Subject: Serotonin ☺ Happy chemical jumpstart #3

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Happy Chemical Jumpstart #3
Fellow mammal,

Serotonin makes you feel special

We've inherited a brain that strives to feel special because that promotes survival in the state of nature. It may sound rude, but this is why we have a sense of urgency about being special despite our best intentions. When you find a moment of social importance, your brain rewards you with the good feeling of serotonin.

Serotonin is not aggression. It's the calm secure feeling that you have what it takes to meet your needs. We want this feeling all the time, but our brain is not designed to release it for no reason. It saves it for actual moments of social dominance. This makes life complicated!

And to make things harder still, serotonin is soon metabolized so the good feeling is gone until you make yourself special again. We all struggle to manage this frustrating operating system in a world where everyone else is trying to be special too.

This is not what they've told you about serotonin. It's uncomfortable and you may think it's wrong. Let's look closer at the mammalian facts of life. (Research and references on my serotonin page.)

Serotonin in nature

Mammal groups are very hierarchical. Stronger individuals get more food and mating opportunity and make more copies of their genes. Natural selection built a brain that rewards you with the good feeling of serotonin when you assert yourself and prevail.

A mammalian hierarchy is not a fixed thing. It is constantly negotiated, as each individual looks for opportunities to promote its genes while avoiding the risk of being injured. Animals with bigger brains do more negotiating, while animals with smaller brains repeat the social responses they've learned until their environment changes.

Let's see how this works from an animal perspective. When a little monkey reaches for a piece of fruit near a bigger monkey, the little monkey is likely to get bitten or clawed (once its juvenile markings are gone). Pain triggers cortisol, which wires the little monkey to avoid reaching for food near a bigger monkey in the future.

But the little monkey is hungry. It has to eat. (Mother monkeys don't feed their young except for breast milk.) So it has to find an opportunity where it can prevail. It looks around for a fruit near a weaker monkey. When it sees one, serotonin is released and it goes for it. Serotonin is your brain's way of saying, "relax, you're strong enough to be safe."

Mating opportunity works the same way. A mammal must assert itself for its genes to survive, but if it asserts too much, it ends up in pain. Thus the mammal brain evolved to make careful decisions about when to assert itself and when to restrain itself. Serotonin conveys the message that it's safe to assert, and cortisol conveys the message that it's safer to hold back.

Every little monkey learns to compare itself to others in order to make these decisions effectively. When you see two monkeys "playing," they are building the circuits that tell them when they are in a position of strength and when they are in a position of weakness. Thus the appetite for social comparison is more primal than the appetite for food and sex because social comparison always comes first.
When two mammals meet, they immediately establish their relative status. They often do this with what biologists call a "dominance- submission ritual." The stronger individual makes a dominance gesture. The weaker individual can respond with a submission gesture, which means "don't hurt me, I won't challenge you." So there's no visible conflict except in the rare cases when both individual see themselves as the dominant individual.

Once relative status is established, the two can be pals. The stronger mammal has just enjoyed a shot of serotonin, so can even be relaxed and friendly. The weaker mammal has just suffered a shot of cortisol, so it is cautious and restrained. The dominant mammal often shares its food and mating opportunity since it controls more than it needs. But everyone knows who controls the resources.

It's hard to think of our furry friends acting this way. It helps to think of social climbing as the animal equivalent of saving for a rainy day. An animal can't save food for tomorrow but it can invest today's extra energy in efforts to advance its social position. If hard times come, higher status improves a critter's chance of meeting its needs.

This is why people seek social recognition so eagerly. Their verbal brain may insist that they don't care about status, but if you filled a room with people who said that, they would soon form a social hierarchy based on how much they insist. That's what mammals do!

I am not saying we should spend our lives quest for the one-up position. I am saying that we do spend our lives in such a quest. The safer you are from hunger and pain, the more energy you have left to invest in this quest, which is why it preoccupies people today.

You ruin a perfectly good life with endless cortisol because your mammal brain sees that someone else has a slight advantage over you. 

We easily see this in others, though we hate to see it in ourselves.

We are taught to blame this impulse on "our society," and to seek another society presumed to relieve you of this pain. But this never happens. The more equal people are, the more they find minutia to differentiate them, and obsess over it.
For most of human history, mammalian social rivalry was obvious because people lived alongside animals and saw how they behaved. Today, almost no one has sustained access to wild animal behavior. Thus our beliefs about what is natural are built from academic "studies" and our protections onto domesticated animals. Academic studies have an agenda. Academics are rewarded for "proving" that socialism is our natural default state so they carve slices of animal behavior that fits. Domesticated animals have lost their natural ability to meet their survival needs, and in most cases they've lost their reproductive impulse as well. People love domesticated animals, so they leap to the conclusion that nature equal love.

Yet the truth about the mammal brain pervades daily life. The number of words we have for this natural impulses is a good reflection of its pervasiveness:
pride, ego, self-confidence, assertiveness, competitiveness, arrogance, one-upping, status, power, importance, social advantage, dominance, manipulativeness, being special, winning, feeling superior, dignity, saving face, getting recognition, respect, approval, or attention.

We see this impulse critically when others seek social power, but when we seek it ourselves, or our friends and family seek it, we think we’re just doing what it takes to survive.

How we get wired to seek serotonin

Neurons connect when serotonin flows, so your brain is always trying to get it  in ways you got it before. But the behaviors that got you applause in the past don't always work when you try them again. Thus our quest for serotonin often leads to disappointment.

To complicate things further, your brain habituates to the status you already have. It takes new and improved status to get it going.

When it doesn't come, your brain may react as if your survival is threatened, even though the issue is quite minor. When your brilliant comment is ignored, your cortisol flows and it feels like a real survival threat.

Misguided self-importance does not promote survival. An animal gets bitten if it makes a bad call. It's hard to find a good way to enjoy serotonin while avoiding conflict. It's easy to get frustrated with the status-seeking mammals in your life. 

Of course we must restrain this natural impulse

We start learning to restrain it in our first years of life. This restraint makes it possible for us to live together.

But this restraint also leaves us frustrated. And we get even more frustrated when our assertions fail to gain the social advantage we seek. What's a big-brained mammal to do?

Usually, we blame this impulse others.

We tell ourselves that others have gained their position unfairly. We build alliances with people who blame the same "others." We follow leaders who relieve our frustration by targeting this blame. 

You tell yourself that you are good but "they" are just grabbing all the time. Your cortex finds evidence to prove this belief. And now you've succeeded at gaining the one-up position. You are morally superior to "them." This stimulates your serotonin, and as soon as it's metabolized, you can enjoy more by celebrating your virtue and lamenting their depravity again.
But you also trigger cortisol when you feel surrounded by the depraved. So you're in a bad loop, needing to feel bad in order to feel good.

You can escape this bad loop by telling yourself the truth: I crave social dominance, because I'm a mammal. I can't always get it, but I can always feel safe by reminding myself that I have the strength to meet my needs. (Cue the Rolling Stones.)

This is hard to do for many reasons.
1. Your old mindset is a myelinated superhighway in your brain. It turns on so effortlessly that you're not aware of starting it and you don't know how to stop it.
2. Your social bonds are built around the sense of a common enemy. You put your social bonds at risk when you stop joining people in their beliefs about good guys and bad guys.
3. It's hard to believe in your own strength. It's hard to activate your own serotonin when you think you need the world's applause to activate it.

But you can build a new neural pathway that believes in your own relative strength. Design a new thought about your strength and repeat it every day for 45 days. A new pathway will build. You will enjoy serotonin in a healthy way.

At first, it can be hard to find a healthy serotonin strategy because unhealthy ways come to mind so easily. An unhealthy example is: "I'll show those jerks. I'll become the Number One Superhero of our Microcosm." This doesn't work because:
1. It triggers cortisol with the constant sense that "those jerks" are a threat.
2. There's a real risk that you won't become the Microcosm's Number One Superhero, which triggers more cortisol.
3. Even if you become #1, your brain quickly habituates to the social position you have and needs to be #1 of a bigger microcosm to stimulate serotonin.

Yikes! It's not easy being mammal. But you have power over where you focus your attention. You can find ways to feel good about your strength instead of focusing on other people's flaws. You can put yourself up without putting others down.

My book I, Mammal: How to Make Peace With the Animal Urge for Social Power explains how to do this in detail.
You don't need to perform in Carnegie Hall and save orphans from burning building to enjoy serotonin. You can wire it yourself to focus on your strength instead of focusing on your weakness.

But the mammal brain seeks the one-up position again and again. Natural selection built a brain that rewards you with the good feeling of serotonin when you see yourself in the one-up position. It alarms you with cortisol when you see yourself in the one-down position.

This is why people waste so much of their lives feeling like their survival is threatened by small social slights. And it's why they spend much of their lives seeking small social advantages.

Your mammal brain's quest for serotonin motivates you to notice the advantages of others and take what you have for granted. It easily gets the feeling that you are stuck at "the bad table" while others got "the good table."

Consciously, you know that the difference between tables is tiny, but your inner mammal is quick to go there. It releases a threatened feeling when your hopes for something better are disappointed.

You can end up feeling bad even when you're at a beautiful table in a beautiful setting - and you won't know you've created this feeling yourself.

Instead, tell yourself that "wherever I sit is the good table."

You can consciously focus on the benefits of the table you're at instead of the table you're not at.

You will build a new pathway in your brain if you spend a few minutes each day focusing on the advantages of where you are sitting. Your brain will focus on the advantages that others have unless you consciously redirect it.

Don't berate or ridicule other tables just to make your own feel better. Just find the good in what you have.

You will be at another table someday soon because we constantly shift positions as we pass through life. If you focus on the negatives of each position, you miss out on a world of good.

You can say "everyone is special." Or "no one is special." But your mammal brain cares about how you stack up against others. No one likes to admit this, but we have inherited a brain that cares urgently about its social position.

Sincere best wishes,
Loretta G Breuning, PhD
Inner Mammal Institute
building power over you mammalian brain chemistry


99 Pinehurst, Canyon, CA 94516, United States
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