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Mammalian brain motivations.

by Agata Dzierżawa
The Mammal Brain Motivations is a picture of 4 faces drinking juice through a tube.

What are the mammalian brain motivations?  

When living organisms began to appear on Earth, each of them had an overriding directive: to survive. Survive physically in an organized and balanced system of reciprocity and symbiosis. The survival of a single individual guaranteed the survival of the species. This has caused every living unit on our planet to compete for the basics of physical survival: food, water, oxygen, heat, and sunlight. This often translates into living space, on the ground, and in the ground, in water, or in the air.

  In this article you will learn:  

  • What are the motivations of the mammalian brain: survival and reproductive success.
  • Your brain structure: the brains of reptiles, mammals, and primates.
  • What the happy chemicals are.
  • How dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, endorphins, and cortisol work in your life.  

This also applies to you. Although you may not think about it on a daily basis, or maybe you do not even realize it, you do it too. Every time you think about being late for a meeting or eating something, your brain is concerned with survival. Of course, in the modern world, we have different names for this: territorial imperative, peace, home, den, hunting, protection, personal property, real estate, cities, nations, and so on. Life forms fight for them and die for them. You too.

The structure of the brain.

Your brain is made up of three structures, pre-models of the organ of thought that humans inherited from their ancestors. Of course, those who survived. So, we were shaped by natural selection. They are:  

  • the reptilian brain (the brainstem, the medulla, and the cerebellum) responsible for all your instincts;
  • the mammalian brain (the limbic system) – responsible for your emotions and feelings;
  • the primate brain (the neocortex) – the seat of your logical and abstract thinking, thoughts, cognition, language, sense perception, spatial reasoning.  

You have inherited the same brain structures as all mammals, and that means you act like any mammal, whether you know it or not. Regardless of what environment you live in, what modern technologies you use, and how intelligent or well-read you consider yourself. Inside, each of us is a mammal and behaves just like any other mammal. So, first and foremost, you are fighting for survival and reproductive success, and so are they. You are driven by fear for your own life and the desire to pass on your genes, react to whatever is good for your DNA, no matter what your cortex thinks with words. You have the so-called animal self.

Happy chemicals.  

Neurotransmitters are responsible for your mammalian brain. The mammalian brain functions by turning neurochemicals on and off. Thinks non-verbally, releasing the so-called “happy chemicals” dopamine, oxytocin, endorphins, and serotonin, and the stress hormone cortisol, to either force you to stop any activity that may endanger your survival or prepare you to avoid the behavior. While serving happy substances, it says to you: “This is good for you, get more of this.” And when it wants to alert you to a threat, it triggers the stress hormone and says: “watch out, don’t do it”.

Each time the happiness chemicals are released, they build new neural circuits that can be reactivated by them in the future. In this way, neurochemicals use pleasant feelings and emotions to program your brain with certain behaviors. Animals function by repeating behaviors that gave them good feelings, and so do you. This behavior can be easily observed when playing with young children. Whenever they enjoy a game, they want to repeat it non-stop.

So the neural pathways built on the basis of your experiences define your sense of danger and reward. This simple system prepares you to do whatever it takes to survive automatically.  

Your happiness hormones are your motivators to act to ensure your survival, not to make you happy.  

They don’t circulate in your body all the time and they shouldn’t, so your brain also has mechanisms by which it is absorbed. For example, endorphins block the pain sensation. But you couldn’t experience them all the time, because you would never take your hand off the hot burner. Pain is necessary because it alerts you to the risk of injury.  

Constantly chasing a high level of happy chemicals is actually a fight against windmills. What you call happiness, joy or excitement is simply a biological function of your body that is shared by all mammals. The behavior that produces these substances is the survival instinct produced in your mammalian brain. Your brain didn’t evolve to make you happy, but to help you survive.

Your brain also has a system called homeostasis, which is the self-regulation of biological processes. It maintains the physical and chemical conditions at a balanced level. It also causes your body to adapt to losing this balance. In the case of chemicals, this means an increase in tolerance. You just become less and less sensitive to their effects.

A high level of dopamine, for example, becomes your norm and it’s hard for you to motivate yourself to anything. You start to get bored, nothing gives you pleasure. It is then worth doing, for example, a temporary detox from dopamine triggers, such as a day without a phone or TV, or maybe a day without sweets. What is the purpose of this? You will just begin to appreciate these pleasures more by taking a break from them sometimes.

If you take such a one-day break from dopamine-triggering activities once a week, you can use this time for activities that you don’t normally enjoy because they release less dopamine, but for example, are more beneficial to your health or development. Being on detox, it will be easier for you to focus on them, because cut off from dopamine, you will be very bored, so you will be happy to do something else.  

How does the mammalian brain make you act?  

It produces dopamine every time you expect rewards for your behavior. It gives you pleasure every time you do something good for your survival, that is, satisfy your needs. In nature, it forces animals to look for food in this way. Whether you are looking for food, drinking water, or a parking space, a life partner, university diploma, or a pastry shop, the same mechanism works. This motivates you to persist in finding things. How you define your needs depends on your life experience, because every time dopamine flowed in your youth, it fused neutrons in your brain. Therefore, you satisfy your needs in ways that seemed good to you in the past.

To protect you from a threat, i.e. a predator, it frees oxytocin every time you are in the vicinity of other animals similar to you. This is why animals form herds. Thus ensuring their safety and thus increasing their chances of survival. This is why you feel the need to start your own herd, or family. So, oxytocin influences your social behavior. You need a group of people close to you. You need to trust someone and be trusted by someone. It is the reason why you become attached to people, things, or places. Because of this reason you are looking for the company of like-minded people, you leave comments on posts on the Internet, participate in cultural or sports events. It is thanks to her that you build trust.  

Advertising banner of Loretta's book "I, Mammal".

Mammalian Brain Motivations – Reproductive Success.  

If a mammal’s immediate survival needs are met, it begins to focus on the survival of its genes, that is, reproductive success. Therefore, it begins to look for the best partner, of course avoiding endogamy, i.e. choosing a partner with similar genes. This motivation affects many areas of your life that you may not be aware of.  

Of course, it primarily affects that area of ​​your life that you call your love life. When you define what you are looking for and achieve it, dopamine is released. So, finding the “one” releases dopamine. Holding hands, caressing, having sex, orgasm, psychological support, giving birth and breastfeeding your baby all release oxytocin. This is how you build social trust. Pride in finding a partner releases serotonin. Sex is enjoyable because it releases dopamine (you want an orgasm) so you can bear babies and pass on your genes. Endorphins are released when you laugh or cry with your partner. Cortisol is released when you lose your partner, to make you find a new one as soon as possible. That’s why you suffer so much after breakups.  

The mammalian brain releases endorphins so that you can ignore physical pain, so you can escape the predator.  

When you don’t experience physical pain, your brain begins to focus on a different type of pain, that of social disappointment, or existential pain, and therefore it seems to you that life is more suffering than it really is.

Reproductive success is also behind your need to raise your status, be it social or material. This is when serotonin is released, a substance that promotes herd dominance in order to increase the chances of survival – the stronger the individual, the greater the chances of getting food at the expense of others and of passing on its genes.

This is why you care about the best grades in school, the best education, position at work, the best car, perfect appearance, appropriate social circles, holidays in fashionable resorts, or on Facebook likes. All of this is under the control of your mammalian brain and only serves to enhance your reproductive success. Pass the genes on to the best candidate. Status ensures your reproductive success. Even when you don’t want to consciously have children, everything you do is to create something that will outlive you. This is why you build pyramids, create art, or help those in need.

Your mammalian brain never stops looking for threats to survival.  

Unless you are faced with hunger, predators, or sexual rivals right now, your mind finds more distant and subtle threats to focus on. If the worst thing that happens to you is not being invited to a party or being promoted, then that’s the danger your brain is feeling. It does not celebrate the fact that you have reliable food supplies, basic hygiene, sexual freedom and no one is violently attacking you. Instead, it throws out stress hormones as soon as someone else is appreciated instead of you. When you are not promoted at work, only a colleague.

When it turns out that someone is better than you because they have a better car, a newer phone model, or a label from a well-known designer. Everything that makes your status in the herd, i.e. the social group, lowers: not right friends, inadequate job position, being in inappropriate places, imperfect family, not such appearance, not such education, insufficient popularity, etc., cause cortisol discharge because they are defined by your mammalian brain as dangerous. This applies to every aspect of your life: culture, politics, fame, money, aggression and violence, success, love, physical strength, honor, and relationship. And also, when you are disappointed. All of this causes frustration.

It is your brain chemicals that make you unhappy, not the world.  

A better world that you think about and talk about is always a world where your status is higher than that of others. This is why you constantly compare yourself with others – you test your strength. This is why you judge and criticize others so easily. In this way, you belittle their status and put yourself in front of them.  

Thanks to the neocortex, which your brain is made of, you can create information instead of relying only on what your senses tell you, and you can also manipulate abstractions. Language is such an abstraction. It also allows you to imagine new paths to happiness and to mentally manipulate past experiences. Unfortunately, it also makes you able to visualize the potential threats to your survival and the obstacles on your path to survival. You predict how the world works. You try to find patterns of threats to prevent harm, or you get frustrated by thinking about imaginary threats.

The neocortex often makes you frustrated when your current experience contrasts with what you have experienced in your past or your imagination. Thanks to it, you also notice a drop in the level of the happiness substance and instead of waiting for it to come, you want to do something about it. Thanks to the cerebral cortex, you are looking for patterns that can lead you to this happiness again.  

Of course, your cerebral cortex also has its undoubted advantage.  

Thanks to it, you can stop the neurochemical impulses caused by the limbic system and you can find an alternative for them. When information reaches your brain through your senses, it triggers your neurochemicals to get your attention. That’s what they are for. But you always decide whether you want to do what the neurochemicals suggest or whether you want to redirect this electricity elsewhere. Will you be under the influence of neurochemicals or not. This is the core of your free will.

You have free will but it doesn’t rule the way you imagine it. Your higher logic is always bathed in neurochemicals. When your neurons link behavior with your happy chemicals, you want to repeat it, even if your cortex knows that the behavior is not good for you. Your cortex sees your reactions but doesn’t control them. For example, running triggers endorphins, but it can also make you run until you hurt yourself just to feel them.  

Your limbic system and your neocortex are designed to work together.

The trick is to make this cooperation as good as possible. This is the field for your conscious actions. Take responsibility for your happiness instead of waiting for a better world. You are in control of your brain, not someone else. You are responsible for your own happiness.

Your feelings are unique, but the neurochemicals that cause them are the same for all of us. Your experiences are unique, but they are evidenced by the same needs as we all have. You know, as each of us, that one day you will die and the world can do without you. You are aware of your mortality, and this affects the way you view life non-verbally through your mammalian brain. We all share the same motivations from the mammalian brain: survival and reproductive success. They influence your daily choices and behavior.

Operating on autopilot puts you in charge of your life in chemical reactions. It is not for nothing that you have the most folded cortex of any animal. You can consciously control your reactions and program your behavior however you want. It is only up to you whether you make use of it.

Each of us sees the world through the prism of our own past experiences. This does not mean, however, that it cannot be changed. Each of us has the power to create and can create our own world. You can read about how to do this in the following articles.


Loretta Graziano Breuning „Habits of a Happy Brain”, Adams Media, 2016, New York

Loretta Graziano Breuning „Tame Your Anxiety”, Rowman & Littlefield, 2019, London

Loretta Graziano Breuning „The Science of Positivity”, Adams Media, 2017, New York

Loretta Graziano Breuning „Ja, Ssak”, AJTY Agata Dzierżawa, 2021, Kraków

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