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The Primate Brain Likes to Win, But Can't Always Have It

Winning stimulates dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin—and it feels good.

Source: Kaeser-Blair

Winning stimulates dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin. Just watching competition stimulates these happy chemicals through our mirror neurons. Our brain evolved to seek these good feelings and we get frustrated when this quest falls short. Since we can't enjoy the feeling of winning every moment of our lives, it's important to understand the inner mammal that seeks it.

Happy chemicals are stimulated by behaviors that promote survival in the state of nature. Of course there were no movie or sports competitions in the state of nature, but superior skill led to reproductive success. Building skill triggers happy chemicals in the brain that natural selection built. Dopamine is the good feeling of getting a reward the meets your needs. Serotonin is the good feeling of getting respect from your fellow primates. Oxytocin is the good feeling of belonging to a protective group.

You might deny or mask such feelings with your verbal cortex, but you have inherited a brain that needs these chemicals to feel good. No one can stimulate your chemicals for you. Your brain evolved to stimulate them by takig action to meet your needs. Just taking steps toward skill building gets your happy chemicals flowing once you've built the circuits that kick-start the process. (More on this in my book Habits of a Happy Brain: Retrain Your Brain to Boost Your Serotonin, Dopamine, Oxytocin and Endorphin.) That's why a person invests tremendous effort once they've gotten a taste of the expected reward, respect and belonging. The power of dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin is easier to understand when you know how they work in monkeys.

When a monkey sees a delicious piece of fruit at the top of a tree, he has to make a decision about whether to go for it.

author's photo
Source: author's photo

He might get hurt if he climbs too high. He might lose out to another monkey after investing lots of effort. The monkey's brain weighs the evidence based on past experience. The fruit he scored in the past triggered dopamine that paved neural pathways and trigger his dopamine today. But the pain of past setbacks built cortisol pathways that alert him to the risk of setbacks today. Our monkey weighs the dopamine feeling against the cortisol feeling. If he sees a way to get past the obstacles, his dopamine surges and he goes for it. Every step toward the fruit stimulates more dopamine. Once he gets the fruit, his dopamine stops. The good feeling will be gone as soon as it's metabolized. To get more, he will have to do more. Natural selection produced a brain that feels good when it works toward a goal.

A different kind of motivation comes from serotonin. Let's say our monkey's fruit is snatched by a bigger, stronger monkey when he finally gets to the top of the tree. Experience has taught him that bigger monkeys cause pain, and falling from a tree causes pain. His cortisol surges and he relinquishes the fruit to avoid pain. Now imagine that our monkey checks out the rival fruit-snatcher and decides that he is indeed the bigger, stronger one. He will not let go of that fruit now. He will get the resources he needs to spread his genes. A surge of serotonin causes this feeling. Experience teaches a monkey to determine when he is in the superior position and when he is in the inferior position. These words horrify us in today's culture, but a monkey would starve to death if it always saw itself as inferior. It has to feel confident to go for it some of the time. Serotonin creates that confidence. This is not what "everybody says" about serotonin because social comparison makes people uncomfortable. But our brains go there anyway, and rejecting your natural urge to get the banana can leave you bitter and resentful. You are better off undertsanding it. The research on serotonin and mammalian one-upmanship are fully explored in my book I, Mammal: Why Your Brain Links Status and Happiness. A free download of the chapter on how to stimulate more serotonin, You May Already Be a Winner, is on my PT resource page (under Research Papers, bottom right). A reading list on the mammalian urge for social dominance is on the Inner Mammal Institute website.

You may say that monkeys should cooperate, share the bananas, or leave the bananas for the needy. By saying these things, you mark yourself as a superior person in today's society. You are just seeking serotonin in the modern way. You stimulate oxytocin when your self-restraint helps you belong, and dopamine when it helps you reach your goals. Modern society is more successful at reducing conflict that we realize. Modern primates cooperate often because we have learned that it helps us get rewards, respect and acceptance. We get into trouble if we snatch another monkey's banana so we develop other ways to win.

Belonging to a group promotes survival in the state of nature. An isolated primate is quickly killed, and natural selection built a brain that seeks safety in numbers. Oxytocin causes the good feeling of social solidarity, and low oxytocin warns your inner mammal that you're in immediate danger. Our brains are constantly aware of potential threats to our social bonds. Competition can threaten your bonds, but it can also strengthen them. Superior skills can bring recognition that reassures you of social acceptance and belonging. Secure social bonds feel good because they stimulate oxytocin. You may disdain herd behavior in others, but anything that stimuates your oxytocin feels good.

Your inner mammal is always looking for ways to stimulate your dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin. It relies on the neural pathways built from early experience. If you won a spelling bee when you were young, your happy chemicals paved neural pathways that motivated you to study spelling words in the future. If you stole your brother's cookie when you were young, you might have wired yourself to feel good by scanning for snatchable cookies.

When you are young, your brain produces a lot of myelin, which turns neural pathways into superhighways. Your myelin plummets after puberty, alas. That's why it’s easy to get excited about rewards you experienced in youth, even to the point of excess, while it's hard to get motivated about other things. We humans enjoy a longer period of myelination than earlier mammals, so instead of lamenting our limited adaptability, we can appreciate the neural networks we’ve got. Our brains want to enjoy the thrill of winning every moment of our lives, but we can keep reminding ourselves that our survival does not truly depend on this prize, even when it feels that way.

Your mirror neurons stimulate dopamine when you see other people get rewards. When you were a little monkey, you mirror neurons wired you to seek happy chemicals the way those around you seek them. When you see others invest long grueling hours in the expectation of a reward, it wires you to expect and invest. We don’t always get the rewards we expect, of course. It’s not easy being a mammal. But if you give up, your survival-threat chemical surges. Our brains are inherited from survivors, not give-uppers. The human cortex can project expectations many levels away from sensory experience. This enables us to build castles in the sand, but it also enables us to build castles.

To feel the inner mammal beneath the science, listen to We Were Born to Shine, Andrea Bocelli's closing song at the 2006 Olympics in Turin. It makes me cry, even as I write. The power of the song rests on the fact that “to win” and “to shine” are the same word in Latin/Italian (vincere). The Italian title of the song is Ama, Credi, e Vai (Desire, Believe, and Go). I get the chills hearing the newscaster say those words to the audience of billions at the beginning of this clip. Define “believe” however you want, but remember that Bocelli is blind and he shines without ever seeing the swirl around him. (The English part of the song is 50 seconds in, and the Italian is explained here. After you see this live-with-lyrics clip, you might want to hear a better quality production here.)

Desire, believe, and go!