My new blog on Substack tells the story of how I came to create the Inner Mammal Institute, and why it’s different from other sources of information. Check it out at: https://innermammal.substack.com/welcome
Your phone triggers dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin, while it relieves cortisol
Our brain is not designed to release good feelings all the time for no reason. It evolved to promote survival. It releases the good feelings of dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin when you step toward meeting a survival need. But it defines survival with circuits built from past experience: whatever triggered your happy chemicals in the past built neural pathways that turn them on today.
Your phone triggered happy chemicals in your past, by bringing good news and social support. That turned on your dopamine, serotonin or oxytocin, and connected all the neurons active at the moment. Now, the thought of your phone activates a pathway that flows to your happy chemicals.
But the dopamine, serotonin or oxytocin is soon metabolized and you have to do more to get more. No wonder you think of your phone again and again!
Of course you don’t consciously think your phone promotes survival. But the electricity in your brain flows like water in a storm, finding the paths of least resistance. The paths paved by your past rewards tell you where to expect future rewards. Your past rewards were linked to your phone in one way or another, so your brain expects more good things from that phone.
Your brain seeks good feelings as if your life depends on it because in the world your brain evolved in, anything that triggered a good feeling was good for survival. You pick up your phone whenever you have a spare moment because your brain keeps seeking happy chemicals in ways that worked before.
It’s better than picking up a cookie, or a cigarette, or a martini!
Your phone also relieves bad feelings in a curious way. The bad feeling of cortisol is released when you see a potential threat or obstacle. Cortisol commands your attention until you find a way to relieve it. In the state of nature, a predator can kill you in an instant but you can always survive the loss of one meal. That is why relief from threats and obstacles is top priority for this brain we’ve inherited.
Smelling a predator makes your cortisol surge, and you get some relief when you see the predator because you’re safer when you know where it is. You get more relief if you find a tree to climb. When a tree saves your life, the great feeling of relief builds a neural pathway that wires you to scan for trees.
Your brain constantly scans for information about potential threats and obstacles because the relief feels so good. Your phone brought relief in the past, so your brain expects relief there today. It’s not logical. Our neural networks are not designed from logic. They are designed from experience.article continues after advertisement
The brain built by natural selection keeps promoting its survival by looking for ways to feel good. Many ways to feel good are problematic. Your phone is a way to feel good that has no calories, no legal trouble, and no cognitive impairment.
Accepting your natural impulses helps you find your power over them. Accepting an impulse does not mean acting on it. On the contrary, it’s easier to avoid acting on impulses when you know that they come from old pathways rather than solid fact.
Yet many people are blaming their tech addiction on externals instead of confronting their internals. They blame their impulses on the makers and their favorite devices and content. I understand the habit of blaming “our society” for your internal frustrations. I learned that habit in school and I practiced it for decades. I even taught that habit to my students, which is why I’m so motivated to make amends today. We do not benefit from blaming externals for our internal responses. That just interferes with the essential process of understanding our impulses so we can build power over them.
For example, when I find myself drawn to my phone, I tell myself:
“My brain is looking for a way to feel good. It naturally scans for ways to meet survival needs and relieve threats. My good feelings are quickly metabolized so my brain is always looking for a way to stimulate more. I can’t always deliver them because I can’t control the world. But I know I am safe when my happy chemicals dip, even if it feels like my survival is threatened. I can feel good about choosing my next step, even though I can’t guarantee that it will meet a need and feel good. I trust in my own ability to meet my needs and feel good in the long run.”
Lots more on how to do this in my book Habits of a Happy Brain: Retrain your brain to boost your serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin and endorphin levels
Overcoming obstacles is the natural way to feel good.
Our frustrations are often blamed on modern society, but monkeys had the same frustrations 50 million years ago. They could climb a high tree for a juicy mango only to have it snatched from them by a fellow monkey. But they evolved a brain that thrives on frustration, and we have inherited it. Our brain releases happy chemicals when we overcome an obstacle. But unhappy chemicals serve us too, by letting us know when Plan B is a better use of our energy. Frustration leads to new ways to feel good. Here are some examples.
Cracking nuts open is frustrating, but a monkey needs the protein. It will bang away at a nut for a long time because dopamine triggers a great feeling when a reward is anticipated. Persistence often works, but not always. If your technique is flawed or you’ve picked up a bad nut, persistence gets you nowhere. Knowing when to stop and try something different is the way to succeed. Frustration helps a monkey know when to stop. Giving in to frustration quickly is a bad strategy, but it’s also bad to ignore frustration forever. The primate brain is equipped to weigh the options and decide when to honor frustration and shift focus. The shift opens a monkey to new information, like a better nut or a better technique. Our brains don’t shift easily because old dopamine pathways are efficient and new paths are unproven. Plan B takes a big investment of energy, and frustration motivates that investment.
Monkeys often have their food snatched from them by a bigger stronger monkey. They rarely resist because they’ll get bitten, which hurts more than losing a snack. They will look for a new piece of fruit instead.
A monkey doesn’t go after fruit that’s far from its group because it’s vulnerable to predators when isolated. Instead, it looks for a fruit that’s close, but not close to a more dominant individual. His brain is skilled at figuring this out. The mammal brain is always comparing itself to others. When a monkey sees that it compares favorably, its serotonin surges and it goes for the fruit. It wants to be nice, but it wants to eat too. The monkey is not consciously interested in one-upping others, but he has needs. He learned to meet his needs in youth with the help of serotonin. A young monkey is never fed solid food. He learns to get food while nourished by mother’s milk, and that learning includes how to manage the conflict that comes with group life. After weaning, a juvenile monkey will starve unless he holds his own in a group of monkeys who are bigger than him. He must know how to hold back to avoid harm until his serotonin says its safe, and then go for it. Holding back is frustrating so he eagerly seeks opportunities to let go. All too soon, another dominant monkey frustrates him, but he’s always alert for interactions that he can dominate. (And she is alert for interactions she can dominate. I use male pronouns for simplification.)
A monkey feels good when he gives or receives a grooming because oxytocin is stimulated. But the quest for oxytocin often leads to frustration. Sometimes you groom others and they don’t groom you back. Sometimes they forget you when mating season comes, or when meat is being shared. Sometimes you risk your life defending a grooming buddy and they don’t defend you back.
Frustration motivates you to take your grooming elsewhere, but that can be frustrating too. You might even suffer the indignity of having your grooming offers rejected. Frustration can build to the point that you consider leaving the troop. You risk being eaten alive out alone in the world, but the prospect of new monkeys treating you right lures you on. It’s hard to build trust bonds with new grooming partners, but frustration motivates you to keep trying.
In today’s world, you can avoid the frustrations of your ancestors in many ways. You can eat shelled nuts from a bag on the couch. You can sue people who steal your mangoes. You can negotiate contracts with your grooming partners. But we still get frustrated because our brain keeps trying to stimulate more dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin. The next time you feel frustrated, you can see it as tool that opens you to new information. Frustration is a sign of intelligence because that’s what it takes to consider alternatives. You can celebrate your ability to design a new strategy instead of mourning the disappointment of your expectations. We can never be sure which choice is best, but we can be sure that our brain evolved to make such choices.
A free 5-day happy-chemical jumpstart guide is available on my website, InnerMammalInstitute.org. Sign up here. My book Habits of a Happy Brain has lots more on how to re-wire yourself for more of these happy chemicals. My book The Science of Positivity: Stop Negative Thought Patterns By Changing Your Brain Chemistry helps you recognize the habit of focusing on the negative and design a new habit to replace it. The social aspect of frustration is the subject of my book I, Mammal: How To Make Peace with The Animal Urge for Social Power, and my free slide share It’s Not Easy Being Mammal.
Winning doesn’t matter, we’re told, but something deep inside suggests otherwise. “Our society” creates the urge to win, we’re taught, yet monkeys have been trying to one-up each other for fifty million years. Natural selection built a brain that rewards you with a good feeling when you come out on top. Serotonin is that good feeling. This was discovered in the 1980s, but it is still unmentionable in polite society. [A good summary of the research is The Biochemistry of Status and the Function of Mood States.]
The facts of our natural competitiveness have been submerged by a warm and fuzzy view of nature. Perhaps good intentions are behind this, but the benefits of knowing the inconvenient truth have been overlooked. We are already challenged to manage a brain that strives for social dominance. Understanding that impulse can help us enhance this skill, and to stimulate more good serotonin feelings with less conflict.
Ignoring the facts about our neurochemical inheritance has unfortunate consequences.
- We deride assertive impulses in others while denying or rationalizing them in ourselves and our social allies, resulting in sustained resentments and hostilities.
- We end up with low serotonin if we stifle the natural urge for self-assertion instead of finding healthy ways to direct it.
- We seek moral superiority by avoiding conflict at all costs, and submit to bullies as a result.
We are better off knowing why our brain rewards social dominance with the good feeling of serotonin. Mammals began living in groups for protection from predators, so they needed a way for strong and weak individuals to live side by side. They evolved a brain that constantly compares itself to others. If it sees that it’s at a disadvantage, cortisol is released and it withdraws to avoid pain. If the mammal brain sees that it’s in a position of strength, serotonin is released, and it goes for it. This doesn’t mean constant conflict. On the contrary, animals avoid conflict because they only engage when they expect to win. Usually one individual backs down, knowing it can survive the loss of this food or mating opportunity better than it can survive an injury. Conflict only erupts when two individuals perceive themselves as the likely winner.
When an animal submits to a stronger individual, they do not call it “cooperation” or “empathy.” Yet modern researchers have been putting a positive face on such frictions in nature, even as they put a negative face on frictions in “our society.” Social affiliation does trigger good feelings due to a different brain chemical, oxytocin. Researchers have used this to assert that nurturing and altruism are the state of nature. But the harsh truth is that oxytocin causes herd behavior. It creates a safe feeling when an individual is with its trusted allies, but when a mammal brain sees distance between itself and its herd or pack or troop, oxytocin falls and a cortisol alarm is released. Though we constantly seek the good feeling of oxytocin, our brain is not designed to release it all the time. It evolved to make careful decisions about when to release it because trusting everyone does not promote survival.
Each time serotonin or oxytocin is released, neurons connect that guide future expectations about how to stimulate it. We all wire ourselves to seek good feelings in ways that worked before. Sometimes past experience is a good guide to the future, and sometimes it’s not. We’ve all heard of the tiny poodle who lashes out at German Shepard. The poodle built unrealistic expectations from experiences that were unrepresentative of the larger world. Early experience builds the myelinated superhighways of our brain, so unreliable impulses can be hard to rewire. We all face the world with neural circuits needing adjustment since early experience can never be a perfect representation of the world we live in. Fortunately we can build new pathways to stimulate our happy chemicals in new ways, but it takes a lot of repetition after puberty.
The link between serotonin and social assertion was finally revisited by a 2015 study reporting higher social anxiety in people with higher serotonin. This study does not disprove the serotonin/social dominance connection. On the contrary, it shows how brains that built a large serotonin-seeking habit are concerned about meeting their need for it. More important, it associates low social anxiety with low serotonin. We might want to hear that low social anxiety goes with equanimity and egalitarian virtue, it doesn’t seem to make you happy. Neither position is happy because our brain did not evolve to release happy chemicals constantly for no reason. It evolved to release them to motivate survival behavior.
The warm fuzzy view of our nature is appealing so it’s easy to accept it as a harmless way to “help.” But this kind of help can do more harm than good. It trains people to expect their happy chemicals to flow effortlessly all the time, and to think something is wrong with the world, or with themselves, if their happy chemicals sag. We are better off knowing that these chemicals turn on in short spurts when you see a way to meet a survival need. Then they turn off and you have to do more to get more. For most of human history, it was hard to meet basic needs and people took pleasure in simple things like finding ripe fruit or the glance of a special someone. Our ancestors lived with real threat and pain, not with effortless peace and comfort. But they did not believe they could feel good all the time if only they made the right demands on “the system.”
Today we are habituated to high levels of reward, so it takes even more to stimulate our happy chemicals. Each brain interprets the world through the lens of its own experience. No one has an easy time of it because a step toward one happy chemical can put another at risk, or increase the risk of pain. We all struggle to manage the quirky neurochemical operating system we’ve inherited. It’s not easy being a mammal!
Much more on the potential to rewire our happy chemicals in my book Habits of a Happy Brain: Retrain your brain to boost your serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin and endorphin levels. Plenty of free resources are available from the Inner Mammal Institute.
And the choice to live without partisan goggles.
I am surrounded by political anger. Everyone expects me to be on their side because they are the good guys, and they label me a bad guy if I don’t.
But I can’t bring myself to join up and wear partisan goggles. I’ve tried, and the distortion unnerves me. A partisan lens filters out the good side of “bad guys” and the bad side of “good guys.” So I rip off the goggles and live in the messiness of the unfiltered world.
Life without a herd feels unsafe because isolation is an urgent survival threat in the state of nature. Natural selection built a brain that blasts you with stress chemicals when you leave the safety of the group. I remind myself that this stress is just a chemical, not a fact.
Mammals evolved to seek safety in numbers. Herds are frustrating of course because you have to fill your belly on the same patch of grass that everyone else has trampled. A mammal is tempted to wander off to greener pasture, but it quickly ends up in the jaws of a predator if it does. Natural selection built a brain that alarms you with a bad feeling when you distance yourself from the group, and rewards you with a good feeling when you return. Even predators seek safety in numbers because their food gets stolen by other predators when they’re isolated.
We humans use our verbal brain to explain our actions, so we tend to overlook the power of our mammal brain in motivating our actions. The mammal brain scans for potential threat and responds with the bad feeling of cortisol. It scans for potential reward responds with the good feeling of dopamine, serotonin or oxytocin. When threats are limited, mammals happily fan out to meet their needs. When threats are perceived, mammals retreat to the safety of social alliances. In short, common enemies are the glue that binds. Common enemies motivate mammals to stick to their herd or pack or troop.
So it's easy to see why political groups feed you a constant stream of messages about common enemies. They also stimulate your happy chemicals with promises of rewards that you will enjoy once the enemy is defeated. You always feel like there is promised land of greener pasture but the enemy is keeping it from you. This is why your inner mammal feels good when you're allied with your political group and bad without it. You can easily see this in others but it's important to see how it works in yourself.
When you talk to yourself in words, you define threats and opportunities in sophisticated ways. But your mammal brain defines threats and opportunities in a simpler way. Anything that stimulated your happy chemicals in the past paved neural pathways that turn them on easily in the future. Anything that stimulated your threat chemicals in the past paved neural pathways that turn on your threatened feelings today. You can end up feeling threatened a lot if you don’t understand your inner mammal. You can find yourself in a constant rage with no idea of how you created it.
Our happy and unhappy surges are managed by brain structures inherited from earlier mammals. The mammal brain is focused on survival, but it defines survival in a quirky way. It cares about the survival of your genes, and it relies on neural pathways built in youth. In the modern world, we don't consciously care about spreading our genes or rely on the lessons of youth. We just want to feel good. But your brain releases happy chemicals are released when you take steps toward spreading your unique individual essence in ways that worked when you were young. And your unhappy chemicals are triggered by obstacles to your unique individual essence, especially obstacles that resemble your youth. This is why we end up with life-or-death feelings about relatively minor events.
Political partisanship offers you a way to relieve threatened feelings and enjoy the happy sense of spreading your unique individual essence. You build neural pathways when your chemicals flow, which wires you to expect more good feelings from political partisanship. This is how the goggles build.
But short-run good feelings are not necessarily indicative of long-term well-being. When you blame your anxiety on the “enemy” and stick close to the herd, you get a short-run sense of relief, but you don't build skills that would help you in the long run.
For example, political partisanship teaches you to invoke the greater good to explain your choices. You enjoy a spurt serotonin by creating a sense of moral superiority. You enjoy oxytocin as you perceive social support. You stimulate dopamine as you feel yourself approaching a reward. But you lose touch with reality because your choices are not really serving a greater good and your problems are not really caused by your political "enemies." When you rely on the goggles, you overlook a lot of information. So you feel good in the short run but you undermine your ability to successfully navigate life.
I have my biases like anyone else. My ancestors immigrated to the United States from heavily mafia parts of Italy. No one told me about the mafia when I was young, so I presumed it was an invention of Hollywood. But when I researched the huge blank space in my cultural heritage, I was shocked to learn that the mafia is very real. It lures people into violent social alliances by promising protection from enemies and a share of the rewards. But in fact it steals your resources and embroils you in conflict. Some people go along to feel safe. Others avoid social bonds to reduce the risk of getting enmeshed in conflict. It's a terrible choice to have to make. I am lucky that my family escaped that world, so I do not want to recreate it by engaging in mafia-style focus on common enemies and and herd spoils.
I cannot change the fact that people are mammals, but I can enjoy my power over my own mammal brain.
Read more about your power to resist the pull of the herd in my new book, The Science of Positivity: Stop Negative Thought Patterns By Changing Your Brain Chemistry. And if you want to read about the sadness of polarizing partisanship in different contexts, here are some of my lifetime favorites: Excellent Cadavers, Forty Autumns, Cartwheels in a Sari, Born to Die in Medellin, Fanshen, and The Great Divide: The Conflict between Washington and Jefferson that Defined a Nation. To read more about the impulse to bond around common enemies, I recommend: Baboon Metaphysics, Macachiavellian Intelligence, Chimpanzee Politics, and On Aggression. You may note heavy criticism of these books because your information is inevitably filtered through one set of goggles or another.
You can trigger more happy chemicals naturally. Here’s how.
You can stimulate more happy chemicals with fewer side effects when you understand the job your happy chemicals evolved to do. Here’s a natural way to stimulate each, and to avoid unhappy chemicals.
#1 Dopamine (Embrace a new goal)
Approaching a reward triggers dopamine. When a lion approaches a gazelle, her dopamine surges and the energy she needs for the hunt is released. Your ancestors released dopamine when they found a water hole. The good feeling surged before they actually sipped the water. Just seeing signs of a water-hole turned on the dopamine. Just smelling a gazelle turns on dopamine. The expectation of a reward triggers a good feeling in the mammal brain, and releases the energy you need to reach the reward.
Dopamine alerts your attention to things that meet your needs. How you define your needs depends on your unique life experience. Each time dopamine flowed in your youth, it connected neurons in your brain. Now you’re wired you to meet your needs in ways that felt good in your past.
Dopamine motivates you to seek, whether you’re seeking a medical degree or a parking spot near the donut shop. Dopamine motivates persistence in the pursuit of things that meet your needs, whether it’s a bar that’s open late, the next level in a video game, or a way to feed children. You can stimulate the good feeling of dopamine without behaviors that hurt your best interests. Embrace a new goal and take small steps toward it every day. Your brain will reward you with dopamine each time you take a step. The repetition will build a new dopamine pathway until it’s big enough to compete with the dopamine habit that you’re better off without.
#2 Serotonin (Believe in yourself)
Confidence triggers serotonin. Monkeys try to one-up each other because it stimulates their serotonin. People often do the same. This brain we’ve inherited rewards social dominance because that promotes your genes in the state of nature. As much as you may dislike this, you enjoy the good feeling of serotonin when you feel respected by others. Your brain seeks more of that feeling by repeating behaviors that triggered it in your past. The respect you got in your youth paved neural pathways that tell your brain how to get respect today. Sometimes people seek it in ways that undermine their long-term well-being. The solution is not to dismiss your natural urge for status, because you need the serotonin. Instead, you can develop your belief in your own worth. People are probably respecting you behind your back right now. Focus on that instead of scanning for disrespect. Everyone has wins and losses. If you focus on your losses you will depress your serotonin, even if you’re a rock star or a CEO. You can build the habit of focusing on your wins. You may think it’s cocky or risky or lame, but your serotonin will suffer if you don’t.
#3 Oxytocin (Build trust consciously)
Trust triggers oxytocin. Mammals stick with a herd because they inherited a brain that releases oxytocin when they do. Reptiles cannot stand the company of other reptiles, so it’s not surprising that they only release oxytocin during sex. Social bonds help mammals protect their young from predators, and natural selection built a brain that rewards us with a good feeling when we strengthen those bonds.
Sometimes your trust is betrayed. Trusting someone who is not trustworthy is bad for your survival. Your brain releases unhappy chemicals when your trust is betrayed. That paves neural pathways which tell you when to withhold trust in the future. But if you withhold trust all the time, you deprive yourself of oxytocin. You can stimulate it by building trust consciously. Create realistic expectations that both parties can meet. Each time your expectations are met, your brain rewards you with a good feeling. Continual small steps will build your oxytocin circuits. Trust, verify, and repeat. You will grow to trust yourself as well as others.
#4 Endorphin (Make time to stretch and laugh)
Pain causes endorphin. That’s not what you expect when you hear about the “endorphin high.” But runners don’t get that high unless they push past their limits to the point of distress. Endorphin causes a brief euphoria that masks pain. In the state of nature, it helps an injured animal escape from a predator. It helped our ancestors run for help when injured. Endorphin evolved for survival, not for partying. If you were high on endorphin all the time, you would touch hot stoves and walk on broken legs. Endorphin was meant for emergencies. Inflicting harm on yourself to stimulate endorphin is a bad survival strategy. Fortunately, there are better ways: laughing and stretching. Both of these jiggle your innards in irregular ways, causing moderate wear and tear and moderate endorphin flow. This strategy has its limits. A genuine laugh cannot be produced on demand. A genuine stretch requires a little skill. But when you believe in the power of laughing and stretching, you create opportunities to trigger your endorphin in these ways.
#5 Cortisol (Survive, then thrive)
Cortisol feels bad. It alerts animals to urgent survival threats. Our big brain alerts us to subtle threats as well as urgent ones. The bad feeling of cortisol will always be part of life because your survival is threatened as long as you’re alive. Cortisol especially grabs your attention when it’s not being masked by happy chemicals. You might have a sudden bad feeling when your happy chemicals dip, even though there’s no predator at your door. If you can’t get comfortable with that, you might rush to mask it with any happy-chemical stimulant you’re familiar with.
Your well-being will suffer. You will lose the information the cortisol is trying to give you, and your happy habit will have side effects. More cortisol will flow, thus increasing the temptation to over-stimulate your happy chemicals. This vicious cycle can be avoided if you learn to accept the bad feeling you get when a happy chemical surge is over. It doesn’t mean something is wrong. Cortisol is part of your mammalian steering mechanism, which motivates an organism to approach rewards and avoid threats. You need unhappy chemicals to warn you of potential harm as much as you need happy chemicals to alert you to potential rewards. If you learn to accept your cortisol, you will be free from the rush to mask it in ways that don’t serve you. You will make better decisions and end up with more happy chemicals.
Building New Happy Habits
Your brain got wired from past experience. Each time your neurochemicals surged, your neurons built connections. Experience wired you to turn on your brain chemicals in the ways they turned on in the past.
When you’re young, your neurons build new connections easily. After eighteen, it’s not easy to build new circuits to turn on in new ways. It takes a lot of repetition. So pick a new happy habit and start repeating it. Over time, your new happy habits will feel as natural as your old ones, and you won’t have the unfortunate side effects.
Lots more on rewiring your happy chemical circuits in my new book, Habits of a Happy Brain: Retrain Your Brain to Boost Your Serotonin, Dopamine, Oxytocin and Endorphin. Free downloads on your happy chemicals at Inner Mammal Institute.org (just below the books), and on my Psychology Today bio page under “Research Papers.”
You need to express yourself to feel safe. We are born with no survival skills except the ability to express pain. When you withhold your urge to be heard, you feel helpless and endangered.
A human infant is the most fragile bit of protoplasm on earth. A newborn gazelle can run with the herd the day after it’s born. An elephant walks before its first meal because that’s how it gets to the nipple. A lizard runs away from home the instant it cracks out of its shell, and if it doesn’t run fast enough a parent eats it. Humans are born with no survival skills except the ability to cry out for help, and to learn from the experience. But we do that well.
When a newborn cries, it doesn’t know what milk is. It cries because low blood sugar triggers cortisol, the brain’s emergency alert signal. In animals, cortisol activates survival behaviors, like finding food or escaping predators. Humans are not born with survival knowledge. We’re born with lots of neurons, but few connections between them. So a newborn can’t do anything to meet its own needs except cry.
Imagine feeling your survival is threatened and not being able to do anything about it. That’s the state we’re all born into. Fortunately, crying works! Relief arrives. Soon, the baby feels good, and the brain learns from the good feeling. We learn to expect relief, and that gradually transforms crying into conscious acts of communication.
But as soon as you learn that your hunger gets relieved, new emergencies crop up. You learn that the person who relieves your distress sometimes disappears! You experience pain when your body suddenly falls! Pain and the expectation of pain trigger cortisol, and all you can do is cry. So the first experience in each brain, the foundation on which all later experience rests, is the sense that you will die if you are not heard. A baby doesn’t think this cognitively. It feels it in the wordless neurochemical way that an animal experiences survival threats.
More complex ways of reacting to cortisol grow with time. An adult may not even notice the insecurity at the core of their brain’s experience. You may think you’re better off without your primal feelings of vulnerability. But they are part of being human. The more you know where they come from, the less effort you waste finding things to blame them on. Understanding our primal fragility is very freeing.
Why would natural selection produce a creature as preposterously fragile as a human infant? It appears that brains grew bigger in utero as mothers got more fat. A big-brained fetus has to get born sooner or it wouldn’t fit through the birth canal. We get born so soon that our nervous system has not finished hooking itself up. A full-term human infant is oddly similar to a chimpanzee born a few months premature.
Our prematurity has some curious advantages. First, it left babies so fragile that only the strong communicators survived. Mothers good at interpreting their infants’ signals kept their DNA alive. Communication skills were naturally selected for.
Second, we get to learn survival skills instead of coming pre-programmed for survival in a specific environment. Animals die when they leave their home range, but humans can learn to live almost anywhere.
But we pay a high price for this ability to learn. We have to learn everything. When a baby sees a hand in front of his face, he doesn’t know he’s attached to it, much less that he has the potential to control it. A baby must learn about his hands from experience.
The bigger a creature’s brain, the longer its childhood. A newborn mouse takes two months to learn the skills needed to survive on their own, while a human take two decades. The more neurons a creature has, the longer it takes to do something useful with them.
Extra neurons make it harder to survive because they require so much energy and oxygen. Neurons only promote survival if you really get your money’s worth out of them. That means connecting them up from life experience so you’re not limited to the knowledge of your ancestors.
Babies are good at creating neural pathways in response to experience. For example:
1. Babies coat their neural pathways with a fatty substance called myelin, which is like the insulation on wires. Myelinated neurons are much faster and more efficient than other neural pathways. Myelination happens readily at birth and at puberty.
2. Babies prune their brains. A two year-old has fewer neurons than a newborn, and that helps it focus on learned experience instead of spreading its attention everywhere. A toddler’s unused neurons start to atrophy, encouraging electricity to flow through established neural pathways instead of firing all over the place.
3. Babies learn from pleasure. Happy neurochemicals are triggered when an infant’s distress is relieved. Dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin develop synapses each time they are released, building connections to everything associated with the relief. We wire ourselves to feel good when we see anything associated with good feelings in the past.
The adult brain has some neuroplasticity, but we evolved to build our neural network in youth. The mental model of the world that you built as a child is the model you are still working with. Your early expectations about meeting your needs are still there. You might wish you could change them, but your brain resists using new neural trails when it already has a neural superhighway.
Like every creature in nature, you were born to go out and meet your own survival needs. As you go through life, the world doesn’t always meet the expectations you’ve built. Sometimes your cortisol flows and your survival feels threatened. You find mature ways of crying out for support, but it often seems that your cries go unheard. Instead of concluding that something is wrong with the world, it helps to appreciate the vulnerable organism you started out as.
More on your brain’s early social learning in my book Habits of a Happy Brain: Retrain your brain to boost your serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin and endorphin levels .
Your teen self is still the core of who you are
Does life sometimes seem like a high school cafeteria? It's not your imagination. Our brain is designed to wire itself in adolescence. Our emotional brain is inherited from earlier mammals, who struggle for status in their herd or pack or troop. As a result, the status struggles of adolescence form the core of our emotional brain.
Mammals compete for status in a herd or pack or troop because it promotes reproductive success. There is no free love in nature. Sex has preliminary qualifying events in every species, and animals spend years perfecting their skills. The traits linked to “popularity” in high school are eerily similar to the traits that promote reproductive success in earlier mammals: physical strength, attractiveness to the opposite sex, social alliances, and a willingness to take risks. Natural selection produced a brain that cares about these traits because that promotes survival.
Adolescents seek status without the polite veneer of adulthood. The mammalian struggle of high school gets wired into your brain because hormones stimulate the growth of neurons. . Your teen years built the neural network of how the world works. You might want to distance from your teen self, but the neural pathways you built then are real. Permanent neural circuits build in adolescence for a good reason. Mammals often move to a new group before they mate, and they need to learn a new environment to survive. Your ancestors moved to a new village or tribe to marry. They had to learn a new language, new customs, new geography. Natural selection produced a brain that’s good at re-wiring itself during puberty. This happens without conscious intent. Animals prevent in-breeding without conscious awareness of their genes, and high school students connect neurons to their happy and unhappy chemicals with the same lack of awareness.
Serotonin plays a key role in this drama. A monkey’s serotonin level rises when it is socially dominant. A monkey that’s too aggressive is ostracized by its fellow monkeys and dies alone in the wilderness. But a monkey that always submits has low serotonin. Adolescence is the time when we build our ability to hold our own among others. We are surrounded with others trying to do the same thing. It’s frustrating, but it comes with the gift of life.
I am not saying we should go through life fretting over who sits at which table. I am saying that your brain is constantly deciding whether to submit or seek dominance in relation to those around you. You can say you don’t care what others think, but your serotonin soars when you get respect. The good feeling motivates you to seek more. Each choice has its risks and rewards. Over time, you wire yourself to repeat behaviors that trigger serotonin and avoid behaviors that trigger cortisol. Most of that wiring is built in adolescence because the brain is more plastic then. Your teen self learned ways of navigating the social world that are still with you.
Feelings of insecurity are natural. In the animal world, a critter loses its juvenile prerogatives at puberty and has to establish its own place in the adult hierarchy. In the human world, you may have parental support in high school, but you realize that your parents can’t give you what you most want—the respect of your peers. You realize that you have to go for it yourself. Insecure feelings are the natural response. It helps to know that all mammals go through the same thing.
Your sense of personal power grows as you mature. An intriguing resource on this topic is a CD called Depression: A Disorder of Power. The author, PT Blogger Susan Heitler, explains that perceiving yourself as powerless causes depression. The solution is to build your internal sense of personal power. No one can give you this power. Nor can you demand it. Those are children’s strategies. As you grow in life experience, you learn to negotiate and collaborate with those around you. Teens negotiate awkwardly because they are just starting to learn the skill. Over time, your ability to negotiate with others grows, and your personal power grows with it.
Another useful resource is Mammal at the Movies, my free guide to movies that explore the mammalian competition for social dominance. These are warm-hearted movies rooted in self-acceptance, not cynicism.
This brain we've inherited seeks attention as if your life depended on it because from the perspective of your genes, it does. In every mammalian herd or pack or troop, some individuals get more attention than others. Your adult brain experiences the competition for attention through the lens of the neural pathways you have. Electricity flows in your brain the way water flows through pipes, finding the path of least resistance.Your pipes built up during your years of peak neuroplasticity. Whenever brain chemicals surge, neurons connects. Things that made you happy as a teen built neural circuits that wire you to turn on your happy chemicals in that way in the future. When you felt bad, the unhappy chemicals paved neural pathways so you’re ready to avoid similar threats in the future. In adolescence, you re-wired the circuits that control your neurochemicals. You've added polish since then, but your teen self is still the core of your neural infrastructure.
When you accept your primal urge for recognition, the world makes sense. Your neurochemical ups and downs make sense and other people make sense. That doesn’t mean you should act on your teen impulses. But you can accept their authenticity instead of dismissing them. Instead of berating your impulses, you can honor the effort you invest in managing them. Instead of being frustrated with the world and with others, you can accept that you are a mammal among mammals.
Fun and support
The movie Mean Girls shows high school through the eyes of a field biologist in these short clips (the water hole scene and the cafeteria girl fight). They are hilarious in themselves, but Linsey Lohan playing field biologist makes them all the more…mammalian.
Habits of a Happy Brain: Retrain your brain to boost your serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin and endorphin levels
This book explains how experience wires our happy chemicals.
I, Mammal: How to Make Peace With the Animal Urge for Social Powerl
This book explores the social behaviors prompted by mammalian neurochemicals.
Patronage works in the Baboon World
Every baboon troop is led by an alpha who holds power until ousted by a challenger. Brute force makes you alpha among small-brained mammals like bovines, but in the primate world, power is won by trading favors. Baboons have curiously familiar ways of winning support. They share meat after a hunt. They groom the fur of influential troop-mates. They fight lions while their troop-mates climb up trees and watch. Patronage works. A baboon becomes alpha when his alliance is capable of overpowering the reigning baboon’s alliance.
But once an alpha baboon consolidates power, he starts dominating the troop’s food and mating opportunities. He only shares with his supporters. He demands more groomings from his troop-mates than he offers them. If his troop-mates don’t like it, they can leave (which means instant death in the jaws of a lion); or they can support a challenger (which means more meat and mating opportunity if you're on the winning side, and gaping wounds from the alpha’s huge incisors if you're not lucky).
Female baboons have a dominance hierarchy of their own. An alpha female will grab food from her female troop-mates to favor her own child. But female baboons tend to follow their leader when foraging because she’s good at finding food and keeping the group safely together.
It behooves a baboon to choose its alpha wisely. Following a leader who fails to find food or repulse lions has harsh consequences in the state of nature. One’s genes are likely to get wiped out. Natural selection produced a brain that’s good at sizing up leaders and social alliances.
Yet baboons have realistic expectations about their leaders. They don’t expect the alpha to relieve them from the daily challenge of meeting their own needs. They keep foraging for food even though they get an occasional chunk from the alpha. They stay alert for lions even though they get help chasing them off from the alpha. Today’s baboons were naturally selected for their ability to meet their own survival needs.
Researchers find high cortisol levels in troops whose alpha is facing a challenger. Stress hormones surge because conflicts flare up when dominance is contested. Eventually, power is consolidated, conflict dies down, and cortisol returns to normal. These eruptions are the price primates pay for the opportunity to choose sides in a power struggle instead of having fixed dominance hierarchies determined by butting heads, as smaller-brained species do.
Baboons don’t intellectualize about their preferences. They follow the patronage without illusions about the common good. That’s because feel-good brain chemicals are released when a mammal perceives food, protection, grooming, and mating opportunity. Neurochemicals pave neural pathways, so the baboon’s brain keeps associating the patron with the good feeling.
Humans have a much bigger cortex than other mammals. A big cortex can manage enough detail to build abstractions, such as words. But beneath the cortex is the "limbic system" that all mammals have in common. It wordlessly releases feel-good chemicals when it sees something good for survival. When you feel good about a leader, you may think your response is motivated by the information in your cortex. But your cortex scans for information that explains the neurochemistry already released by your limbic brain. We don’t realize this because the cortex generates verbal explanations for its conclusions and the limbic brain doesn't. A big-brained human can always find words to explain it good feelings about a social alliance, but the words are not the source of impulse. We are not slaves to our mammalian impulses, but we must be aware of them in order to transcend them.
Want to read more about mammalian social alliances? You might like my book, I, Mammal: How to Make Peace with the Animal Urge for Social Power, or my recommended reading list.
"When I'm good no one remembers.
When I'm bad no one forgets."
This lament rings true for most people. What if you fed your brainwith appreciation for yourself? It may sound like cheating, but it works. It won't win you a Nobel Prize, but it triggers brain chemistry akin to winning. Appreciating yourself is not like sending yourself flowers because it builds positive neural pathways that last longer than flowers.
Feeling good is no substitute for action, of course. They're two separate skills that are both essential. Acting good doesn't always make you feel good because good feelings depend on the neural pathways you've built to the happy neurochemicals (dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, endorphins). More-developed links to your "happy chemicals" turn on the faucets more easily.
When life hits your brain, you route the experience down one neural pathway or another. The electricity in your brain seeks a path the way water flows downhill, finding the path of least resistance and flowing toward the biggest channels. If your big neural channels lead mostly to your unhappy chemicals, they dominate your response to life experience.
Our unhappy circuits are well-developed for a reason. The brain evolved for survival, and it scans for things that can go wrong. We might not be here today if our brains were mainly scanning for things to feel good about. But while we face and conquer threats, we also crave happy chemicals.
Your happy chemicals did not evolve to flow all the time. Good feelings evolved to alert you to things that promote survival in the state of nature. If you want to coax more happy chemicals from this ancient operating system, you have to create the infrastructure. Fortunately, it's easy, and it's free.
All it takes is dwelling on the good. Every time you linger on the thought of something good in your life, you strengthen the neural pathways that conduct electricity to your happy-chemical faucets.
"Good stuff doesn't happen to me," you may think. Or "what if I'm not all that good?" Fortunately, that can make it easier for you to start building – the way an out-of-shape person can easily raise his heart rate when he starts exercising. Small happy circuits gets a boost from small additions.
Exercise develops your happy circuits. You just need to feed them on thoughts of your own triumphs, be they large or small. Maybe you'll choose not to do this. Maybe you think other people should make you happy. Perhaps you think it's weak to be happy. Or you need unhappy chemicals surging to feel like yourself. It's your brain, so you get to decide. You choose the apps to install in your equipment, and you live with the results.
Getting everything you wish for does not make you feel good. Your brain soon generates new desires, so new feelings of disappointment, frustration, deprivation or inadequacy tend to emerge. Instead of fretting over the old wiring, you can focus on the new wiring you are building. You take steps toward your new desires, and you feel good about the steps. The skill of feeling good keeps building.
Lots more about happy chemicals and the job they evolved to do in my book Habits of a Happy Brain: Retrain your brain to boost your serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin and endorphin levels