Loretta Graziano Breuning Talks About Her New Book, "Habits Of A Happy Brain" [Science World Report Exclusive Interview]

First Posted: Dec 14, 2015 02:09 PM EST

Deep inside our brains, experts tell us, are pulsing neurons that make up memories linked to both positive and negative feelings. And while the brain changes routinely, expanding to accommodate new learning in a process known as plasticity, changing some programming – breaking a bad habit, for instance – can become difficult over time. But its not impossible, given the brain's resilience and malleability. Coaxing the brain to abandon old neural pathways in favor of new ones is the subject of  Loretta Graziano Breuning's recent book "Habits Of A Happy Brain: Retrain Your Brain to Boost Your Serotonin, Dopamine, Oxytocin, & Endorphin Levels" (available December 16).

Breuning, Professor Emerita of Management at California State University, East Bay, has written multiple books examining brain chemicals associated with negativity and happiness, and is the founder of the Inner Mammal Institute, a resource to help people to get in touch with "nature's operating system," what Breuning also calls "their inner mammal."  Science World Report caught up with her to find out more about how to reroute our brains in ways that make it easy to trigger feelings of satisfaction. As it turns out, simple activities and exercises can help trigger our "happy chemicals" – that include serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin and endorphin – which can ultimately help reprogram the brain in a mere 45 days.

SWR: What first interested you in writing this book?

Breuning: I write a lot about the brain and psychology and I would read small references here and there linking to the brain chemicals and how they work on animals. To me, it was so obvious that these chemicals had huge power because animals don't try to resist them. These are the impulses that draw them. But nobody has put that together. I wanted to understand them [brain chemicals] and my own brain so I really wanted to put it all together in a way that people could understand themselves.

Could you talk about the happy chemicals in our brain and what triggers them?

Dopamine is released when you expect a reward. So, if you think from the perspective that a lion is running after prey it can catch, we know that a lion doesn't run after everything it sees because then it would just starve to death before it saw everything it can catch. Dopamine is the excited feeling we get when we see a reward.

Endorphin is the chemical that people associate with "runners high." It's the endogenous form of morphine. It masks pain. 

Oxytocin is the chemical that's often called the love hormone. It's the bonding hormone created by social trust. Animals are really careful about who they trust because they can die. Our brain is designed to release oxytocin when we have protection from people who we learn are good for us. We don't release it when we don't trust. Our brain is careful like that.

Serotonin is a bit more complicated and it's received a lot of attention because of antidepressants. In the 80s, there was monkey research that showed how animals are constantly one-upping each other. They do that some small percentage of the time. That feeling that "I'm bigger than you, I'm going to go for it" is serotonin.

What I'm proposing is realistic, modern ways of stimulating these chemicals without the downside.

Why are unhappy feelings important to prevent yourself from getting into a vicious cycle (a bad habit)?

What happens is, each time your happy chemicals are released, that tells your brain this is the way to feel good. It creates a super highway in your brain when your neuroplasticity is high. But when you have unhappy chemicals, it tells your brain there's a threat. And sometimes there really is but other times, there isn't.

One good way to calm yourself down is to stimulate your happy chemicals. When you stimulate your happy chemicals, the point is that you expect it to work. When I trigger that cycle, it disrupts the threatening feeling that tells my brain "wow that's great." It's the equivalent of if a monkey is chased by a lion and climbs up a tree. It's like there's the tree. But we all know that eating a cookie or having a drink doesn't make you safe in the long run if you're constantly climbing up that tree.

It's better to understand the vicious cycle. The way I explain that is when you feel threatened, understand that it's usually not a real threat. Your last happy surge just ended and your mind gets back to neutral. You're not really threatened. You're not flying high. Your brain is just designed to go back to neutral.

If we can become comfortable, then we don't rush into our next happy habit, which is really bad for you in the long run. One way is to get happy with neutral, to accept that your brain evolved for survival and that we're always looking for survival as long as we're alive. 

Why is it harder to form new memory pathways when you're older?

A substance called myelin that coats neurons when you're young; it's like a wire that's coated with plastic that's hundreds of times more efficient, like electricity. Whatever neurons are covered with myelin become a white matter of your brain and that's the core neural network that you have.

Now we're all born with millions of neurons but no connections between them. Those are built from experience. When you're under eight and during puberty, your brain releases a lot of myelin. Anything you experience during puberty helps build the super highways of your brain without ever consciously remembering the memories stimulated emotionally--either by happy chemicals or unhappy chemicals. Something told your brain that this is good or bad for you.

If I'm a newborn baby and I'm feeling stress, and someone relieves my stress, that feels good. But I don't really know what a person is. I don't know what milk is. I just know that it feels good. Then in the future, anything associated with the sound of my mother's voice or footsteps--that triggers dopamine that will say "wow this is going to meet my needs."

Why is 45 days is the amount of time you picked for boosting your happiness?

I was in a yoga class and the teacher tells you to clasp your hands and notice which thumb is on top. Then they tell you to clasp them and put the opposite thumb on top. And it's really really hard. What my yoga teacher says is that it feels like you're holding hands with someone else. That's the experience of refusing to use your old pathways and forcing yourself to create a new pathway and 45 days is the amount of time it's estimated to take to feel comfortable clasping your hand with the opposite thumb. 

Do you think it's easy to slip back into old habits?

Here's the way I like to think about it. Imagine you're taking a drive home from work. You know the road so well, you don't even think about it. So I move to a new house and now, I suddenly have to get off at a different exist. If I didn't think about it carefully, I'd just get off at the old exit and get stuck in a big mess. I need to avoid getting off at the old exist where I used to get off to my old house. In that one moment, when you would have chosen the old pathway and you have to chose the new one, that's a really weak trail in your brain.

It takes all of your mental energy to make the new choice; that's why we're always running on automatic because it takes no mental energy. But it's that one moment to not be so busy doing other things and to allocate enough energy to the effort of choosing the new trail.

And what does that mean by energy? Partly we hear we don't get enough sleep or we have an unhealthy diet. Don't put yourself in a position where you're exhausted, hungry and overtired/over stressed – especially when we're going to be facing difficult things.

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