Loretta Graziano Breuning, Ph.D., is a Docent at the Oakland Zoo and author of Greaseless: How to Thrive without Bribes in Developing Countries. She’s Professor Emerita of International Business at California State University, East Bay, and worked in Africa as a United Nations Volunteer. Dr. Breuning began studying the mammalian social brain after lecturing worldwide on bribery prevention. Her new book is I, Mammal: Why Your Brain Links Status and Happiness. Her websites are full of good information on these subjects.
Dr. Breuning describes her political views as follows: “I’m an independent centrist. I don’t mean wishy-washy; I mean: (1) The world is not going to hell in a hand-basket. Every period of human history has felt like a crisis and a “turning point” to the people living it.
(2) Government is neither the cause nor the cure for all problems. Human nature causes problems and human effort solves problems. (3) Political convictions are rooted in personal experience, which the mind tends to overgeneralize. (4) Partisanship fills a deep human need. Social bonds grow strong when there’s a common adversary. Political activists can end up more invested in their own social dominance than in the welfare of the whole. Fortunately, each party acts as a check on the potential misguidedness of its opponents.”
Mammals live in groups for protection from predators, but group life can be frustrating. Some herd mates always seem to get the best mating opportunities and foraging spots. Fortunately, the mammal brain evolved to handle this. It releases stress chemicals when a mammal needs to hold back to avoid conflict. And it emits happy chemicals- serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin and endorphins, when a mammal sees a way to forge ahead and meet its needs. Mammals seek dominance because it stimulates their happy chemicals. An appetite for status develops as naturally as the appetite for food and sex. Status hierarchies emerge spontaneously as each individual strives to meet their needs and avoid harm. You would never think this way in words, but your mammal brain uses neurochemicals instead of words. When you understand the private lives of animals, your neurochemical ups and downs make sense. You have inherited the operating system that helped mammals thrive for millions of years. Nothing is wrong with us. We are mammals. You may say you’re “against status.” But if you filled a room with people who said they were anti-status, a hierarchy would soon form based on how anti-status they are. That’s what mammals do. Our neurochemical ups and downs make sense when you look at the private lives of animals. The field notes of a primatologist are eerily similar to the lyrics of a country western song. A biology textbook resembles a soap opera script. The mammal brain cannot put its reactions into words, so the human cortex struggles to make sense of the limbic system it’s attached to. We can finally make sense of our hybrid brain thanks to an accumulation of research in animal science and neuroscience. The frustrations of social hierarchies are not caused by “our society.” We are simply heirs to the brain that helped mammals thrive for two hundred million years. It’s not easy being human with a mammalian operating system. But when you understand the neurochemistry of mammals, you can stop focusing on our flaws and simply celebrate how well we do with the mental equipment we’ve got.