Your Neurochemical Self

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

Crisis Goggles Make Everything Look Bad

Take off your crisis goggles and see the good around you.

If you look at the world with crisis goggles, you will always see a crisis. Our brain is designed to see what it looks for. It has ten times more neurons going into the eyes than it has coming out of the eyes. That means we are ten times more equipped to find what we look for than to just interpret whatever comes along.

The brain builds crisis goggles because it learns from experience. Cortisol (the stress chemical) is released each time you see a potential threat. Cortisol paves neural pathways that help you react to a threat more efficiently in the future. Crisis goggles build without effort or intent.

Our brain looks for problems because that promotes survival. If you look at a beautiful mosaic with one tile missing, your brain is drawn to the missing tile. If your bank makes an error on your account, your brain will remember it forever. You will not notice the billions of correct transactions your bank makes because it’s not “information” to your survival-focused brain.

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We mammals evolved to learn from those around us. A mammal survives by running when the rest of the herd runs. We are equipped with “mirror neurons” that mirror the behaviors of others. You are likely to feel alarmed when those around you feel alarmed.

Fortunately, our brain has happy chemicals too. The good feelings of endorphin, dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin help dispel a sense of crisis. Unfortunately, our happy chemicals did not evolve to flow all the time. They evolved to reward us for meeting our needs. They respond to things that meet needs in the state of nature, like rich food and reproductive opportunity. Knowing more about your happy chemicals helps you find new and improved ways to stimulate them.

Know your endorphin
Endorphins are released when you exercise, but only when extra exertion is made. You can’t do that constantly without hurting yourself, so it’s good to know that laughing also stimulates endorphin. Crying does too.

Know your dopamine
When you do a jigsaw puzzle and find the piece you’re looking for, your brain releases dopamine. “There it is!” Your dopamine system rewards you for finding what you seek. If you seek a reward that’s a thousand miles away, you get a little dopamine kick when you cut that to 999 miles. The road to rewards is full of obstacles, and dopamine rewards you for overcoming them. Alas, we can get hooked on seeking obstacles because the dopamine feels good. This promotes survival in the state of nature, but in a world of unlimited information, it builds a sense of crisis. You can enjoy dopamine without that sense of crisis if you intently focus elsewhere. Focus on getting from 999 to 998 and 997. Celebrate your skill with each step and you will build a new dopamine pathway.

Know your oxytocin
Social bonds feel good because they trigger oxytocin. The mammal brain rewards you with a good feeling when you stick with the herd because safety in numbers promotes survival. To sustain that good feeling, a mammal must run when its group-mates run. If you choose not to be alarmed when others are, it may feel like your social bonds are at risk. Fortunately, you can stimulate oxytocin in new ways. Touch and trust trigger oxytocin. Of course, it’s risky to touch or trust the wrong person. Animals are extremely careful about who they touch and trust, and they’re rewarded with oxytocin when they choose wisely. I put my trust in people outside the crisis-mongering herd. If I can’t find any, I trust a person from the past. They might have had a sense of crisis while they were alive, but it feels good. Sometimes I just get a massage.

Know your serotonin
Confidence triggers the good feeling of serotonin. We humans would like to feel confident all the time, but in the state of nature serotonin only surges when a mammal is bigger and stronger than the critter next to it. Serotonin drops when an animal is weaker, and that helps them avoid conflicts they are likely to lose. Humans want to feel powerful all the time and yet avoid conflict all the time too. This is not really what our brain evolved to do, so we struggle to make it happen. Many people stimulate their serotonin by getting angry at people they see as more powerful. Raging at a person on a screen is safer than asserting yourself in person. But you can end up with a constant sense of crisis if you rely on this confidence-building habit. You have alternatives. You can focus on your accomplishments. You can stop comparing yourself to others. The mammal brain focuses on social comparison, but you can transcend your mammalian impulses when you understand them.

You can focus on beautiful mosaics instead of on missing tiles. You can build new neural pathways despite the chorus of negativity around you. But it takes time. Old pathways are tempting because the electricity in the brain flows like water through pipes, finding the path of least resistance. New pipes will build if you give them a chance. Once electricity flows through your new pathways, you will literally forget to focus on crisis.

My book Meet Your Happy Chemicals has lots more on how to stimulate your natural happy chemicals, now.

My book Beyond Cynical: Transcend Your Mammalian Negativity shows how we get wired to focus on the world's flaws, and how we can rewire ourselves to see the bigger picture.

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

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