Happy brain: Connect with your inner mammal

Loretta Breuning is the founder of The Inner Mammal Institute. She holds a PhD in Psychology and has studied it form a biological perspective. She is the author of “Habits of a Happy Brain”, “The Science of Positivity”, among others, and Professor Emerita of Management at California State University, East Bay.

This topic is fascinating to me. I was so excited when i discovered it after having studied Psychology for my whole adult life. The research on animals really helped me understand myself and my automatic responses and to redirect those responses. That’s the whole goal of my work: First, to be honest about our inner mammal, and then second, to understand our power to redirect it individually in our own heads.

We tend to idealize the social bonds of animals and it’s easy to project onto them that they’re they’re all warm, fuzzy and nice to each other, but the reality we know is that animals have a lot of conflict in their groups. Animals stick with their groups despite the conflict because it gives them protection from predators.

We all like our independence but when we feel threatened, we look for the safety of social support. We want both: we want that independence, but we want that safety of social support and both are natural, so self-acceptance is a big part of making peace with your inner mammal.

Biology can help us understand these impulses and find a better way. We’re going to talk about why our brain urgently seeks the good feeling of belonging, why it’s hard to get that and what would be some new ways to get it.

Why our brain seeks the good feeling of belonging

We know an isolated mammal is quickly killed by predators, so natural selection builds a brain that rewards you with the good feeling of oxytocin when you find social support. Oxytocin motivates us to find social support by making it feel good. When you leave the herd, your oxytocin falls and you feel threatened.

Oxytocin creates the sense that it’s safe to lower your guard so this is what you’re really feeling when you have social support: I can lower my guard because, if there’s danger, the rest of the herd will alert me and that’s what allows a herd animal to relax enough to eat rather than constantly being on high alert for predators.

Why is it hard to get?

Our brain is not designed to release oxytocin all the time. This is the frustrating part. The truth is: everybody’s oxytocin is low until they do something to stimulate it and then, in a short time, it’s metabolized, then it’s gone and then you have to do something to stimulate it again. That is how our brain is designed to work.

If you had oxytocin all the time you would lower your guard when you should not. The mammal brain evolved to make careful decisions about when to release the oxytocin neurons, connect when oxytocin flows and that wires you to turn it on more easily in similar circumstances so each brain is eager to repeat behaviors that triggered the good feeling in the past. 

Of all the happy chemicals, you only get a little bit of it in the right situation that’s supposed to motivate action, a step towards survival. So, trust is what the mammal brain is really looking for.

We define trust with oxytocin pathways built from past experience which is indeed complex. When your trust is betrayed, your cortisol surges because the threat is so close that it wires you not to trust in similar situations. Each brain expects conflict or rejection where they found it before.

Now, the conflict or rejection, and we all have both, of your youth is what built the biggest pathways in your brain.

Strategies to get a happy brain

Here are three short, simple ways to stimulate oxytocin:

  1. Build one to one trust skills: If you build trust with individuals, you’re less dependent on the herd for your oxytocin. Confidence in your own trust building skills allows you to take independent steps without feeling like your survival is threatened. 
  2. Small steps repeated: Small acts of trust stimulate oxytocin. Keep taking small steps toward others and repetition will build a neural pathway that expects trust. Expectation is really a path to the on switch of your oxytocin.
  3. Realistic expectations: This is the complication of life. We have big expectations about social support. We define social support in some grand way because when we’re young we need so much support and when we’re young is when our brain is wired, so we wire in the expectation that the world should support me and that’s just not realistic, but nobody’s out there telling you that, so I’m telling you that.

In childhood, survival depends on being understood. Our early circuits the foundation of your brain is that other people must meet my needs or else I’m going to cry. We all wire in strong feelings about being understood that remain with us for life; of course your verbal brain doesn’t think that, your verbal brain thinks “if I’m upset, it must be a real fact that something is wrong with the world”, because the electricity in the brain flows like water in a storm. It finds the paths of of least resistance.

I know that people are often criticized and say ”don’t run on automatic”, but our brain is actually designed to run on automatic. That’s why our goal is to make new behaviors automatic. How can I do that? With repetition, otherwise we repeat all patterns without conscious intent. This is why we feel like we must follow the old herd, because we won’t get oxytocin without it.

The bottom line is: 

  1. You can have group trust, social trust and individual bonds while still accepting that the other person is a mammal who is pushing to meet their own survival needs and you are a mammal who is pushing to meet your survival needs. 
  2. Oxytocin allows mammals to form attachments, but the brain constantly weighs the survival benefits of those attachments.
  3. Mammals cooperate when the reward is mutual and, if you can accept that, then you can be more skillful in building those bridges that will allow you to feel safe and to feel safe automatically because you’ll have replaced those cortisol bonds of low trust with oxytocin bonds of higher trust. 
  4. Our brain evolved to promote survival not to make you feel good all the time, so when you understand it you can take the steps you need to feel good.
  5. Our brain saves the happy chemicals for behavior that promotes survival: you seek belonging because it meets your survival needs and others seek belonging because it meets their survival needs. 

We all have ups and downs shaped by old pathways but understanding the mammal brain helps us manage it better. 

Thank you for joining me.

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