Does life seem like a high school cafeteria sometimes? It’s not your imagination. Our brain is designed to wire itself in adolescence. Our emotional brain is inherited from earlier mammals, who struggle for status in their herd or pack or troop. As a result, the status struggles of adolescence form the core of our emotional brain.
Mammals compete for status in a herd or pack or troop because it promotes reproductive success. The traits linked to “popularity” in high school are eerily similar to the traits that promote reproductive success in earlier mammals: physical strength, attractiveness to the opposite sex, social alliances, and a willingness to take risks. Natural selection produced a brain that cares about these traits because that promotes survival. There is no free love in nature. Sex has preliminary qualifying events in every species, and animals spend years perfecting their skills.
Adolescents seek status without the polite veneer of adulthood. The mammalian struggle of high school gets wired into your brain because hormones stimulate the growth of neurons. Your teen years built the neural network of how the world works. You might want to distance from your teen self, but the neural pathways you built then are real.
Permanent neural circuits build in adolescence for a good reason. Mammals often move to a new group before they mate, and they need to learn a new environment to survive. Your ancestors moved to a new village or tribe to marry. They had to learn a new language, new customs, new geography. Natural selection produced a brain that’s good at re-wiring itself during puberty. This happens without conscious intent. Animals prevent in-breeding without conscious awareness of their genes, and high school students connect neurons to their happy and unhappy chemicals with the same lack of awareness.
Serotonin plays a key role in this drama. A monkey’s serotonin level rises when it is socially dominant. A monkey that’s too aggressive is ostracized by its fellow monkeys and dies alone in the wilderness. But a monkey that always submits has low serotonin. Adolescence is the time when we build our ability to hold our own among others. We are surrounded with others trying to do the same thing. It’s frustrating, but it comes with the gift of life. An entertaining guide to this conundrum is my book I, Mammal: Why Your Brain Links Status and Happiness.
I am not saying we should go through life fretting over who sits at which table. I am saying that your brain is constantly deciding whether to submit or seek dominance in relation to those around you. You can say you don’t care what others think, but your serotonin soars when you get respect. The good feeling motivates you to seek more. Each choice has its risks and rewards. Over time, you wire yourself to repeat behaviors that trigger serotonin and avoid behaviors that trigger cortisol. Most of that wiring is built in adolescence because the brain is more plastic then. Your teen self learned ways of navigating the social world that are still with you.
Feelings of insecurity are natural. In the animal world, a critter loses its juvenile prerogatives at puberty and has to establish its own place in the adult hierarchy. In the human world, you may have parental support in high school, but you realize that your parents can’t give you what you most want—the respect of your peers. You realize that you have to go for it yourself. Insecure feelings are the natural response. It helps to know that all mammals go through the same thing.
Your sense of personal power grows as you mature. An intriguing resource on this topic is a CD called Depression: A Disorder of Power. The author, PT Blogger Susan Heitler, explains that perceiving yourself as powerless causes depression. The solution is to build your internal sense of personal power. No one can give you this power. Nor can you demand it. Those are children’s strategies. As you grow in life experience, you learn to negotiate and collaborate with those around you. Teens negotiate awkwardly because they are just starting to learn the skill. Over time, your ability to negotiate with others grows, and your personal power grows with it.
Another useful resource is Mammal at the Movies, my free guide to movies that explore the mammalian competition for social dominance. These are warm-hearted movies rooted in self-acceptance, not cynicism.
This brain we've inherited seeks attention as if your life depended on it, because from the perspective of your genes, it does. In every mammalian herd or pack or troop, some individuals get more attention than others. Your adult brain experiences the competition for attention through the lens of the neural pathways you have. Electricity flows in your brain the way water flows through pipes, finding the path of least resistance.Your pipes built up during your years of peak neuroplasticity.
Whenever brain chemicals surge, neurons connects. Things that made you happy as a teen built neural circuits that wire you to turn on your happy chemicals that way in the future. When you felt bad, the unhappy chemicals paved neural pathways to warn you of similar threats in the future. Adolescence is a chance to re-wire the circuits that control your neurochemicals. After that, you add leaves to your neural trees, but your teen self is still the core of your neural infrastructure.
When you accept your primal urge for recognition, the world makes sense. Your neurochemical ups and downs make sense and other people make sense. That doesn’t mean you should act on your teen impulses. But you can accept their authenticity instead of dismissing them. Instead of berating your impulses, you can honor the effort you invest in managing them. Instead of being frustrated with the world and with others, you can accept that you are a mammal among mammals.
Fun and support
The movie Mean Girls shows high school through the eyes of a field biologist in these short clips (the water hole scene and the cafeteria girl fight). They are hilarious in themselves, but Linsey Lohan playing field biologist makes them all the more...mammalian.
Habits of a Happy Brain: Retrain Your Brain to Boost Your Serotonin, Dopamine, Oxytocin and Endorphin
My new book explains how experience wires our happy chemicals.
It's Not Easy Being Mammal
Great animal pix enliven this pdf introduction to our mammalian neurochemistry. Find it under "Research Papers" at the bottom right of my PT bio page.
Many free resources at my website, InnerMammalInstitute.org.