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 pieces.
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 serotonin.
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 jerk?
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 it.
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 all.
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 long-term goals.
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.
Such was my wonderful interview with the amazing Dr. Loretta Breuning! You can access the full interview either here or you can catch it on my podcast: Arash’s World Podcast!