Your Neurochemical Self

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

When Someone Pushes Your Buttons, Know Your Own Buttons

Distrust evolved because it promotes survival.

The people you trust can disappoint you, so you take a risk every time you trust. But living without trust is risky too. Our brains are constantly trying to figure out when it's safe to trust and when it's not safe. We have strong feelings about trust and betrayal because of brain chemicals we've inherited from earlier animals. When you know how trust works in animals, it's easy to see why human history repeats the same sagas of trust and disappointment.

Social trust promotes survival so the mammal brain rewards it with the good feeling of oxytocin. But trusting someone who is not trustworthy threatens survival, so your mammal brain warns you with the bad feeling of cortisol. The oxytocin wires you to get more of whatever stimulated it, but the cortisol wires you to urgently avoid whatever triggered it. This is why we have love-hate relationships.

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When you withhold trust, you miss out on the nice, safe oxytocin feeling. But when you trust, you risk ending up with a terrifying surge of cortisol. In every moment, your brain is calculating whether you are better off trusting or withholding trust. It's a daunting task, but your brain evolved to do it.

Your three brains work together when you decide who to trust - your reptile brain, your mammal brain, and your cortex.

Your reptile brain evolved to avoid pain. It is always scanning for cues associated with past pain.

Lizards make social decisions with a few simple rules. If it's bigger than you, run. If it's smaller than you, try to eat it. If it's about the same size, try to mate it.

A lizard starts running the moment it cracks out of its shell, and if it doesn't run fast enough, its parent may eat it (wisely recycling weaklings into new siblings instead of leaving them for predators). Reptiles do not trust other reptiles. They do not make oxytocin, and they do not seek survival by bonding with other reptiles.

Your mammalian brain evolved to seek the safety of the herd. Mammals release large quantities of oxytocin at birth. That bonds an infant to its mother, which protects it from wandering off and getting eaten. Gradually, the mammal brain wires itself to feel attachment to a herd or pack or troop rather than just its mother. A herd animal releases cortisol when it can't see at least one other herd-mate.

But some herd-mates are more trustworthy than others. Stronger gazelles push their way to the center of the herd where it's safer from predators, leaving the weak ones exposed to predators at the fringes. But herd animals stick with their herd regardless, because they get eaten by a predator if they leave. Herd animals don't rehash this decision all the time. They just respond to the neurochemistry that makes familiars feel good and isolation feels bad.

The bigger a mammal's brain, the more social information it processes. Primates use their big cortex to constantly re-negotiate their social alliances. The cortex works by finding patterns in the chaos of sensory inputs. It uses patterns experienced in the past to make sense of the present and project into the future. But the past is not always a good predictor of the future, so you can never fully protect yourself from the pain of betrayed trust.

Baboons choose their friends carefully. To a baboon, friendship means coming to each other's defense when attacked. If a baboon sends out an alarm call and their trusted ally does not come, the alliance is over. The baboon will seek new allies rather than defend a comrade who does not reciprocate. Baboons cement alliances by grooming each other's fur. The sensation of touch triggers oxytocin, which wires them to have that good feeling in the presence of the other.

Chimpanzees also build trust with grooming. Lying still with another chimp's hands on you is risky in the chimp world, because chimps sometimes lose their temper and bite. Many chimps have lost a finger or toe at the hands of a troop-mate. They reconcile with more grooming. Imagine all the trust it takes to let another get that close! Lots of oxytocin is triggered by touch, and by neural circuits built up from past bonding experience.

Your ability to analyze the trustworthiness of others evolved for a reason. When the lion laid down with the lamb, usually the lamb got eaten. So the world was left to lambs that made better decisions. Animals that formed sturdy alliances had more surviving offspring, and the capacity to trust wisely was naturally selected for. 

Your ancestors had less opportunity to decide for themselves who to trust. They learned simple rules at a young age: trust this, don't trust that. Of course the rules were wrong sometimes, but people weren't always free to analyze the patterns for themselves. They just lived with that painful cortisol feeling. Today, you have the freedom to decide for yourself when your trust is merited, and when it is likely to be betrayed. That freedom brings a lot of uncertainty. We can celebrate our freedom to call the shots ourselves, and live with the consequences.

My book  Meet Your Happy Chemicals  explains how your buttons got wired, and how you can rewire them for more happy chemicals.

 

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

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