Subject: Oxytocin ☺ Happy chemical jumpstart #4

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Happy Chemical
Jumpstart #4
Fellow mammal,

Oxytocin creates the great feeling of trust. You feel safe and protected with a person or group you trust because oxytocin is flowing.

It would be nice to have that feeling all the time, but our brain is designed for survival. Trusting everyone everywhere does not promote survival. 
We are designed to make careful decisions about when to release the trust.

Why We Seek Social Trust So Urgently

Mammals seek safety in numbers. An isolated mammal is quickly picked off by a predator. Social alliances promote survival in the state of nature, and natural selection built a brain that rewards you with a great feeling when you build them.

Your oxytocin turns on when you see signs that you have social support. But it's quickly metabolized, so we look for more signs of social support to keep enjoying it. We feel threatened when it stops.

Sometimes your trust is disappointed, and that triggers a huge cortisol surge. It's easy to see why in the animal world. Many apes are missing a finger or toe because they let the wrong ape get too close. Anyone close enough to touch you is close enough to hurt you.

The mammal brain evolved to make careful decisions about when to trust, not to release the good feeling all the time for no reason. 

Trust and Touch Go Together

Touch trigger a lot of oxytocin, but only when you are touched by someone you trust. If the oxytocin isn't flowing already, touch triggers cortisol.

Physical closeness without touching also triggers some oxytocin in the context of trust. If you are in a big stadium with people who share your love of a certain kind of music or your interest in politics, or who root for your team, you are enjoying oxytocin.


When your trust is betrayed, it feels like an attack, even though you know you were not literally attacked. The fact is that your own expectations cause this feeling. Trust is an expectation. The brain releases cortisol when your expectations are not met. We can relieve stress by understanding our expectations about trust.

Trust = Expectations  

Expectations are just neural circuits built by past experience. Your past oxytocin experiences pave neural pathways that tell your brain where to expect more good feelings. But life doesn't always fit your old circuits, so you don't always get the good feelings you seek.

And to make life harder, cortisol builds circuits that tell your brain where to expect harm. Your brain strives constantly to avoid harm, so it's constantly trying to avoid anything similar to your past betrayals.

So how can you enjoy oxytocin while avoiding cortisol? It's a real conundrum. It's useful to know more about the mammal brain's quest for social trust.

Why Mammals Seek Social Bonds

Reptiles don't trust anyone. They release an oxytocin-equivalent while mating and avoid their colleagues the rest of the time. Without the protection of a group, reptiles lose most of their babies to predators. But they can produce hundreds of babies, or thousands, so their genes survive. Mammals, by contrast, produce few babies in a lifetime because a warm-blooded baby is so hard to gestate. A mama mammal has to guard each one vigilantly to keep her genes alive. Oxytocin makes that happen.
Oxytocin causes attachment
in both mother and child

A big oxytocin surge triggers the birth process. But it's soon metabolized, so a mama mammal stimulates more by holding or licking her baby. Neurons connect and wire a young mammal to release oxytocin in the presence of similar cues. This motivates a baby to stay safely by its mother without actually understanding predator threat.

Over time, attachment transfers from mother to peers. This is how young mammals wire themselves to survive when their mother is gone. It explains the special feelings we have about cues from our past - be it foods, objects, or activities.

Nature’s Alarm System

A herd is nature's alarm system. It allows you to relax by spreading the burden of vigilance over many eyes and ears.

This only works if you run when your group mates run. A sheep who waited to see the wolf for itself would not live to pass on its genes.

The Alarm of Social Isolation

Social isolation is a real danger in the state of nature. We humans are skeptical of "following the herd," for good reason. But when we get too far from the herd, our oxytocin falls and we feel threatened.

We are descended from mammals who trusted their group mates, and ran when they ran. That's why we relax when with our trusted group relaxes, and sense danger when they feel endangered, despite our best intentions.

The Dilemma of Herd Life

But life in a herd is not all warm and fuzzy. It's often frustrating because many hungry mouths see the same juicy treat. A mammal is tempted to wander off toward greener pasture, but its oxytocin falls as it distances from the herd. An alarmed feeling grows, motivating a return to the good feeling of safety in numbers.

It's a real dilemma. An isolated mammal has poor survival prospects in most ecological niches. But a mammal that sticks with the group endures a lot of competition on the path to meeting its needs.

Fortunately, our brain evolved to tackle this problem. It weighs the expected reward of a step in one direction vs another. One step may bring food that triggers your dopamine, or mating opportunity that triggers your oxytocin. Another step triggers your alarm. The mammal brain chooses one step at a time, seeking a path toward rewards while avoiding harm.

Pros and Cons of Group Life

It takes a herd to protect a baby from predators in most species. Elephants need a troop to protect their young from lions. Even a lion needs a pack to protect their food from hyenas. Monkeys need a troop to warn them of approaching snakes, raptors, and carnivores. A mama mammal typically builds ties with a herd or pack or troop to protect her genetic investments.

But group life brings frustrating conflict that tempts a mammal to leave. Common enemies are the reason they stay.

Common enemies

Common enemies bind mammals together despite inevitable frictions within the group.

When you're in a group, how much time do they spend talking about their common enemies? Probably a lot, because it's what binds a group together.

Individual bonds vs group bonds
The primate brain is big enough to build individual bonds as well as group bonds. Primates can even build new social alliances when old ones fail.

Grooming is a key tool for doing that. Oxytocin is stimulated when a monkey's fur is stroked by a grooming buddy searching for bugs. The oxytocin connects all the neurons active at that moment, wiring the primate to expect good feelings from that individual in the future. 

Grooming and Social Politics

This is not as cozy as it sounds. Sometimes a monkey grooms a troop-mate who does not groom it back. Sometimes they get left out while others groom. They may even get bitten by an old grooming partner.

The biggest problem is that grooming buddies expect you to protect them from attackers. Field research shows that primates cry out when endangered and their social allies tend to come their aid. You are expected to return the favor, of course, and run to the support of a threatened ally. As a result, social alliances bring threat as well as protection.

To complicate things further, your cries for help may be ignored by individuals who you defended at great risk. (That's how you remember it, anyway.) 

Betrayal and Threat

Betrayed trust feels awful but it serves a useful purpose. It connects neurons that tell you not to expect social support when you're not likely to get it.

You may distance yourself from those who betray your expectations. But you may feel more threatened without them. You can end up feeling as threatened as a lone gazelle in a world full of lions, even if your life is quite safe.

It helps to know how monkeys sustain their social alliances. They offer groomings to new potential partners, or to make up with old ones. The mammal brain is always scanning for good ways to stimulate oxytocin. But it is always  scanning for betrayal too! It's not easy being a mammal!

How Humans Build Social Bonds

We humans don't pick bugs out of each other's fur, but we have myriad strategies for stimulating oxytocin. We cheer in stadiums with thousands of strangers. Or go home from bars with strangers. Or chat online with virtual friends while ignoring real people they feel betrayed by.

Every oxytocin strategy has its limits. We were meant to release it only when trust promotes survival, not to be high on it all the time. But you can enjoy more oxytocin if you try some new oxytocin strategies.

1. Trust but verify
Trust and accountability go together. Trust builds slowly after the oxytocin surges of youth. Accountability creates stepping stones that make this slow building possible.

You may think trust means no accountability. You are likely to end up feeling betrayed if you insist on such idealized trust. That's when it's good to know that you can build trust in small steps. Animals build trust incrementally by learning from rewards and pain. Your big brain can do that consciously. Articulate expectations and enjoy the trust that builds every time an expectation is met.

2. Get a massage
The oxytocin bliss of a massage can be yours without the high cost of a spa. You can find a massage buddy or learn the effective self-massage techniques of qi gong. My massage adventures in China were a fun way to build awareness of social trust.

3. Accept your mammalian nature
We long for perfect social trust because the mammal brain makes it feel so good. We long for the bar where everybody knows your name; for a family that cheers your accomplishments and ignores your missteps; for the gang that's always there for you but never makes annoying demands

These idealized expectations are often disappointed. When you don't feel the safety of the herd, your inner mammal gives you the feeling that something is wrong, even if you're doing what's right.

You can accept your oxytocin ups and and downs as products of your mammal brain instead of taking them as facts about the real world. You don't have to believe the whole world is up and down when your oxytocin is up and down. You can remind yourself that your brain is inherited from social animals. Your verbal brain can accept your chemistry instead of making generalizations about the state of the world.

Your ancestors did not feel good about their social alliances in every moment. Social alliances are valuable but they are hard to build. That's why the brain rewards you for building them.

You Can Train Your Brain

Your mammal brain and your human cortex are always working together to promote your survival. Your cortex can help your inner mammal see the good in the world when your oxytocin dips. And your inner mammal can help your cortex feel good when it is zooming in on threat signals. We have two brains because we need both!

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