Your Neurochemical Self

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

Why I’m a Registered “None”

My struggle to become a “No party preference”

The voting age dropped to eighteen when I was in high school, and my Social Studies teacher brought in hip-looking speakers to help us register. They said “most young people register Democrat.” The pitch appealed to my teen mind, and I became a Democrat.

In college, I learned that Republicans are evil and stupid. This was said not with words but with statistics and polysyllabic terminology. The words said "we educated people care about others, and we can easily save the world if Republicans would just get out of the way." I wanted to save the world. I wanted to be an educated person. I learned to blame Republicans for all bad because I wanted to be good.

In grad school, I learned that multinational corporations were the root of all evil. Then I started working for the United Nations in Africa. I saw African government officials stealing public funds at every level. When I talked to colleagues about it, they said “It’s not their fault. Our multinational companies are the real culprits.” I needed to ignore the corruption to keep my job, so I decided to look for a new career. 

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I became a college professor, but the same thought pattern surrounded me. I often had the feeling that my students were not doing the reading, and could not necessarily read in some cases. I discussed this with others and they all said “it’s not their fault.” I was expected to shut up and pass them along. When I questioned this, colleagues beamed with pride and said "we're teaching them how to think.” Whether students learned by reading or by small group discussion didn't matter as long as students learned to blame “our society” for all problems. I was horrified. How will these students fare in the workplace without skills? From my colleagues’ perspective, free markets are unfair, and we were giving them the skills to find the unfairness.

My discomfort was compounded by the reading problems I saw in my first child. I went looking for solutions and most people blamed Republican-inspired budget cuts. I could have clung to the “progressive” view that children naturally love reading unless poverty gets in the way. Fortunately, my Mom Genes kicked in. I saw the obvious parallel between the anything-goes attitude at my university and the you-shouldn’t-have-to-do-it-unless-it’s-fun attitude that prevailed in “educated” homes like mine. I started thinking for myself in time to save my kids from the poison of low expectations.

I needed parenting help, but everyone I knew offered the same platitudes. All problems of youth were blamed on “the Puritanism of our society,” with its punitive drug laws and limited access to contraception. I did not know any conservatives. In my forties, the only Republicans I'd seen were on Saturday Night Live. I thought I was well-informed because NPR was playing whenever I was in my car. But as I started thinking for myself, I noticed that I always heard the word “racism” within five minutes of turning the car on. I wondered if this jousting at racism was an in-group cohesion strategy that distracted attention from policy failures. I was having forbidden thoughts. 

I didn't dare express them because I saw the hate spewed at anyone who challenged liberal orthodoxy. I knew that hate could be pointed at me. One day, my censor failed me. NPR was being discussed reverently, and I blurted out “did you ever notice that they bring up racism every five minutes?” A colleague stared at me and said “no, I never noticed that.”

The next day, I went to the Post Office and filled out a form to change my party affiliation from Democrat to “declined to state.” I reclaimed my freedom to think for myself on each issue.

I didn’t tell anyone, even my husband. That marriage ended, and when I started dating, I was even less inclined to tell anyone my deep dark secret. I married a nice Democrat under false pretenses. (Grounds for annulment?)

I do not call myself an “independent.” To me the word suggests anger at both parties, and I am not angry at the government. I see how people cause their own problems and I don’t expect the government to be able to fix everything. When I disagree with policies, I see how they emerge from democratic consensus. “In a democracy, the government you get is the government you deserve.” Raging at the government clearly helps people feel important. I think it serves a private interest rather than the public interest.

I was alone with my discomfort for a long time. If conservatives had horns, I might have been able to find one and stop them for a chat. Instead, I found solace by studying the mammalian brain. Here’s what I learned.

Mammalian Social Dominance
Virtually all mammals live in social groups with a status hierarchy. Mammals invest their excess energy in status rivalries because it promotes reproductive success. This behavior is caused by mammalian neurochemistry, not by capitalism. When a mammal raises its status, its happy chemicals surge. When its status is threatened, its stress chemicals surge. If you filled a room with people who say they don’t care about status, they would soon form a hierarchy based on how anti-status they are. That is what mammals do.

Mirror Neurons
Primates have special neurons that activate when they observe the behavior of others. If you listen to news reporters lamenting the failure of government to meet our needs, you are likely to lament the government’s failure to meet our needs. Other ways of looking at life don't come to mind if you’re not exposed to them.

Classical Conditioning
The brain learns from rewards and punishments. If teachers give you an “A” when you blame “our society,” even if you haven’t done the reading, your brain learns from the reward. If your teachers sneer and say "you don’t get it” when you write essays that take responsibility instead of blaming the system, your brain learns from the punishment. Even if you're a good student, conforming makes it so easy to get rewards that you wonder whether it's worth risking the scrutiny you get if you don't. In the workplace, the stakes are higher. In most professions, you put your career at risk if you question the everybody-is-a-victim world view, and you get rewarded if you conform to it.

Herd Behavior
Most mammals find safety by sticking with a herd or pack or troop. Small-brained mammals like sheep release happy chemicals when with herd mates, and stress chemicals near sheep that are not of their herd. Big-brained animals like primates have more in-group conflict, but they hang together because of their much harsher conflict with non-member monkeys and apes. The old adage “you’re either with us or against us” is deep in the mammal brain. People who pride themselves on tolerance can quickly ostracize you if you don't embrace their definition of tolerance.

Chronocentrism
Each brain sees itself as the center of the world, and sees today as the pivot point in human history. Things have been "going to hell in a handbasket" for millennia because thinking of the future bring awareness of one’s mortality. The thought of your own demise triggers anxious feelings that your brain rationalizes by projecting them onto the state of the world. Connecting with grandchildren relieved this existential angst in the past. By age forty, people had grandchildren and lived near them. Today, this way of feeling good about the future is rare. Your genes may be annihilated in the future, and the thought is so painful that your brain equates it with the annihilation of the world.

I came out to my new husband eventually. Parenthood was once again the motivator. We had three children between us, and our different outlooks led to serious parenting differences. The expression “shirt sleeves to shirt sleeves in three generations” seemed to be playing out under my roof. (It refers to a poor person who rises through hard work, only to have their descendants lose it all because they never learn to be responsible.) It felt like I was watching a train wreck in slow motion, so I had to say something. I said that children must be accountable for their actions at home or they will run into trouble outside. The trouble can be blamed on society, but they will suffer anyway. Do you want your kid to suffer just so you can feel good about being “non-judgmental”? 

I desperately needed social support, and I stumbled on a conservative comedian hosted by the Republican Jewish Coalition. My teachers had been mostly Jewish when I was growing up, and they’d treated me with more respect than I'd gotten at home. If a Jew can be openly Republican, I thought, I can attend this event. I went without telling anyone, since this was tantamount to a KKK coven in my world. I loved the cosmic irony because I'd only seen Republicans played by liberal comedians before that.

I was not interested in joining a new herd because it had been so hard to extract myself from the old herd. I was not interested in belongning to a group that would expect me to be loyal to a cause and disdain common enemies. I would not be a partisan conservative. But after hearing reflexive blaming of big business for decades, I was starved for alternative thinking.

I found what I was looking for on BookTV. Every weekend, C-SPAN sponsors 48 hours of book talks from real authors in real bookstores. The US Congress sponsors the channel, so the time is carefully split down the middle. I had my first contact with conservative intellectuals. I got to hear about their research from their own lips instead of getting it filtered through a liberal who despises them. Without the group pressure of in-person events, I was free to agree and disagree as I saw fit. I got to hear Dick Cheney speak about himself instead of just hearing other people tell me he is evil. I found him surprisingly warm, and I didn't need to hate him for his “corporate ties” because Democrats likewise have ties to large organizations that promote their interests, from unions to corporations to predatory trial lawyers. 

Every weekend I go to the BookTV schedule and read the descriptions. I sift for ideas that haven’t been endlessly repeated by partisan ideologues. I record them and listen throughout the week instead of following “the news.” To me, books seem more up-to-date than news. News fits a partisan agenda, which evolves very slowly. Books (especially self-published books like mine) can circumvent the excruciating consensus building of the groupthink machine. BookTV allows me to hear from people who lead responsible lives, while other information sources seem to celebrate people with self-destructive behavior. 

The Bush years were hard for me. Here in the Berkeley area, people stopped saying “how are you today?” and said “how mad at Bush are you today?” I think it's childish to vent personal frustrations at public officials, so I didn't give the expected response. For years, I lived in fear that the venting would turn on me. My liberal friends see themselves as sensitive and non-violent. They don’t notice their rage when they get less than 100% agreement with the victim theory of the day. Convinced they are “doing good,” they hold other ideas to be dangerous and impermissible. All through history, evil has cloaked itself in the mantle of doing good. I have stopped being intimidated by the judgment of do-gooders. I’ll keep thinking for myself whether they think I’m a good person or not.

...but conservatives are much worse, you might be thinking. I would indeed be frustrated with conservatives if I lived in their bubble. But pointing fingers at conservatives doesn't justify the fundamentalism inside the liberal bubble. 

Conformist pressures are part of being mammal. As unpleasant as they are, we are free to make our own choices. The consequences of thinking for yourself are milder today than they have been in history. I’m grateful for this freedom, and I’m using it. I decide my position on each issue, one at a time, without regard for partisan loyalty. Perhaps you do that too.

The rest of this story is told in my book, Beyond Cynical: Transcend Your Mammalian Negativity. 

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

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