A large part of how humans act and make decisions is based on their brain chemistry. What most of us don’t know is that we’ve inherited our brain chemistry from earlier mammals, and unless we can build our power over that mammalian brain, we are constantly subjected to simply reacting to external forces. Having studied this, Dr. Loretta Breuning founded the Inner Mammal Institute to help people build their power over their mammalian brain chemistry. Dr. Breuning is the author of Habits of a Happy Brain: Retrain Your Brain to Boost Your Serotonin, Dopamine, Oxytocin, & Endorphin Levels. Today, she joins us to discuss how to retrain and hack the brain to be more happy and productive.
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Habits Of A Happy Brain with Dr. Loretta Breuning
We have Dr. Loretta Breuning, who wrote the book, Meet Your Happy Chemicals, among many other books. I can honestly say that this one woman transformed my life, my business, my knowledge of human behavior. I am so excited to have you here. Thank you for joining us.
Thank you for having me. Can I jump in right away with that’s not the title of my book if I may explain? I self-published the book. You were one of the first people that read it when it was self-published, but some years ago it got a commercial publisher and now it’s called Habits of a Happy Brain. The book you mentioned no longer exists. Occasionally, when people mention it, used copies go up to $200, yet it’s only $11 for the book called Habits of a Happy Brain. It’s the same book.
I love that you corrected that because I am probably one of the guiltiest for talking about the other book. That’s the one. It’s got pride of place in my library at home.
I will send you a copy of Habits of a Happy Brain.
I would love that. I can tell you, no matter who you are, no matter what you do, if you want to understand yourself better, if you want to understand the actions of others better, Habits of a Happy Brain is going to do that. Loretta, the Psychology Hacker Podcast is all about helping people hack their own psychology to become more successful, to help their business grow if they’re a business owner or maybe even start a business if they haven’t done that yet. A large part of how humans make decisions is based on their brain chemistry. Perhaps you wouldn’t mind and giving a little bit of cliff notes, give an idea to the audience about what that’s all about.
The brain chemicals that make us feel good are inherited from earlier animals. The happy chemicals that we’ve heard of like dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, endorphin are not designed to be on all the time. They do very specific jobs in animals. When you know the job they do in animals, it’s easy to understand what turns them on in ourselves and why they’re not on all the time. Do you want me to introduce each one?
It would be an honor to hear you say it.
This is the short version and just to mention that Habits of a Happy Brain subtitle is Retrain Your Brain to Boost Your Serotonin, Dopamine, Oxytocin and Endorphin Levels. I also have a video series that explains them all in a fun way. It’s called YouHavePowerOverYourBrain.com. Let’s say you’re a little monkey waking up in the morning and you’re hungry and nobody’s going to feed you. You have to find food. You look around for something you can get. Dopamine is that feeling of, “That meets my needs and I can get it.” We think of it as joy or excitement, but it evolved because our ancestors had to constantly look for food. In the modern world, you get foods so easily, so you end up looking for that “I can get it” feeling in other ways and defining our needs in other ways, but it’s all the quest for dopamine.
This would explain why some people, even when they’re full, they still find themselves going to the fridge looking at food even though they’re not hungry.
As you remember, we were at the zoo together. When I take people to the zoo, I always take them to look at the monkey’s eyes. You see that the monkey’s eyes never stopped scanning for bugs despite the fact that they’re fully fed by the keepers. They’re constantly looking for food.
I loved it and it’s so true, that feeling and desire almost for wants and hunting, it does stay with us. It’s fascinating.
It’s all healthy. I’m not condemning it as many people do. For example, in the state of nature, if you didn’t start looking for food until you were already hungry, then you wouldn’t have the energy that it takes to prevail. Dopamine makes it feel good to look for foods, so you start looking before it’s too late and that was very healthy.
That’s great survival instincts.
Oxytocin is the chemical that makes you feel good when you have the safety of social support. In the animal world, animals look for a herd to be with. We may like to think, “They have this wonderful solidarity and cooperation,” but it’s not true at all. Animals push their way to the center of the herd because it’s safer there and they have conflict in their herds, but they can’t leave because if they leave, they’ll be eaten by a predator. It’s the feeling that you have like, “I can lower my guard because I’ve finally had some protection.” We all have this natural longing for protection because we’re all born helpless and vulnerable. Oxytocin is that good feeling of like, “I found it. I can relax a little now.”
Oxytocin is the bonding chemical as well, correct?
Exactly, that’s what I meant by being with the herd. We call it bonding because we have positive illusions about it. You could also call it attachment and reciprocal support. It feels good because we have a natural need for protection and that’s what we’re looking for. It’s that self-interested urge for protection. I emphasize that because so many people like to pretend that there’s no self-interest involved in it.
Next up, which one do you want to tackle next?
Serotonin. Most people have heard about serotonin in the context of antidepressants, but research about many years ago showed that it’s released when a monkey finds itself in the one-up position. Before that, there were a hundred years of research on the hierarchical behavior of animals. Before that, humans had observed animals being competitive for thousands and millions of years. People always knew that animals were competitive. Although now, we are given this misrepresentation that animals are always cooperative and harmonious. When an animal gains the one-up position, it advantages the survival of its genes and natural selection built a brain that rewards you with a good feeling when you get the one-up position. It’s only for a few minutes, you get that little burst of serotonin and then it’s metabolized, which is why people are constantly driving themselves crazy looking for the one-up position again and again.
Internally, I always think of serotonin as the Facebook chemical where you’re constantly trying to show everybody how good you are on Facebook.
It all gets blamed on Facebook, but this impulse has been around forever.
It’s just another medium for us. The happy chemical, the last one left would be endorphins.We need to have the pain to know when we're injured. Click To Tweet
By the way, on serotonin, a lot of old stories talk about two guys getting in a fight at a bar. As much as everyone complains about how horrible things are, you don’t see guys getting into a fight in a bar like a fistfight. That was the one-up there. All throughout history, there have been different ways of having a one-up feeling. That holier than thou feeling, whatever is the current generation’s definition of holier, it’s always been there. Endorphin is chemically the same as an opioid. We are not designed to seek it or to be on it all the time. It evolved for emergencies. It’s a feeling of euphoria that masks physical pain and it’s what allows an injured animal to run to save its life. You only get about fifteen minutes of it from real physical pain. After that, the animal is either dead or it has to stop to protect its injuries. We need to have the pain to know when we’re injured. We’re not evolved to be on endorphin all the time. We’re evolved to have it for emergencies. Fortunately, you get a little bit from laughing. In my books, I always talk about that as a healthy way to get it.
They’re the four main happy chemicals. I want to take a moment to talk about these because I don’t think people necessarily realize the impact of these. We’ve found with what we do based on your studies is that a lot of human behavior is driven by chasing these chemicals.
I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with it. There’s a whole school of thought that says, “We are bad. We are doing the wrong thing.” I don’t agree with that. I think that self-acceptance is healthier and we are chasing these chemicals and we can find better ways to chase them. Each of us has the luxury of making that decision for themselves of what would be a way that I can chase this chemical or that chemical without bad long-run consequences.
On the Psychology Hacker, we have a CEO training where we train business executives on how to grow and how to evolve. We reference your book a lot and we talk about how in your business you might try and chase dopamine the wrong way or you might try and chase it the right way. We talk about the importance of rather than chasing those dopamine fixes by checking your email every day and seeing a little box and get comfortable changing the notifications, you can alter the behavior and instead chase it by trying to reach out to new prospects and make sure that the emails you’re chasing are going to help grow the business.
One thing I do is set a goal that you can reach in the next hour. Set a goal you could reach before lunchtime. Set a goal you could reach by the end of the day. Make it a realistic goal so you don’t live with that desperate feeling of, “I’ve never done enough.” It’s like you’re giving yourself your own regular small spurts of dopamine.
Have you ever heard of the Pomodoro technique?
We combine it and we use that all the time. I love that. For anyone reading that doesn’t know, Pomodoro is essentially you work for 25 minutes and then you give yourself a five-minute break. What’s cool is you can always achieve 25 minutes and you get to tick off the little box that confirms that you spent 25 minutes working on a task. It’s a little bit more involved than that, but that’s a little bit of summary. These are the happy chemicals and it’s so empowering and positive what you say. I take it to heart the importance of analyzing each of these chemicals and making sure we get them from a good source versus perhaps a destructive source. There is also a not so happy chemical, which is cortisol. Maybe you wouldn’t mind explaining a little bit about that.
Most people have heard of cortisol as the stress chemical and the current mindset for thinking about this as another one of those things that I don’t agree on, which is our society causes stress and that before our society, people were happy every minute, therefore, you have to change society in order to have a happier life. I don’t think that’s a healthy way of looking at it. Cortisol has always been there because we have this natural radar that helps us avoid harm in our quest for rewards. The human brain, as opposed to the animal brain, can anticipate harm. Whereas animals avoid harm when it’s right on top of them. Our brain is so big that we can anticipate harm so far away that the safer your life is the further out you spread looking for potential harm. Each of us has to create certain thought habits to put that in perspective and to constantly build our confidence in our own problem-solving skills because we can find endless evidence of potential thread if we look.
I’m going to dive into this because this touches on something. Every time I speak, I get something new and amazing. That’s so huge. I had a discussion with my girlfriend about this because every time our life levels up, we improve and grow business and things get safer, she finds new potential problems that are so out there and not likely to happen. We will spend hours trying to solve these problems. I’m telling her, “We don’t have to worry about that. Let’s cross that bridge when we get to it,” but she does become obsessed with these problems.
My husband does that and I call it failure mode. It’s like no matter what’s going on, you have to find something. He assumes that it exists and it’s so dire it makes the whole project impossible.
I love that failure mode. I’m going to bring that up to her after this and talk to her about it.
Here’s another huge thing. Each of us is wired by our unique individual past experience. We’re born with billions of neurons, but almost no connections between them and the connections built by our unique experience. All of us have inherited a brain that’s designed to not touch a hot stove twice. Whatever bad happened to you, your brain wires say, “Don’t let that happen again.” You’re avoiding one thing like maybe you’re avoiding the threat of what can happen if you don’t try and you’re left doing nothing, whereas maybe she’s avoiding, “I did that wrong. I’m never going to make that mistake again.” If you try to avoid every possible mistake, then you don’t do anything.
I had an instance a few months ago where I was hospitalized and I had some very minor brain damage. It’s part of aging I suppose. What happened was some of my neural pathways were damaged. What was fascinating about this is I’d re-learned a fear of public speaking that I haven’t had for fifteen years. I got over it rapidly within a couple of weeks by doing a lot more public speaking, but it was crazy to find the fear again. It showed me that I’d learn how to not be scared of it, but it had come back.If you try to avoid every possible mistake, then you don't do anything. Click To Tweet
Was it just public speaking or was it in general like it was harder to find words? Because that’s a common thing with brain issues.
It was a combination of both. I struggled to find words. When I was first hospitalized, I couldn’t remember certain words and they explained to me it’s like a roadmap and the restaurants still exist that you want to go to, but the route to get there is broken. That doesn’t mean there isn’t another route, but you’re going to have to find the alternate route and it’s going to take time to find the route to get back to that restaurant.
What they don’t say is that one route is already paved and another one is a jungle and you have to slash the trail. This is what I talk about in every one of my books. I don’t know why, but mainstream neuroscience doesn’t acknowledge this. It’s like if you have a jungle and you have one paved highway through the jungle, but it goes to a yucky city. You want to go to some great new place, so you have to slash the trail and every step is so much work and then the jungle grows over. You have to slash the trail every day in order for a path to establish, then you have to have the courage to choose the path rather than the paved highway.
That’s exactly what I was experiencing in my mind. Even words that I got back, I lost again. It was fascinating to see which words replaced the words. For a while it was silence, but then words came and they were wrong. One of my favorites was that we were talking about putting up a picture on a wall and you push the nail into the wall with a tool. For some reason, my brain kept calling it a piano instead of a hammer. I was struggling to work out the pattern. I realized that my natural accent, I’m a Cockney from East London. The way we say “hammer” sounds like “piano.” Somehow my brain had connected the two.
That’s a great example of the sound of a word. When you’re a baby, you learn words through sound first.
They showed me images of different things I had to say what they were. I got most of them correct, but I couldn’t find the word for a hammock. I kept calling it a hangman because it’s a person hanging.
For the average person who hasn’t had this, if you try to learn a foreign language is a great example of how hard you have to struggle to find a word, despite the fact that in your native language, the word comes effortlessly. That is the difference between a new pathway and the old myelinated pathway. It’s the same thing with our emotions. We have the emotional responses that we myelinated when we were young that come to us automatically. It’s new emotional responses that we could build, but it’s as hard as learning a new language or overcoming brain damage.
I love that you’re saying that. This is where I wanted to get to with this, which is it would have been very easy for me to give up and not get back at public speaking, not go out there, not even do an interview like this and use the excuse of what had happened to me as a reason to not get back to where I was. I truly believe I’m not back to 100%, but I’m about 99.99%. However, my understanding of that whole situation has leveled up my knowledge in that area and has made me more effective at what I do. I don’t know if you remember, but the last time we hung out, my son had a condition. He was born without the ability to generate cortisol. He’s four years old, nearly five. Bear in mind, I’ve read your book before my son was born.
She was pregnant when we were together and you had another son who was about five.
You’re right, good memory. My son was born without cortisol. He cannot generate it naturally. I get to witness what it’s like with a child who does not get the stress hormone.
You know that it has problems. Supposedly, cortisol is what gets you out of bed in the morning and I can explain how this happens. When you’re hungry, hunger triggers cortisol. You need that to know like, “I’m hungry. I have to go and look for some food.” Does he have problems knowing when he’s hungry?
I am so excited to be talking to you right now because we’ve been struggling with that for the last couple of months and haven’t worked out the connection. He refuses to eat sometimes and he’ll be like, “I’m not hungry.” A day will go by and we have to almost stick food in front of him, but he chases dopamine foods.
Hunger has two things. One is the relief of hunger, then we all have that expectation of reward if you think of the meal that’s coming up or ice cream or whatever. We learn that because when we were young, we learned that relieving hunger feels great. Many people who are around a normal baby, they see the desperateness of a baby is about getting that bottle. I have a new grandchild and he’s desperate sucking on that milk. He didn’t have fat.
Not only does he not have that, but he doesn’t have innate fear. We noticed learned fear but he doesn’t have innate fear. I can’t lie, I’m maybe not the best parent. I’ve totally played with that. We took him to a haunted house when he was three. It was hysterical to watch this three-year-old wandering through this haunted house and all these skeletons and zombies jumping out on him. He was laughing in their faces and giggling. The actors didn’t know what was going on and they were trying to scare him. One of my favorites was this guy was like, “Am I scary?” He looked and went, “You’re ugly, not scary.” He was laughing at them. It’s fascinating, but he’s developed a fear of heights.Social comparison is the biggest motivator in everyone that everyone denies. Click To Tweet
I’m glad he’s got some fears because he didn’t before. He would say stuff like, “I’m going to climb that telecom tower because I haven’t done that before.” We’d be like, “No, you’re not.” He might have fallen off the back of the sofa or something, but he’s wary of heights now, which he didn’t have before. That’s so fascinating you’re talking about the food thing because we’ve been struggling with that. He’ll only eat sugar-rich foods, like dopamine foods, and we cannot get him to eat other food. He’ll wait a day without eating.
That’s a challenge. This might make it even harder, but in the state of nature, you had to work hard to get food. You had to first find it, walk toward it and crack it open. I’m wondering if you hid the food and he had to find it and then got that joy of finding it. If he’s not that motivated in the first place, he might not have the joy of finding it, but it might appeal to his sense of challenge or something.
I like that. It’s a good idea. He loves video games. It’s funny you say about the sense of challenge. I’ve noticed, the minute the game gets too difficult, he gets over it and bored. Whereas my other children have to solve the puzzles, he’s like, “No, I don’t mind.” It’s so funny you say about him not caring because I remember his nanny came over and I was like, “Come on, we’re going to go and do this activity.” He’s like, “No, I want to finish playing my video game right now or something.” I was like, “If you don’t come, you’re going to be in trouble.” He went, “I’m fine with that.” He’s just so chill. Threats don’t work on him.
He may need to learn some threat.
We’ve learned that adverse punishment doesn’t work on him. Any threat, he finds it hysterical. You can put them on timeout and he’ll sit there for half an hour and be completely fine. You’ll be like, “Time out was over twenty minutes ago.” He’d go, “No, I’m just going to sit here now.” He completely flips the script. There’s not much we can do about it.
What if you take the video game away? Is that a punishment that would get his attention?
We tend to find that if we removed positive, it’s better than giving negative. We moved towards, “You can’t have any snacks for a day if you don’t eat dinner.” That will get him into eating food. That’s the stuff that we use. I remember this one time, one of my favorite moments with him was we had to send him to bed. I was like, “It’s bedtime now.” He goes, “No, dad. You’re going to put me on timeout first.” I was like, “No, it’s bedtime.” He goes, “No, dad. It’s going to be timeout first.” I could tell he was trying to start a fight. He would go on timeout so he’d be correct and stay up late.
Children seek power and that’s the one-up thing. Every brain seeks power and it’s hard for parents not to reward bad behavior inadvertently, then the child is always learning from whatever works. If you do something and it works, you do it again.
This is so fascinating. I almost feel bad for anybody reading, because if you don’t have a son with this condition, it may not be as fascinating. I think it is because it shows us how much we are controlled by those chemicals. I agree with you. I don’t think it’s a bad thing. I like to think of it more as an understanding thing. If I know why my body or my instinct or my decision-making is affected by my subconscious, by my desire for the chemicals in my brain, then you can control your behaviors a lot better and move towards the life that you want to have.
It’s so much better than people denying like, “I don’t care about that. I’m not thinking that.” Because then we project the thoughts onto others. We think other people are out to get us or something.
It’s incredibly important for anybody to read your book. It has transformed my life. There’s no question about it. It’s an incredible work. I would love to get something else out of you if we can. If you could give one big psychological hack, something that somebody could do that could maybe help them be more successful or help them achieve something in life, what would you say that would be?
I always talk about social comparison because that’s the biggest motivator that is in everyone that everyone denies. They first deny that they care about social comparison and then they do things and then they come up with other reasons to justify the things they do. I’m not saying that you should care about social comparison but if you notice, then you do. Let yourself have unnecessary frustration about it. The more aware you are that you’re having it, the more you can make good decisions about where you put your energy. A simple example would be if I feel like other people have X and I don’t have X, but then I think, “I don’t want X. I’m going to put my energy into Y and I’m not going to worry about not having X.” I’m going to be happy for those people. I’m not going to constantly feel like what’s wrong with the world.
That’s such a huge thing that people should take away from this. In general, anytime that you can make decisions that are based on you versus what’s going on around you, you can shape your life better. Thinking simply from a limited resource thing, you only have so much time in your life. If you divide up your time chasing things other people want versus what you want, you’re going to end up with things you don’t want.
It’s important to know how much social comparison comes from our mammal brain because most people trust their own verbal brain and they think they’ve come up with everything themselves. Animals are so hierarchical and so competitive. They put so much energy into trying to get to the one-up position every moment. The one-up position doesn’t mean a strict social hierarchy. It means whoever you’re interacting with at that moment or thinking about at that moment, you are making comparisons. Many people are not just looking for one-up, but they’re looking for, “I am one down because that person has more than me on this dimension and that dimension.” Even though I have more on these other dimensions, I’m worried about the ones that I come up short on because, in the animal world, your weaknesses can get you killed. That’s why people are obsessed with minutia.
Thank you, Loretta. You are incredible. I appreciate it. I’ve got to get my son and you together. You will be fascinated to watch him and the way that he behaves. I can’t lie, I love your insights. For our audience, Dr. Breuning is packed with so much information. Her books are a true work of art into the human mind. You have to go out and get her book, Habits of a Happy Brain.
I have a new book called Tame Your Anxiety: Rewiring Your Brain for Happiness and a bunch of other books too.
I can’t recommend your books enough. You have to go out there and grab them. Thank you so much once again for coming and appearing on the show. Anytime you’ve got a new book coming up, please reach out to us. Let us have you on here and share it with everyone.
Thank you so much. Take care.
Thank you all.
- Habits of a Happy Brain
- Tame Your Anxiety: Rewiring Your Brain for Happiness
About Loretta Breuning
Loretta Breuning, PhD is Founder of the Inner Mammal Institute and author of Habits of a Happy Brain: Retrain your brain to boost your serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin and endorphin. As Professor of Management at California State University, and as a parent, Loretta lost faith in prevailing theories of human motivation. Then she studied the brain chemistry we’ve inherited from earlier mammals, and everything made sense. So she founded the Inner Mammal Institute and started creating resources that help people stimulate their happy chemicals in healthy ways. Dr. Breuning’s work has helped thousands of people worldwide to make peace with their inner mammal.
The Inner Mammal Institute offers free resources to help you learn about your mammal brain: videos, blogs, podcasts, graphics, and a 5-Day Happy-Chemical Jumpstart. Dr. Breuning’s books have been translated into Spanish, Russian, Chinese, Arabic, French, Turkish, and German. Her latest book is Tame Your Anxiety: Rewiring Your Brain for Happiness. There’s also a Training Certification and a Facebook discussion group. Check it out at InnerMammalInstitute.org.