the center of the universe as had been previously stated and believed. With this revolution came a sense of displacement; overnight, humanity had lost its special location and standing in the cosmic scheme of things. The second revolution occurred with Charles Darwin and his theory of evolution, which placed and enmeshed humans fully within the world of animals. Our physical ancestors were not angels after all; they were monkeys.
Moreover, and psychologically speaking, it was Freud
who discovered and added animal instincts to complete the picture of this perceived
displacement. We have the commonly shared territory of the id, the unconscious reservoir
of dark impulses, sexual urges, and aggression that ought to be controlled,
diverted and dealt with to avoid impending chaos and destruction. As we can
see, we still have a very long way to go to peace and tranquility, but what may
be perceived by some as a loss in pride and entitlement and by others as a
lesson in humility can, in fact, be harnessed and utilized towards a better understanding
of the human species.
As a matter of fact, this was one of the main topics
of my interview with the renowned brain chemistry expert and founder of the
Inner Mammal Institute, Dr. Loretta Breuning. Her book Status Games: Why We Play and How to Stop sheds light on various trends and behaviors, including
competition and social rivalry and their established link and connection with
the animal world.
Before we delve into specifics about the interaction,
interplay, and interconnectedness between humans and animals and how it can
benefit us to understand our own behaviors as well as that of others -
including how that new-found knowledge and insight can lead to greater
emotional freedom as well as move us towards potential happiness - let us first
deal with the elephant in the room.
In recent times, as noted and observed by Dr.
Breuning, there is a trend towards romanticizing and idealizing wildlife and
animals. Unlike before, when we upheld humans as shiny examples of the natural
world, nowadays, in academia and mainstream currents, we are going in the
opposite direction by upholding nature in all its supposed glory as an angelic
role model to follow. This is not merely seeing and sympathizing with animals
as oppressed and victimized beings but of instilling and projecting into them inherent goodness and compassion that seems borderline angelic in nature.
There are two examples that come to mind demonstrating
this and the potential harm associated with such a way of idealized and
idealistic thinking. On one hand, we would overlook and ignore the fact that
animals lack the human moral capacity in relation to decision-making and judgment.
There may be – and I would say there certainly is – a bond and affinity that
transcends across species, a space in which pets and certain animals may see
and relate to their benevolent owners or caregivers with care and affection,
but at the same time, there is also a wild instinctive side to them, an
aggressive and ingrained survival instinct that can resurface at any given
moment regardless of the established bond between them.
My first example here is a scene from Natural Born Killers
by Oliver Stone that has always stuck with me. The film cleverly connects the
dots between human and animal nature but it also makes a counterpoint with the
example of the snake. We hear an anecdote of a human taking care of a snake,
feeding, and protecting it, and yet, one day, the snake bites its owner. The
owner is shocked and asks the snake, how it could possibly return all his
kindness with such a heinous and cruel act. The snake replies (I am
paraphrasing from memory), my wild nature was known to you from the start, and
it was always known to you that I am a snake and that betrayal was part of my
DNA and, ipso facto, sooner or later, you would be bitten.
The second case I would like to mention is the
wonderful but heartbreaking and sad documentary Grizzly Man by Werner
Herzog in which the filmmaker documents various years of the life of the
self-styled American environmentalist Timothy Treadwell. Treadwell had chosen
to live in a bear habitat and shot some beautiful and amazing footage up-close
with bears and other wildlife. That he managed to survive for years was a
miracle, and we can see, often with our own eyes, how it was not always easy,
but, in the end, he and his visiting girlfriend were mauled and eaten by one of
the bears. The romantic and idyllic idea of nature and wildlife to be
essentially loving and peaceful was suddenly and violently shattered into
Let us now switch to humans, and it is not hard to see
that we are hardly doing much better. Although there are those who are good and
decent, it often feels that they are in the minority since the ones who are
cruel and abusive seem to abound and be anywhere; we can spot them in any
direction we set our eyes on, be it in the media, in politics, at work, while they
are often lurking among family, friends, and neighbors. Why is this so?
It is not enough to simply state and acknowledge that we
behave this way because we come from monkeys; there are deeper insights to be
gleaned from this fact. Animals have an ingrained structure of comparing
themselves to others, which we have inherited from them. As Loretta explains, this
hierarchical behavior of mammals is often, consciously, or unconsciously, copied
by us, and it is the underlying reason why we are always comparing ourselves to
others and that we constantly want and strive to be in a position of strength.
This makes perfect evolutionary sense because the
overall goal and aim are to promote our genes; the difference is that we, as
opposed to animals, have a possible vantage point because we have the potential
to be aware of this trend, and yet, many fellow humans ignore this fact, or
they lack the necessary insight or awareness.
Hence, for our own protection and survival, natural
selection has built a brain that responds to this situation and promotes this
in a natural fashion without the necessity of thought and awareness. The way it
is done is through the release of good feelings via the neurotransmitter
In a nutshell, whenever we feel stronger than others,
our serotonin levels go up and we feel good about ourselves; on the other hand,
whenever we feel weaker in the presence of others, the brain releases cortisol,
a known stress chemical. As it is easy to see, the human challenge or dilemma
is the following: How can we get that good feeling of serotonin without being a
However, as Loretta explains, the trick is to put
yourself up without putting others down. This is often easier said than done.
Bullying and denigrating others for a fix of serotonin is a much faster way to
get the rush of good feelings pulsing through our veins. This is the proverbial
dominant gesture that many copy from monkeys: they puff up their chest and give
a direct stare and throw menacing grunts or words with veiled or open threats
in your direction; they want to impress and intimidate you either with physical
prowess or their social standing alongside the supposed power that comes with
If both parties are bullies by nature, they would get
into a physical altercation or confrontation, but bullies generally know who to
pick (although at times, they miscalculate their strengths or make mistakes and
errors by underestimating the strength and power of others, mainly due to their
own lack of intelligence). But the problem remains that if you see yourself as
weak or if you have been a victim of bullying in the past, you tend to accept
the abuse and violence and may even rationalize and justify it to yourself.
But it is best to be aware of this tendency and to
notice it when it happens. Many of our reactions and comparisons with others
stem from our own past experiences, particularly the way our brains wire in
youth. There are different pathways that become set during those critical,
vital, and impressionable years of brain growth, and you may either choose to
always put yourself on top or you may resort to comparing yourself negatively
with others by putting yourself down and on the bottom.
Evidently, neither path is healthy nor beneficial, and
the problem is that not only do we keep repeating those patterns from when we
were young, but we also tend not to see our own status games. This is not too
surprising as our mammal brain, the part of the brain that controls our instincts
and emotions is inherited by animals and cannot use language.
Put differently, these chemicals, especially the
threat-sensing cortisol and the domineering sensation of serotonin really drive
us, and we do not consciously decide or opt for them. Many will deny it through
defense mechanisms as they always claim to see those types of unwanted
behaviors in others but apparently never spot them within themselves.
And yet, there is hope and a path out of this jungle.
The key lies in neuroplasticity and in rewiring your brain by creating and
setting new pathways. We acquired many of these traits and feelings through our
past conditioning and via mirror neurons. You are wired to repeat patterns of
behaviors, including thoughts and emotions associated with them, and so
whatever triggered your threat chemicals in the past will continue to do so
until you decide to put a stop to it.
It starts with mindfulness, that is, being aware that
we have been conditioned to mirror the behavior of others. In the process, you
learn and mirror what gets rewards (dopamine kicks in) as well as what helps
you avoid pain. First, you start by pleasing your partners but then the focus
of your inner mammal will be on pleasing peers so that you can find a sex
partner. This is one of the main reasons high school kids tend to follow their
peers more than their parents.
The problem with neuroplasticity is that the older you
get, the more difficult the task of changing, re-programming, or creating new
pathways will be. These pathways are built easily and without much effort when
we are young, but with age, it becomes more difficult to build those conditions.
They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, and yet, it is possible but
only with a lot of effort, determination, and persistence.
It would certainly help or be beneficial if there was
any type of precedent set in the past. For instance, if you were helping others
and got rewarded, you will continue to do so but, on the flip side, if you were
rewarded for unhealthy behaviors, then you would likely choose and take unhealthy
steps. And yet, suffering can come in handy here. As Loretta points out, prominent
people have gone through loads of suffering, and that includes Freud as well.
He faced adversity and resistance but still managed to push ahead despite it
We can use his knowledge, experience, and insights to
also push ahead and go past the resistance that we experience throughout our
lives. It is possible to switch and turn your cortisol response into a reaction
with serotonin. It cannot and will not happen overnight, but we can set
ourselves a game plan by establishing clear and precise short, midterm, and
All this time, it is recommended to be driving in the
middle lane. Sure, there is the temptation to go in the fast lane as we crave status
and social dominance, fame, and riches and often we want to have it quick and
easy, but all things considered, it will be a frustrating experience. We also
have to face and accept the fact that we cannot always come out on top and that
some will be always better and better off than we are.
On the other hand, the slow lane, although gradual and
patient, will have its own share of shortcomings, such as the unenviable
feeling of being left behind or even feeling angry and resentful, which will in
turn - yes, you guessed it - precipitate a cortisol response. The best thing to
do is to keep it real and to remain cool.
What makes you cool? I can give you Loretta’s response
to this topic of interest: What makes you cool in high school, or any other
time of your life, is the same that makes you cool in a monkey troop. If
looking to impress a mate, you want to have a healthy appearance as the brain
selects for partners that are healthy, and this provides the potential guarantee
of keeping your genes alive.
You also want to have a strong social alliance. This
explains why youth and adults may get involved with gangs or build connections,
coalitions, and alliances to get a seat on the "cool" table. The real aim of high
school is to win over desired and desirable sex partners, but some people are
still stuck in that state and stage notwithstanding their physical age.
Finally, there is the willingness to take risks. As a
high school student - and even years after that - I was afraid to talk to
potential romantic partners, while the cool kids made it look easy by merely
going up and talking to them. This timid behavior often goes hand-in-hand with
doubting and second-guessing yourself, but the element of risk, of stepping
outside of your comfort zone and the status quo, can be helpful for various
parts and domains of your life. We can learn from animals, listen to, and
embrace our mammal brain, and yet, at the same time, we have the incredible
potential of paving a path towards growth, transcendence, and self-empowerment
in the process.