Episode 20: Happy Brain Chemicals with guest Dr. Loretta Breuning (Part 1)
Welcome to part 1 of our three-part series on happy brain chemicals: dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin and endorphins, how they work and how your everyday actions impact their flow.
Our guest, Dr. Loretta Breuning, is the founder of the Inner Mammal Institute (to visit the website, click here). Her goal is to help people manage the ups and downs of their mammal brain. She is also a professor emerita of management at California State University East Bay and the author of eight books, including "Habits of a Happy Brain" - which talks about the brain chemicals that make us feel good, and how to stimulate them naturally.
What are our Happy Brain Chemicals?
Dr. Breuning became interested in dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin and endorphin after reading a little bit about how each of these brain chemicals work in animals. She was intrigued by the patterns she observed and wanted to explore more about how our happy brain chemicals impact our lives.
Dr. Breuning’s Background
Dr. Breuning grew up in a rather unhappy family. Her mother was not happy very often; but, as a child, she didn't know or understand why. This part of Dr. Breuning’s history inspired her to explore more about the brain chemicals that we have and how they impact our mood.
Humans are always struggling to manage our happy brain chemicals, but they are not meant to be “on” all the time. Our happy brain chemicals are designed to be released to motivate action in a very specific moment when that action will meet a survival need.
Happy Brain Chemical #1: Dopamine
What is Dopamine?
Dopamine is tied to the feeling of joy and excitement. It is the chemical that is linked to our reward system and is released when you expect to meet a need. The release of dopamine gives you a boost of energy as you pursue a goal and is linked to the great feeling that a reward is at hand.
Ever notice how excitement builds as you step closer towards a goal? That’s your dopamine at work! The level of meaning attached to a goal is built into your brain circuitry from your past, earlier life experiences. Anything that stimulated your dopamine when you were young helped build the neural pathways that tied joy and excitement to a given activity. In other words, whatever was active at the moment when you were excited as a young child (e.g., playing baseball, cooking with your family, etc.) built a neural pathway that – today – turns on the excitement more easily.
You feel excited today through the pathways you built as a child.
Many of your current tastes and preferences were shaped by your past environment, the opportunities you were given, and the rewards you obtained.
What is a reward?
It could be praise.
It could be the good feeling of accomplishing something.
It could be money.
A note on food as “reward”
Food is fundamental to our survival, and as such is coded as a core “reward” to our brain.
Our brain has evolved over hundreds of thousands of years, and our fundamental objective was to survive. As such, our daily activities were all focused on survival and procreation. In this context, the ultimate reward (tied to the release of dopamine) was seeking and obtaining food.
Note, in the state of nature, procreation is not just about making babies – it is also about keeping the babies alive.
So, what does it take to keep babies alive?
First, the mother must get food in order to produce rich milk. Second, she needs to shelter and protect the babies from predators. Social alliances help facilitate the latter. This brings us to the next happy brain chemical: serotonin, which is released when there is pleasure in social dominance.
Happy Brain Chemical #2: Serotonin
What is Serotonin?
In the animal world, serotonin is released when one animal asserts itself and prevails. Serotonin is not aggression, but it is a type of calm confidence that comes from a feeling of strength.
But, most people know serotonin as the core happy brain chemical, because depression is thought to result from an imbalance in serotonin level. Of note - this simplistic view of depression is highly debated.
Can you get too much of a happy brain chemical?
We, as humans, incorrectly believe we should feel the “good” emotions at all times. For example, you want to feel confident and happy all the time (serotonin); but, your brain is hardwired to only want so much of it. In fact, if you overproduce a happy brain chemical (e.g., serotonin) through some artificial mechanism (e.g., drugs) your brain will reduce the production and absorption of the chemical in your brain to compensate for the surplus.
What about habituation?
Habituation is the idea that your brain ignores the rewards you already have.
For example, if you were thirsty in the desert and you saw the slightest hint of an oasis in the distance, you would get very excited. But, if you have unlimited running water (as we do in the modern world), it won’t excite you in the same way.
How does your brain know to release dopamine & serotonin?
The simple answer is what ever triggered your dopamine or serotonin in your past built a pathway that gives it to you today.
For one person, it is their athletic ability.
For another person, it is when they win video games.
For the third person, it is when they bake delicious cookies.
Whatever you did in the past that got the people around you to take notice and say “Wow, you've got it going on!” built a pathway in your brain that says “Oh, this is what I need to do to feel good.”
Your brain is constantly comparing you to others and evaluating your strengths and weaknesses. This process is linked to survival, because in the animal world your weaknesses can get you killed. But constantly comparing ourselves to others can also be detrimental to our mental health. So, that's the challenge that you face today: how can you focus on your own strengths, enjoy your own sense of confidence, while still being socially accepted and part of the “herd”?
To be continued..
Be sure to tune in next week (Episode 21), when we’ll be sharing part 2 of this series with Dr. Breuning. Specifically, we’ll be talking about oxytocin (our brain’s love chemical), endorphins (our brain’s pain masking chemical) and learning how to build new neural pathways.
To learn more about the work that Dr. Loretta Breuning is doing on Happy Brain Chemicals, you can visit her website by clicking here.