Your Neurochemical Self

Getting real with a 200-million-year-old brain

Benazir Bhutto - A Mammalian Tragedy

Will another billion dollars be stolen from the Pakistani people?

Tragedy is the suffering you cause yourself by walking a path that leads off the edge of a cliff.

Benazir Bhutto watched her father being executed for corruption. She vowed to avenge him by seizing power in Pakistan, and when she did she indulged in corruption on an even grander scale. Then political assassins killed her.

This tragic tale continues because Ms. Bhutto's husband is now president of Pakistan. He still goes to Switzerland to visit their money.

Ms. Bhutto was famed for her Harvard and Oxford degrees, and her public speaking prowess. She used all that power and skill to steal a billion dollars from her compatriots. Let us see how one mind can choose that path. It helps shed light on the path of nation.

Benazir Bhutto believed she was just doing what it takes to survive. Mammals learn survival skills during their childhood. Mammals learn from experience instead of just running on instinct. But early experience builds the basic wiring in the cortex. It takes a long time to build all that wiring, which is why mammals have a long childhood. We don't throw away our neural circuits after spending years to build them- they're built to serve for a lifetime. Most mammals die outside the niche their survival skills were adapted to.

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Advice-mongers exhort us to "change," but adult brains tend to rely on the wiring they have. That's why so many people fail to quit smoking, fail to recover from a stroke, and fail to respect the law when corrupt opportunities appear. We cling to old survival strategies even when they get us into trouble because we evolved to adapt to the niche we're born into.

Pakistan's President Zardari is just doing what he thinks is necessary to survive. If each generation learns survival strategy in youth, how can new strategies take hold?

Sometimes people succeed at building new neural pathways in adulthood. They learn to do something else with their hands and their anxiety without cigarettes. They learn to walk after a stroke in the painstaking way that a baby learns to walk. They learn to obey the law instead of grabbing everything they can get their hands on. Building new pathways in adulthood is hard work. There's no substitute for the individual struggle to put one foot in front of another until the new connections build. Getting angry at the cigarette industry doesn't help you stop smoking. Getting angry at doctors doesn't help you recover from a stroke.

Getting angry at the corruption of others doesn't help you build a law-abiding society. It takes courage to reject the survival skills of your youth and build new ones, but this courage stops new tragedies from occurring. The path to peace is built from the pathways in each brain. 

My book Greaseless: How to Survive without Bribes in Developing Countries has lots more on how to say "no" to corruption.

My book, Beyond Cynical: Transcend Your Mammalian Negativity is a plan to feel good about life in a world full of mammals instead of waiting for an idealized world to appear.


Loretta Graziano Breuning, Ph.D., is a Zoo Docent and Professor Emerita of Management at California State University, East Bay. 


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