In her book Habits of a Happy Brain, Loretta Graziano Breuning advocates for a way to stimulate the release of neurotransmitters through intentional behavior. Breunning, who also writes the Your Neurochemical Self blog, says we can manipulate our neurochemistry through intentional action. The breakdown of how different neurotransmitters translate into feelings and social behavior is truly interesting. So interesting in fact, I want to share with you some of the highlights that struck me the most.
Dopamine, Breuning explains, is the neurotransmitter that releases when we “identify a chance to meet a survival need” and go for it! She uses the example of an ape who sees a piece of fruit on a tree, and the surge of excitement it experiences as it is climbing up the tree to get to the fruit. The thrill felt in such a scenario is powered by the release of Dopamine. Breuning explains that we might feel the same way when we go for a career opportunity, or accumulate points while playing a video game, since our survival needs are no longer necessarily as basic as they had once been.
Endorphins are responsible for that feeling of a natural high after an intensive workout. Endorphins are also the body’s natural analgesic, they numb our pain in the event of injury, long enough to get us to safety. Both laughter and tears release endorphins, so, Breuning advises, crying and laughter could be applied to relieve our emotional pains because they release endorphins. Naturally, she cautions against too much crying.
Oxytocin is the trust building neurochemical. It is released when we experience or establish trust bonds, feel a part of a community, and in acts of physical affection or intimacy. We can manipulate the release of oxytocin by attempting to build trust bonds. Blind attempts to build trust, she warns, could be harmful (in other words, we shouldn’t be trying to trust everybody); therefore, the idea is that you test your attempt to build trust, rather than assume every attempt is going to be successful. Eventually, Breuning teaches, you learn to derive your oxytocin from the attempt/test model, rather than the outcomes of attempts.
Serotonin is the neurochemical released when we receive recognition and respect. serotonin is also responsible for our feeling secure in the world; secure in our resources and in the esteem of others. A healthy way of promoting serotonin, Breuning writes, is to notice and enjoy your influence on others when it occurs. This is better than the usual route to experiencing the emotional benefits of serotonin, which are achieved through competitive seeking of recognition or resources or exerting dominance over others.
Breuning’s blend of neurochemistry with zoology and anthropology results in a unique cocktail of disciplines, that is very much in keeping with how other Personal Development and Mind Management systems are created. Breuning’s advantage is in that she gives very specific mandates for behavioral change, promising that actions will result in desirable neurochemical cascades for the practitioner. And this is a fascinating promise, that is worth exploring.