Your Neurochemical Self

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

Independence v. Belonging: Riding the Seesaw

Trade-offs between belonging and independence never end. Enjoy the ride.

When I'm with a group, I feel pressured by priorities that don't resonate with me.

But when I'm alone, I'm bound by the limited power of one.

The trade-off between independence and belonging is like a seesaw. When you have more of one, you worry about the other. If you succeed at belonging, you may yearn for independence. And if you make it on your own, you worry about the social bonds you may be missing. We often feel strained by the choice between belonging and independence, so it's nice to know that your brain evolved to make these very choices. 

Mammals are constantly choosing between independent action and social bonds. Imagine a sheep seeking greener pasture. If the sheep strays from the herd to get to better food, he risks being eaten by a wolf. He feels the danger because his brain releases cortisol. But he's hungry, and that triggers cortisol too. The sheep has a difficult choice to make.

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You are not a sheep, but you have inherited the brain structures that release cortisol when you're isolated. Your cortisol is also triggered when your ability to meet your individual survival needs is threatened. Cortisol creates the feeling that you're about to be eaten by a wolf. You know that won't actually happen when you fail to get a seat at the "good table" at lunch. But your brain chemicals are a big part of your life experience.

The neurochemical "oxytocin" gives you a good feeling when you have the safety of social bonds. For example, people spontaneously form packs to cross the street in Vietnam. The streets are a non-stop stream of speeding motorcycles with few stoplights. The locals glance around and find others to cluster with. Soon, a pack of pedestrians is safely crossing the street together. No one organized or planned it. No one even spoke. Each mammal brain simply steps toward things that trigger oxytocin and away from things that trigger cortisol. (I gravitated toward little old ladies for protection when I was there.)

A sheep sticks with the herd while seeking greener pastures because oxytocin feels good. The sheep approaches new pasture slowly so the flock can move with him. But when they get there, the sheep finds himself nudged out of the best feeding spots by his pushier flock-mates. So his brain scans for better options. At each moment, the sheep is choosing between his group bonds and his individual needs.

Your hunter-gatherer ancestor foraged for food in the same way. She constantly weighed the trade-off between approaching new rewards and maintaining the safety of the group. With each step, she made a choice.

These choices get trickier when a mammal pursues mating opportunity. On the one hand, strong group bonds help a mammal attract mates and protect offspring. On the other hand, individual action is essential for reproduction. You are probably not interested in reproducing per se, but your brain chemicals are very responsive to things that affect reproductive success in the state of nature. Group dynamics make your neurochemicals surge because your mammal brain links them to survival.

A mammal that always stayed isolated would have little success at passing on its genes. But a mammal that always followed the herd and refused independent action would also have trouble reproducing. So the gene pool filled up with mammals that could choose when to follow the group and when to act independently. Your brain is inherited from them. You thrive by making choices between independent action and group cohesion. You are doing it all the time.

These decisions might feel like a burden, and with more freedom of choice the burden seems to grow. You may wish there was one right answer instead of having to weigh the evidence each the time. But there is no formula. You have to call the shots one by one. People will be happy to tell you how to call your shots if you let them. But they will steer you toward their own well-being, even if they speak of the greater good.

The tension between belonging and independence will not go away. You might imagine a world in which everyone else moves in the direction you think is best. If you wait for the world to be this way, you will wait forever. You are better off appreciating your freedom to choose. Your brain was naturally selected to make that choice.

A great discussion of these issues can be found in Deborah Tannen's book, I Only Say This Because I Love You: Talking to Your Parents, Partner, Sibs, and Kids When You're All Adults. The ups and downs of social trade-offs are also explored in my new book, Meet Your 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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