by Loretta Graziano Breuning, PhD
author of Habits of a Happy Brain & founder of Inner Mammal Institute
Quote from Dr. Breuning’s book, Anxiety- What turns it on, What turns it off
“It would be great if your brain could get fixed like your car. But you are the master of your brain, so you might as well build your mastery”
How Compassion Stimulates Positive Neurochemistry
I spent most of my life in academia, where I felt pressure to conform to shared thought patterns.
These theories did not fit my lived experience, so I took early retirement to do my own research. I found amazing facts about the emotional brain, and they led me to a more positive view of the world. These facts may conflict with what you’ve learned heard before, but you are free to draw your own conclusions instead of conforming to shared thought patterns. You will see how beautifully it all fits together. This brain we’ve inherited is not easy to manage. It’s the challenge that comes with the gift of life.
Natural selection built a brain that’s focused on its own survival. It releases chemicals that feel good (dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, endorphin) when it sees a way to meet a survival need or relieve a survival threat. But our brain defines survival in a quirky way: it cares about the survival of your genes, and it relies on neural pathways built in youth. Compassion triggers a good feeling when we connect it to our survival in one way or another. You don’t consciously think that, of course, but your happy chemicals are controlled by brain structures that do not rely on conscious thought. Let’s take a closer look at the brain that makes compassion feel good.
You have inherited your brain from survivors. This may sound obvious, but it’s sort of a miracle when you think about it: survival rates are low in the state of nature, yet your personal ancestors did what it took to make babies and keep them alive long enough to make babies going back millions of years. Your ancestors survived because they evolved a brain that rewards survival behavior with a good feeling. Life was extremely harsh, but each individual kept taking steps toward meeting their needs because the steps stimulated happy chemicals. We have inherited these chemicals from earlier animals, and they’re controlled by brain structures that all mammals have in common (such as the amygdala, hippocampus, hypothalamus, and lower parts often called the “reptile brain”). The mammal brain does not process language so it does not tell you in words when it reacts to the threats and opportunities around you.
All mammals have a cortex too, but size matters when it comes to the cortex. We humans have a huge reserve of extra neurons that can create abstractions. This enables you to tell yourself in words that you are not interested in your own survival and you only care about the needs of others. Your mammal brain keeps doing the job it evolved to do, and if caring about others builds social alliances, that promotes survival and your mammal brain rewards you with happy chemicals. If others fail to show the concern for your welfare that you expect, your mammal brain sees that as a survival threat and alerts you with an unhappy chemical (cortisol).
Your two brains work together to promote your survival. If you let your mammal brain run wild you may feel good in the moment about things that hurt you in the long run. But if you ignore your mammal brain, you will not feel happy because the cortex does not control the chemicals. Let’s see how each of the happy chemicals rewards behaviors that help meet survival needs, including compassionate behavior. But first, we must know how these chemicals are controlled by our unique individual neural pathways. You were born with billions of neurons but very few connections between them. You built connections each time you activated a neural pathway. You strengthened those pathways each time you released neurochemicals. Good and bad feelings wire a brain to repeat behaviors expected to feel good and avoid behaviors expected to feel bad. The pathways you built before age eight, and during puberty, became the superhighways of your brain because myelin is abundant in those years. Myelin coats neurons so they conduct electricity at super speeds. Whatever you think or do with your myelinated neurons feels natural and normal.
One experience wired into the core of every one of us is the extreme vulnerability of youth. We humans are far more helpless at birth than our animal ancestors. There’s a direct correlation between the size of a creature’s brain and the length of its childhood. Lizards have no childhood at all. They leave home the instant they crack out of their shell and if they don’t leave fast enough a parent eats them. They are born already wired with the survival knowledge of their ancestors. Their survival skills are limited so only about 5% of them survive, but a mother lizard can make thousands of babies so the species survives. A mammal cannot do that because warm-blooded babies are so hard to gestate. We mammals put our eggs in very few baskets, and then do our darnedest to keep each one alive. Attachment is the key to survival for creatures born unwired. The bigger a mammal’s brain, the longer the attachment period.
Let’s look at attachment from the newborn brain’s perspective. A human baby has needs it cannot meet, so it surges with cortisol, the threat chemical. Cortisol triggers crying, one of our few hard-wired behaviors. Crying brings relief, but soon a baby feels more needs and more cortisol. We start our lives with an urgent sense of threat, which motivates us to act to relieve it. Before a baby knows what a mother is, or even knows what milk is, it knows that relief is at hand when it hears certain sounds. Each time its needs are met, neurons connect and expectations are built. Gradually we learn a wide range of strategies for meeting our needs instead of just crying. We learn to interact with others in ways that promote our survival. These interactions feel good because they stimulate dopamine, serotonin, and/or oxytocin.
Oxytocin creates the good feeling of trust. Reptiles only release it during sex, and avoid other reptiles the rest of the time. Mammals like company. We are born with a surge of oxytocin because this chemical actually triggers labor contractions and lactation in addition to the pleasure of social trust. So we are born ready to trust, but the oxytocin is metabolized in a few minutes. Touch stimulates more of it, which is why animals lick their babies and primates cuddle them. Touch and trust always go together in the state of nature because an individual close enough to touch you is close enough to hurt you. It would be nice to enjoy a steady flow of oxytocin all the time, but trusting everyone does not promote survival. We have inherited a brain that makes careful decisions about when to release the good feeling. It does that by connecting neurons whenever oxytocin flows. The neural circuits built from experience wire a young mammal to transfer its attachment from its mother to a herd or pack or troop or tribe.
Oxytocin rewards you with the good feeling when you build social alliances because safety in numbers promotes survival in the state of nature. But oxytocin is soon metabolized and you have to do more to get more. If you distance yourself from the herd, your oxytocin falls and it feels unsafe. This response helps young mammals survive without having to experience the jaws of a predator first hand. But we humans do not want to stick with the herd all the time. We want to check out greener pastures because that stimulates dopamine. Thus we live with the frustrating tension between the dopamine of discovering new rewards and the oxytocin of social support. Compassion can help us stimulate the oxytocin of social bonds while we are out exploring new pastures. Compassion stimulates the good feeling of trust despite all the many reasons not to. Compassion frees us to leave our tribe and still stimulate that much-desired tribal feeling.
Dopamine creates the good feeling that you are about to meet a need. It’s triggered by the taste of milk in a newborn baby’s mouth. Each time a need is met, dopamine bridges all the neurons active at that moment. This wires us to turn on the excited feeling the next time we see something similar. Dopamine releases the reserve tank of energy. It tells a body that an expected reward is worth an investment of effort. Thus the quest to feel good motivates a body to do what it takes to meet its needs in ways that worked before. Our ancestors had to forage constantly to survive, and dopamine motivated them to seek before they were weakened by hunger. In the modern world, our basic needs are easily met, so we have to keep looking for ways to stimulate our dopamine. Compassion is one way to relieve this conundrum. When we help others meet their needs, our mirror neurons stimulate the good feeling of meeting our own needs.
Our brains evolved to seek the good feeling of serotonin as well. Serotonin is a complex chemical found in mammals, reptiles, fish, mollusks, and even amoeba. Serotonin prepares the digestive system for food. Group-living creatures have a complex response to food because every tasty morsel you see is usually seen by another. If two mammals rush toward the same banana, the weaker individual will get hurt. Thus mammals evolved a brain that compares itself to others before it reaches for food. When it sees that it’s in the weaker position, it releases cortisol and withdraws. When it sees that it’s in the stronger position, serotonin is released and it asserts. A mammal that never asserts will fail to pass on its genes. You could not be descended from that mammal. You have inherited a brain that seeks serotonin. It’s not aggression but the calm sense that you have the power to satisfy your needs. Alas, each serotonin spurt is quickly metabolized and you have to do more to get more.
This information about serotonin is not acknowledged by academics and journalists. They report that animals share food by contriving artificial laboratory situations, and omitting evidence to the contrary. But every farmer and field biologist knows that stronger animals bite and claw weaker individuals who get in their way. Fights are avoided because weaker mammals learn from a very young age that self-restraint feels better than getting bitten. Natural selection built a brain skilled at making these social judgments. We humans learn to restrain the urge to grab, bite or claw, whether we are stronger or weaker. We learn the risk of being ostracized from the group and losing out on oxytocin. But we still crave the good feeling of serotonin, so we are left to juggle complex trade-offs. Compassion is an effective solution because you get to enjoy the stronger position without the risk of conflict. Many people rely on the feeling of moral superiority to stimulate their serotonin. They continually compare themselves to those they deem less compassionate, and come out on top. It’s frustrating, but it’s better than biting and scratching.
The mammalian urge for social dominance is easy to see in others, but hard to see in yourself. It’s comfortable to believe that “our society is the problem” and an alternative society will eliminate this natural impulse. I learned this as a student and passed it on as a teacher. I participated in the distortion of facts to stay safely within the herd of academic consensus. Here’s a simple example of that distortion. Zookeepers know that if they leave food out in the open, weaker individuals get injured or starve. So they’ve developed a technique called “cooperative feeding,” which employs two keepers – one continually feeding the alpha while the other feeds the rest of the group. Calling this “cooperation” masks the inconvenient truth about the natural urge for self-assertion. If you acknowledge this truth, you can lose your membership in the warm and fuzzy herd.
Modern medicine has created the belief that everyone can have a constant flow of serotonin just from sitting on the couch. Academics and journalists have created the belief everyone would be happy all the time if the right political policies were embraced. Licensed credentialed professionals cannot question these beliefs without risking their credentials. I have compassion for them. But each of us has power over our own brain. Distorting your true nature will not help you understand your neurochemical ups and downs. You can be compassionate and also accept your authentic inner mammal and the inner mammal of your fellow homo sapiens.
Indeed, authenticity favors compassion. It helps you understand why other people are the way they are. It’s not easy having a huge cortex attached to a mammalian operating system that wires itself in youth. But you can meet your needs and enjoy helping others meet their needs. You can celebrate your ability to avoid conflict and the cortisol alarm it triggers. You can feel good when your two brains work together instead of feeling bad and blaming society.
Our neurochemical dilemmas are frustrating but they are not new. Fifty million years ago, monkeys lived with the same frustrations. We have inherited a brain that longs to feel important because that stimulates serotonin. It longs to find new resources because that stimulates dopamine. It longs for safety in numbers because that stimulates oxytocin. This brain makes you feel like your survival is threatened when you see obstacles to these needs. It’s not easy being a mammal, but you can celebrate the survival power of your brain instead of cynically condemning your natural impulses. This is self-compassion.
About Dr. Loretta Breuning
Loretta Breuning, PhD, is the author of Habits of a Happy Brain and The Science of Positivity. She is the Founder of the Inner Mammal Institute and Professor Emerita of Management at California State University, East Bay. As a teacher and mom, she was not convinced by prevailing theories of human motivation. Then she learned about the brain chemistry we share with earlier mammals, and everything made sense. She began creating resources that have helped thousands of people manage their inner mammal. Her work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Psychology Today, Real Simple, Cosmopolitan, Men’s Health, and on Forbes, NPR, and numerous podcasts. Her work has been translated into Spanish, Russian, Chinese, Arabic, French, Dutch, Portuguese, and Turkish.