see how shortcuts can cause a vicious cycle.
The quest for good feelings is nature’s survival engine. Animals seek food to relieve the bad feeling of hunger. They seek warmth to relieve the bad feeling of cold. Happy chemicals start flowing before a mammal even eats or warms up because the mammal brain turns them on as soon as it sees a way to meet a need. The human brain does this with the added boost of a cortex that makes long chains of associations. We avoid hunger by planting food and avoid chill by stocking fuel. We anticipate bad feelings in order to prevent them.
But unhappy chemicals persist no matter how well we meet our needs, because your survival is threatened as long as you’re alive. A mammal risks getting eaten by a predator when it forages for food. It risks choosing a path to nowhere when it seeks a waterhole. It risks social conflict when it seeks a mate, but it risks genetic annihilation if it avoids that conflict. So your brain keeps scanning for potential threats. When you’re safe from physical threats, your brain scans for social threats.
Mammals survive because the bad feeling of cortisol alerts you in time to avoid potential threats. Cortisol communicates pain and the expectation of pain. It motivates you to do whatever it takes to make the bad feeling stop. When a gazelle smells a lion, cortisol motivates it to run even though it would rather keep eating. Gazelles survive because smelling a lion feels worse than hunger. Our ancestors survived because cortisol got their attention to one threat after another.
You respond to a cortisol alarm by noticing what it’s paired with. It could be low blood sugar, or the scent of danger, or social isolation. Life experience builds myriad circuits that light up when your cortisol turns on. Sometimes the solution is obvious, like pulling your hand off a hot stove. But often, you’re not sure what triggered the alarm. You don’t know how to make it stop, yet it feels like something awful will happen if you don’t “do something” immediately.
Does eating a donut count as “doing something”? That depends on the pathways you have. Donuts trigger happy chemicals because fat and sugar are scarce in nature. When a good feeling distracts you from a bad feeling, it seems like the threat. Consciously, you know the donut hasn’t fixed your problems, but happy chemicals are molecules that pave a neural pathway. The next time you feel bad, electricity trickles to the thought of eating a donut. If you eat one, you build the connection. You still know the donut doesn’t solve your problem and in fact could make it worse. But going with the flow gives you a sense of safety for that moment.
It would be nice to stop cortisol with permanent solutions to every problem. But that cannot happen because disappointment triggers cortisol too. A lion spurts cortisol when she loses sight of the gazelle she was stalking. A monkey spurts cortisol when he can’t crack open a nut. Your cortisol helps you make course corrections on the path to meeting your needs. Cortisol alerts you when Plan A doesn’t work.
When Plan A works, alas, the happy chemicals don’t last. To get more, you have to do more. That is how a brain keeps prodding a body to do what it takes to keep its DNA alive. Happy chemicals get re-absorbed and your awareness of survival threats resumes. You get that “do something” feeling and you look for ways to relieve it with the pathways you have. Fast, easy ways of triggering happy chemicals may tempt you.
“Everything I like is illegal, immoral or fattening.” The old saying has some truth to it because everything that triggers happy chemicals has side effects. Good feelings were naturally selected because of their side effects. The more you stimulate them, the more side effects you get. You start feeling threatened by the accumulation of side effects. The result is more alarm bells, and more urge to relieve them with a reliable happy habit.
Vicious cycles are everywhere. Sometimes they involve externals like alcohol, food, money, sex, and drugs. Sometimes they are just thought habits, like getting angry, seeking approval, escaping, thrill-seeking, rescuing. Each of these behaviors can make you feel good in a moment when you were feeling bad. You enjoy that sense of conquering a threat, so you repeat the behavior. Over time, a neural superhighway develops, and the behavior seems to light up effortlessly. But side effects accumulate and trigger unhappy chemicals. Now you’re even more motivated to trigger happy chemicals in the way you expect to work. It’s like driving with one foot on the accelerator and one on the brake, with the same behavior triggering both happiness and unhappiness.
You can stop a vicious cycle in one instant. Just resist that “do something” feeling and live with the cortisol. This seems hard because cortisol screams for your attention. It didn’t evolve for you to sit around and accept it. But you can build the skill of doing nothing during a cortisol alert, even as it begs you to make it go away. That gives your brain a chance to activate an alternative. A virtuous circle starts in that moment.
Seizing the moment is easier if you have an alternative circuit ready. Your new circuit may feel awkward at first. It lacks the zip of electricity you’ve relied on for the sense that you know what’s going on. Resisting an old circuit can make you feel like you’re threatening your own survival when you’re doing precisely the opposite.
The pain of resisting a habit eases once a new habit forms. You can do that in forty-five days if you repeat a new thought or behavior every day without fail. If you miss a day start over with Day One. The new choice will not make you happy on Day One, and it may not make you happy on Day Forty. Even on Day Forty-five, it cannot trigger happy chemicals constantly. But it will invite enough electricity to free you from a vicious cycle. On Day Forty-six, you’ll be ready to start building another circuit.
Modern society is not the cause of vicious cycles. Our ancestors had their own variations. They felt good when they made human sacrifices, and when the good feeling passed they made more sacrifices. Over time, humans developed better ways to trigger happy chemicals and avert unhappy chemicals.
Your brain’s happy chemicals were not meant to create constant ecstasy. They were meant to steer you toward things that promote survival. When we try to get constant happiness from them, disappointment is likely.
The first lick of an ice cream cone is heaven. Ten licks later, your attention wanders. You start thinking about the next thing on your agenda, and the next. You still love the ice cream, but you don’t feel it as much because it’s not new information. Your brain is looking for the next great way to meet your needs. Dopamine is triggered by new rewards. Old rewards, even incredibly creamy-delicious ones, don’t command your brain’s attention. Scientists call this habituation.
When a happy chemical surge is over, you notice your unhappy chemicals again. The world is full of potential threats, but you notice them less while happy chemicals are spurting. Once the spurt fades, unhappy chemicals grab your attention. You wonder how to get the good feeling back. Your brain is always looking for ways to feel good. Often, that leads to things that are good for you. Sleep feels good when you’re tired, and warmth feels good when you’re cold. Life is simple when you can relieve unhappy chemicals by doing things that feel good.
When that doesn’t work, any way of feeling good seems enticing. Things that worked in the past come to mind. Maybe your bottle cap collection, or your Great Aunt Hilda. The brain expects things that felt good before to feel good again.
Your bottle cap collection can’t protect you from harm, of course. But when your brain is screaming “do something,” anything that triggers happy chemicals masks unhappy chemicals. Distraction is not the best survival strategy when your cortisol is triggered by a lion. But when your boss is in a bad mood, it’s nice to have a way to mask your bad feelings.
Our happy chemical strategies are often a mystery to us. Why does your bottle cap collection give you pleasure while a fishing trip does nothing for you? Each brain learns from the experiences it has. If a child pulls out his collection on a day when he’s experiencing a lot of pain, and then the pain stops, his brain “learns” that focusing on the collection stops pain. Each of us learns ways of stopping pain and turning on happy chemicals. We don’t learn by intellectually analyzing every possible action. We learn from accidents of experience.
Endorphin is called the body’s “natural morphine.” The truth is the opposite: morphine is artificial endorphin. Opium derivatives, like heroin, make you high because they fit into the body’s natural endorphin receptors.
“Euphoria” is the word often used to describe the endorphin feeling. But this neurochemical did not evolve for good times. Physical pain is what triggers endorphin. You may have experienced this if you took a bad fall and got up thinking you were fine, only to find yourself in pain a little later.
Endorphin masks pain for a short time, which promotes survival by giving an injured mammal a chance to reach safety. If your ancestor broke his leg while hunting, or got worn down by hunger and thirst, the oblivion of endorphin helped him keep doing what it took to save himself.
“Runners high” is the well-known endorphin experience. But a regular daily run does not make you “high.” You have to push beyond your capacity to the point of distressing your body to get that good feeling. This is not necessarily a good way to promote survival. Endorphin did not evolve to motivate you to inflict pain on yourself. It evolved to help you escape pain.
Perhaps you’ve seen a zebra wriggle out of the jaws of a lion on a wildlife documentary. You see the zebra run for its life with its flesh ripped open by the lion’s teeth. Endorphin masks the pain for a few moments, which helps the zebra escape. If it fails to escape and ends up in the lion’s jaw, it will die in an endorphin haze. Nature’s euthanasia is nice to know about while you watch disturbing footage of predator devouring prey. Endorphin was not meant for partying but for momentary respite in the brutal struggle for life.
The respite is brief because pain has survival value. Pain is your body’s signal that something is urgently wrong. If you ignored pain all the time, you would touch hot stoves and walk on broken legs. You would not make good survival choices if you were always high on endorphin. Masking pain promotes survival in narrow circumstances, but we evolved to notice distress signals, not to mask them with oblivion.
Happy chemicals disappoint for a good reason. They evolved to excite you about new rewards, not to waste your attention on the same old reward. Discovering a new planet would excite you, but looking at your planet every day would not re-kindle the initial excitement. If you expected to live at that level of excitement forever, you would be disappointed.
I feel a thrill when I walk into a coffee-roasting shop. Sometimes I comment on the delicious smell to the person behind the counter, and I realize they don’t notice it. They have habituated to the fabulous smell. If I went to work at a coffee roaster in order to feel constant joy, I would be disappointed.
But such disappointment is hard to avoid, because your brain builds expectations when something feels good. This chapter describes the disappointment each happy chemical leads to. We’ll explore dopamine disappointment, oxytocin disappointment, endorphin disappointment and serotonin disappointment.
Your brain doesn’t give up after a disappointment. It tries again. It trusts its own circuits because they come from its own experience. If you had a great time at a party after you got a bad grade in math, your brain built a link that suggests partying when you feel bad about math. The same parties will not make you as happy as they once did, however, and bad grades may pile up and make you more unhappy. You might respond by partying even more. You could build a new circuit that helps you feel good about doing your math homework. If you don’t, the vicious circle is likely to continue.
You can probably think of ten vicious cycles in ten seconds: junk food, alcohol, love affairs, drugs, losing your temper, gaming, getting recognition, shopping, watching a screen, telling other people what to do, withdrawing, career advancement, pleasing people, climbing mountains, rescuing people, smoking, writing another book. (That’s more than ten. I couldn’t stop.) All of these things can make you feel good, which motivates you to activate them over and over. But the good feeling doesn’t mask unhappy chemicals as much as you expect, and the side effects feel bad. When you look for a way to feel better, the same happy strategy comes to mind. It has disappointed you before, but the highway to your happy chemicals is still there.
I learned a lot about self-destructive seeking from a hypnotist who helps people quit smoking. “Imagine you’re a fourteen year-old boy wanting to talk to a girl at a party,” he told me. “You’re afraid it will go badly, and you decide to try a cigarette to steady your nerves. Then you talk to her, and she likes you. Your brain builds a connection between the cigarette and the joy of success. Logically you know that smoking didn’t cause the success, but the next time you face a challenge the thought of smoking pops into your mind. Over the years, you build up the connection. Now imagine that you suddenly decide to quit smoking. The insecurity of the fourteen year-old surges up the moment you resist the urge for a cigarette. Smoking is the way your brain learned to manage those feelings. If you don’t build a new way to channel them, you will feel like you’re going to die every time you pass up a cigarette.”
The smoker’s brain “learned” that smoking promotes survival. He may not consciously believe that, but his mammal brain connects smoking with getting the girl. Anything relevant to reproductive success gets the brain’s attention. To that young man’s brain, smoking works.
If you go out and conquer the world after your smoke, your drink, your shopping, or any other habit, you build a neural connection between the habit and success. To your brain, the habit works.
When a smoker tries not to smoke, it feels like a threat to his survival. Without his reliable source of happy chemicals, he is left with the unhappy chemicals that trigger a sense of threat. The threat feels bigger without the usual happy chemicals flowing.
Smoking does not raise your status in the modern world, and fortunately many people avoid smoking these days. But we all turn on our happy chemicals with circuits we built from past experience. Once something triggers your happy chemicals, your brain marks it as something valuable for your survival. The chemicals build real physical pathways in your brain. Whatever made you happy in the past is likely to have appeal in the future, even if it’s something misguided or inconsequential when viewed from another perspective. The more you activate that happy circuit, the more you build connections that automatically activate it in the face of future survival challenges. This is why coping strategies can have negative side effects that undermine your survival.
The negative side effects mount up when you rely on a strategy often and automatically. You may notice the unfortunate consequences, and feel bad about them. The bad feeling triggers the desire for something that makes you feel good. This can automatically trigger the very habit that is making you feel bad. Addiction is a neural pathway that triggers the expectation of a reward. That expectation feels good immediately, even if the future side-effects feel bad. Your brain wants happy chemicals, and seeks them in the ways it has already learned. The electricity in your brain seeks the path of least resistance. So you’re inclined to repeat a “survival strategy” you have already learned, even if it hurts your survival.
You wouldn’t expect natural selection to produce such a flawed system. How could a brain that evolved for survival develop habits that impair survival? This chapter shows that the mammal brain has a few blind spots in the way it perceives survival. You can get happy chemicals from your mammal brian while overlooking significant threats. We will explore three specific blind spots.
Is something wrong with the world?
It’s natural to find fault with the world. Our brains evolved to scan for problems because that helps avoid them. The brain equates social threats with physical threats. Disappointment is inevitable in this brain we’ve inherited because it’s always seeking rewards. With a brain like this, it’s not surprising that people get cynical.
But you can transcend this natural negativity. You can see more than flaws when you look at the world. This book shows how. It takes no positions on issues. It simply shows how cynical thought habits get built, and how you can re-wire yourself to go beyond them.
The feeling that “something is wrong” comes from brain structures common to all mammals. This mammal brain responds to the world by releasing brain chemicals that tell you what is good for you and what is bad. Your inner mammal defines that in a quirky way. In the state of nature, things that feel good are good for survival, and things that feel bad threaten survival. Your mammal brain is always looking for ways to feel good and avoiding what it expects to feel bad.
Cynicism is one way to feel good. It stimulates dopamine by making the world seem predictable (“I knew the idiots in power would mess this up.”). Cynicism stimulates oxytocin by building social bonds (“We are all hurt by these stupid policies.”). Cynicism stimulates serotonin by putting you in the one-up position (I’m ethical and smart compared to the jerks who are running things.”)
When a mammal sees a threat or obstacle, it releases cortisol. That feels so bad that a mammal is motivated to do something to make it stop. Cynicism is one way to “do something.” It’s a way to fight or flee without the drawbacks of actually fighting or fleeing. Anything that relieves a threat feels good to your mammal brain.
Mammals don’t rely on hard-wiring. We build our circuits from early experience. Anything that triggered your brain chemicals in youth paved neural pathways that tell you how to get rewards and avoid threats in the future. We can easily wire ourselves to seek relief in cynicism.
The electricity in your brain flows like water in a storm, finding the path of least resistance. Each brain expects to meet its needs by doing what worked before. When the world fits your expectations, electricity lights up the pathway to your happy chemicals. When expectations are disappointed, cortisol is released, which tells you “something is wrong with the world.”
You can build new pathways to see the world in new ways. Instead of seeing a world that fails to meet your expectations, you can understand your inner mammal’s quest for predictability, trust, and social dominance. The world does not always give you social and physical rewards in ways you can predict. Frustration is inevitable in a mammal’s life. You can manage frustration with cynicism, or you can go beyond it.
A mountain goat thrives because it focuses on its footing instead of the ominousness of the mountain. You can wire yourself to focus on your footing. This book provides a way to do that in six weeks, with just a few minutes a day.
I used to be cynical. I was good at seeing what’s wrong with the world. Then I realized it was just a pathway in my brain, and I built a new pathway. I’m glad I did!