of the Inner Mammal Institute
- Good feelings come from brain chemicals we’ve inherited from earlier mammals: dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, endorphin. These chemicals did not evolve to make you happy. They’re designed to reward you with a good feeling when you take steps that promote your survival.
- Your chemicals are controlled by your limbic system, which includes the amygdala, hippocampus, hypothalamus, pituitary, etc. Your limbic system can’t process language, so it can’t tell you in words why it’s releasing a particular chemical. Your limbic system is extremely similar to that of other mammals, so we refer to it here as your “mammal brain.”
- The mammal brain releases a good feeling when it sees something good for your survival, and a bad feeling (cortisol) when it see a survival threat. 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.
- Your happy chemicals evolved to reward survival behavior, not to flow all the time for no reason. They turn on in short spurts that are soon metabolized, so you always have to do more to get more.
- Neurons connect when your chemicals flow, which wires you to release them faster in similar future situations. The wiring built in youth is super-efficient thanks to myelin, which insulates neurons so they conduct electricity at super speeds. This is why we default to old pathways so easily.
- You can build new pathways by feeding your brain new experiences. But it takes a lot of repetition once the myelin spurt of puberty is over.
- When you know what stimulates happy chemicals in the state of nature, it’s easier to find healthy new ways to stimulate them.
- Dopamine creates a feeling of excitement when you see a way to meet a need. Animals have to forage constantly to survive, and dopamine makes it feel good. It releases your reserve tank of energy when you see a reward that you think you can get. Each step closer triggers more of the joyful feeling, and an extra-large spurt is released when a reward is bigger than you expected. But once a reward is expected, the dopamine stops because it has already done its job. That’s why it always takes new rewards to trigger dopamine.
- Oxytocin creates the good feeling of social support. An animal who leaves the herd risks instant death in the jaws of a predator, so natural selection built a brain that rewards you with the good feeling of oxytocin when you stick to safety in numbers. Touch triggers oxytocin, but only after trust has been established, because a critter close enough to touch you is close enough to hurt you. Our brain evolved to make careful decisions about when to trust instead of releasing oxytocin all the time.
- Serotonin creates the nice feeling of calm confidence when you compare yourself favorably to others. The mammal brain constantly compares itself to others because it’s likely to get bitten if it reaches for food or mating opportunity in the presence of a stronger individual. To survive, it constantly looks for a way to be in the position of strength. The mammal brain rewards you with the good feeling of serotonin when see that you compare favorably to others, and that motivates you to assert to meet your needs. But when you think you’re weaker than the monkey next to you, your mammal brain alarms you with cortisol. Serotonin is quickly metabolized, so we mammal are always looking for opportunities to gain a position of strength.
- Endorphin is triggered by physical pain. It masks pain with a euphoric feeling, which gives an injured body a chance to run for its life. The endorphin soon passes because a mammal needs pain to know that an injury needs protecting. Endorphin evolved for emergencies, not to inflict pain on yourself to get a moment of pleasure.
- Cortisol is the body’s emergency alarm. It’s triggered by pain and the anticipation of pain. The bad feeling of cortisol motivates a body to act fast to make it stop. Neurons connect when cortisol flows, which wires a brain to turn it on faster when it sees anything related to past pain. Cortisol alerts you to internal threats, like hunger, cold, or injury; and to external threats, like predators and social isolation. Obstacles and disappointments feel like survival threats because your mammal brain has connected them to your cortisol in your past.
- Humans are born with billions of neurons but very few connections between them. We build our neural network by interacting with the world. Experience builds the pathways that tell you “this is good for me” and “this is bad for me.”
- The electricity in your brain flows like water in a storm, finding the path of least resistance. Pathways build from repetition, emotion, and the myelin of youth. Each brain relies on the pathways built from its unique individual experience.
- Your myelinated pathways are so efficient that whatever you do with them feels natural, normal, and easy. Myelin is abundant before age eight and during puberty, so the experiences of those years builds the neural superhighways that you respond to the world with today.
- We can divert our electricity from the path of least resistance into new paths, but it takes tremendous energy to send electricity down unmyelinated neurons and across undeveloped synapses. You can do it if you give it your full attention, like when you try to remember a phone number without writing it down.
- If you activate a new neural trail repeatedly, connections develop and electricity starts to flow. It’s like blazing a new trail through the jungle. At first, it’s so hard that you just want to take the paved highway, even though it goes to a bad place. But if you blaze the same new trail every day, a new path gets established. If you neglect a day, the jungle grows back and the new trail will disappears. This is why new habits are hard to build.
- When your new trail is small, it feels wrong because your electricity doesn’t flow. Your old path feels right even when you know it’s the wrong thing to do because your electricity flows there so easily. So the way to rewire is to keep repeating the new behavior even though it feels wrong. To make it easier, reward yourself for doing it. Give yourself a healthy treat each time you activate that new path you’re trying to build.
- To build a new dopamine circuit, set a small goal each day and take steps to reach it. You will train your brain to expect to reach your goal by taking step after step. Give yourself a long-term goal, a short-term goal, and a middle-term goal, so you can shift from one to another when you hit an obstacles. Keep finding a way to move forward and you will keep stimulating dopamine.
- To build a new oxytocin circuit, trust others in tiny steps. Find a safe opportunity to give and receive support each day, and you will train your brain to trust that you will have support when you need it.
- To build a new serotonin circuit, focus on your strength instead of on the strength of others. Once a day, put yourself up without putting others down. Social comparison comes naturally to the mammal brain, but you can learn to notice yourself doing it. You will stop feeling like a victim of other people’s comparisons because you will see that you’re creating those feelings yourself.
- Laughing triggers a bit of endorphin because it jiggles your innards. You can make space in your life for laughter by giving yourself permission instead of dismissing it as foolish. Exercise is essential, but exercising to the point of pain to stimulate endorphin is a bad survival strategy. We evolved to seek dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin, but to save endorphin for emergencies only.
- Relief from cortisol is the best feeling of all to your mammal brain. Anything that relieved a threatened feeling in your past is seen as a life saver to your inner mammal. That’s why we care so much about things that got us through a bad time in the past, even if they’re bad for us in the present. Fortunately, we have the power to re-wire ourselves with more sustainable ways to relieve that cortisol alarm.
- Mirror neurons prompt us to seek rewards when we see others get them, and to avoid harm when we see others get harmed. Without conscious intent, you learned to mirror the reward-seeking and threat-avoid habits of those around you when you were young.
- Your brain learns from rewards, so plan ways to reward yourself for the behaviors you want more of. Be careful not to reward yourself for undesired behavior– this sounds obvious and yet we often reward bad behavior without conscious intent. Develop a tool kit of healthy rewards so you don’t depend on unhealthy rewards that you learned in the past.
Loretta Graziano Breuning, PhD
Founder, Inner Mammal Institute