"Habits of a Happy Brain" with Loretta Breuning, PhD
In this episode of the “Alcohol Minimalist” podcast, Molly introduces her guest, Loretta Bruening, PhD, author, researcher, and founder of the Inner Mammal Institute, with whom she explores the behavioral aspects of brain function. The conversation delves into the mammalian brain, habits, and the role of neurotransmitters like dopamine. Loretta and Molly align on the idea of becoming better thinkers and managers of the inner mammal, emphasizing the importance of rewiring emotions through repetition and mindfulness. The episode highlights the connection between habits and emotions, offering practical insights into breaking old patterns and building new, positive pathways. Molly and Loretta challenge conventional narratives around alcohol and encourage self-empowerment, shedding light on the science behind habit formation and emotional well-being.
Hey, it’s Molly from alcohol minimalist. What do you do in this October? I would love to have you join me in my more sober October challenge. What do I mean by more sober October, it simply means that we’re going to add in more alcohol free days than you currently been doing, whether that’s one or two or 31. It’s up to you, you get to set your own goal and that’s why it’s more sober October. You can check it out and learn more at get got sunnyside.co/molly It’s totally free. I’ve got prizes, I’m going to be going live every week to announce the prize winners, and it’s just going to be an awesome event. So I would love to have you join me. You can learn more at get.sunnyside.co/molly and you can get registered today. Welcome to the alcohol minimalist podcast. I am your host Molly watts. If you want to change your drinking habits and create a peaceful relationship with alcohol, you’re in the right place. This podcast explores the strategies I used to overcome a lifetime of family alcohol abuse more than 30 years of anxiety and worry about my own drinking and what felt like an unbreakable daily drinking habit. Becoming an alcohol minimalist means removing excess alcohol from your life. So it doesn’t remove you from life. It means being able to take alcohol or leave it without feeling deprived. It means to live peacefully being able to enjoy a glass of wine without feeling guilty and without needing to finish the bottle. With Science on our side will shatter your past patterns and eliminate your excuses. Changing your relationship with alcohol is possible. I’m here to help you do it. Let’s start now. Well hello and welcome or welcome back to the alcohol minimalist podcast with me your host Molly Watts coming to you from a pretty darn beautiful Oregon today. Though it is cold out. It’s been sunny and clear. And definitely I feel like spring is on the horizon. So I am super excited about that. I am also excited about today’s podcast episode because I have a guest on the show today. I am speaking to Loretta Bruning PhD, she is an author and a researcher and a scientist and someone who is the founder of the inner mammal Institute. And the inner mammal Institute is here’s what it says about it on her website, the inner mammal Institute helps people build their power over their mammalian brain chemistry. And of course, if you’ve listened to this podcast at all, you know that I subscribe to the triune brain model or the lower and upper brains. But we cheat she actually talked to me in the show about not calling it a lower brain. But the primitive brain versus the more the thinking brain and someone who just really obviously aligns with everything that I like to talk about in terms of thinking about the cognitive brain and the human and how our human brain evolved. But she’s really done a ton of research here on this subject. And she has some wonderful books, we’re talking about her book called The habits of a happy brain, and all about how to retrain your brain to boost your serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin and endorphin levels. And I just had such a great time talking to her, like I said, tons of alignment with how we see the brain working and all of it’s so important because ultimately, if you’ve listened even to this last month in February, when I talked all about emotional maturity and resilience and fluency, really at its core, it’s becoming a better thinker and a better manager of that inner mammal. So I hope you will enjoy my conversation with Loretta Bruning. Hi, Loretta, thank you so much for joining me today on the alcohol minimalist podcast, I am just super excited to talk to somebody else who has such a shared belief of our ability to control this lower brain of ours. And so I’m super excited to have you on the show. Thank you so much for taking the time. Great to be here. Thanks. So you come at this from a little bit of a different perspective than I do. First of all, you’re a PhD and you’ve studied a lot of this behavioral aspect, your institute, the inner mammal Institute, which I just love, the name of the idea that we can all kind of improve ourselves and improve our lives and improve how we feel about things by being better managers of this inner man mole is kind of similar and parallels things that I talked about here on the alcohol, minimalist podcast about the higher brain and the what I call the lower brain or the and the Neo mammalian, which is really what you’re talking about when you talked about the inner mammal, right? Yes, yes. And an easy way, instead of saying higher and lower, because that makes it sound like something is not good. I call it the verbal brain, and the nonverbal brain, so animals can’t talk. Your verbal brain has 100% power over your self talk. And so if you don’t consciously think something, you say, Oh, I wasn’t thinking that. But your, your mammal brain actually controls your body and has so much more power. And in fact, the logical or conscious brain has so much less power than we think despite the fact that it controls your words, we actually use it a lot of the time to just rationalize or justify what our mammal brain already responded. Yeah. And so I talked about that in my book and on my podcast about this, the evolution of the brain, and really, that the brain evolved. And when the mammalian brain evolved from that lower reptile brain, you know, the, the reptiles, in correct me if I’m wrong, but this is my understanding that lizard brain is even more primitive than the mammal brain, the mammals kind of evolved to build those connections that really were paramount to survival. So the avoiding pain, seeking pleasure, and conserving energy, these three kinds of ideas that the mammalian brain developed to basically perpetuate the species. So that’s that lower what I call the lower brain, the mammalian brain is really, you know, let’s Yeah, the unconscious brain, it’s really motivated by those things, right, to try to perpetuate the species. Yes, and the interesting thing is, animals are not consciously thinking about spreading their genes. And yet, everything they do is focused on spreading their genes. So the reason is that natural selection built a brain that rewards you with a good feeling when you do something that spreads your genes just because those brains were more likely to get passed on. So a simple example would be, let’s say, when you’re a teenager, and social acceptance is very important, because you can’t spread your genes without social acceptance. So a behavior that helps you get social acceptance is perceived by your inner mammal as a behavior that promotes survival. Another crazy one would be let’s say, a person is obsessing over their looks or their diet, because they think their appearance is a life or death matter to spreading their genes. No one consciously thinks that, but your brain gives you happy chemicals when you do things that would promote survival in the state of nature. Right? Oh, wow. I love that. I love the whole idea. So you talk in your book, and this, and I will link the book in the show notes, folks. So and it’s about really being able to up these, these neurotransmitters, these chemicals that are known to help us, you know, that motivate, just like you said, to motivate happier behavior, positive behavior, but really at the core, they are still all about survival, right? Yes, exactly. And that’s why they’re positive ways of triggering them and negative ways of triggering them. So for example, dopamine is triggered when you expect to meet a need. So if you see a way to meet a need, like, let’s say, if you were dying of thirst, and you saw an oasis in the distance, dopamine turns on, and you feel great, and you run toward the Oasis, before you even get the water. So that’s that excited feeling that we always want to have that we’re about to meet a need. But because our lives are relatively safe, and our basic needs are met, then we have to find other ways to trigger that excitement. So something like I said that met your need in the past that met a social need or relief to threatened feeling that turns on your dopamine, and you get excited about that, despite the fact that it you may know in your higher brain that it’s no good for you in the long run. But the connection is already there that it met a need in your past. Yeah. And so this is interesting, because I know for with alcohol, alcohol releases dopamine, the it’s one of the you know, it’s one of the reasons that breaking a habit of drinking is, you know, or a drinking drinking habit that doesn’t serve us and for many people who are listening to this show, they are listening because they are trying to change their drinking habits. And it’s tough with these habits of consumption that release dopamine because we are motivated and Don’t buy this inner mammal brain to keep doing it to look for the next, you know, to look for the next drink, because we think that the inner mammal doesn’t understand that it’s not a good idea to keep drinking until you know, and it all it wants is what it wants, it wants that it wants that reward. So yeah, I wouldn’t say that alcohol releases dopamine is when you have the intention of okay, alcohol, that’s what really. So you’ve basically created the reward system for dopamine. So you you’ve achieved or whatever it’s, you’ve set yourself up, you have established a habit of drinking dopamine when you’re stressed out, or you know, whatever it is. And so you create the dopamine release, because of the way that you think about it is that it’s the anticipation of a reward. So let’s say a simple example would be somebody who’s sitting at their desk, and they’re bored, and they think she I’d love a candy bar. And so I’d love a candy bar, that thought is like little bit of dopamine. But once you say to yourself, I’m gonna get myself a dope a candy bar, like, as soon as I finish this task, or like at three o’clock, I’m gonna go get myself I can’t eat, like you’re thinking about thinking about. And so it’s whenever you’re anticipating something, and as soon as you give yourself permission to do it. So of course, it’s the same with alcohol. And let’s say if you’re driving to a bar, and looking for a parking space near the bar, so each step closer to that thing that you expect to meet your need, triggers more dopamine. So if you would just shift to a different way of meeting your needs, your whole dopamine system is still there, you want the dopamine, it’s natural, it’s healthy, it’s just which thing are you expecting to meet your needs? That’s what the focus needs to change. Gotcha. So yeah, and that’s, you know, kind of, at the core of changing, I know, you talk about not about kind of substituting in and finding a reward that’s going to fulfill those same earlier neural pathways that have been established. So I talk a lot about neural plasticity, and about being able to create new neural pathways. Tell me your perspective, in terms of do I firmly believe that we can change our habits and change our behaviors and create new neural pathways? It’s not always easy, because once a neural pathway is well established, it’s, it’s hard, it feels uncomfortable to shift to something new. But it can be done. It’s just it takes it requires that mental focus. Yes, exactly. I say that it’s exactly the same as learning a foreign language, in the sense that when you were a baby, you learn a language without conscious effort. But if you wanted to learn a new language today, you’d expect it to take quite a bit of effort. And your emotions are the same. You learn them when you were young. And you weren’t conscious of that. But if you want to rewire your emotions today, then it takes a lot of repetition. And people don’t think of necessarily alcohol as emotions, but it’s when you feel bad. That’s what is meeting a need is like, I feel bad, what can I do to feel better, and distraction works. So everyone has their distractions, and the minute you start thinking about something positive, then your mammal brain says, oh, now I’m safe. So if thinking about alcohol was your distraction in the past, that’s what you learned. But you can learn a new distraction, that would relieve a bad feeling. And that would build a new pathway, you could still feel good without the alcohol. Now, this is really interesting. So that yes, I just, I actually just finished this last month, talking about emotional maturity, emotional resilience, and really, because at the core, and this is what I I, you know, I know from people, whether it’s consuming alcohol, or overeating, or overspending or you know, basically anytime when we’re over consuming something, most people are doing it because they’re trying to impact how they feel. They’re trying to change how they feel. So I talk a lot about using that cognitive brain to redirect. So I say that our thoughts create our feelings, right? So we have these primal emotions, these things that we cannot escape because they were pre wired into the Neo mammalian, you know, the basically the things that, like, we see it, you know, we’re on the Sahara desert and we see a lion, we’re going to react primally with fear, because we are motivated to survive, right? So we got to amp up and get out of the way and run and whatever. But of course, nowadays, we live in this modern world where we don’t we aren’t at risk of being eaten by lions, but we still have a primitive brain that is working down there and is still trying to adapt and coordinate and talk to our logical brain. And so I am always talking about, you know, if you want to change how you feel at your core, you have to start, you have to think differently, you have to create a different pathway by thinking cognitively about something differently. Yeah, so, and the brain is not aware of its own pathways. So to most people would say, like, What are you talking about? Because we’re not even aware of our own pathways. And when we say that something is emotional, and we’re trying to do it to relieve a bad feeling. We’re not consciously thinking that so we say no, I wasn’t feeling that when I went and did that. Because it’s pathway is just a big highway that electricity flows into everyone’s electricity flows into basically the biggest pathways they have. So it was that early experience that built the pathway that says, when you feel that do this, and how did that pathway get built from repetition, from emotion from mirror neurons. So basically, you were exposed to other people who when they felt distress, this is what they did. And every time it worked, and you did it, again, you build a pathway bigger. So it’s so much easier to see like in other people, like if you think of someone who plays video games, like every time they feel bad, they pick up a video game, and they do it so quickly, that they weren’t even consciously aware that they were feeling bad. So that’s the, that’s the natural operating system. Yeah. And I talk about that a lot about just I mean, step one is just becoming aware, right? So we have to like create awareness of that whole habit cycle and being able to see ourselves as doing just that, that we’re you know, that we are seeking relief, we are seeking to try to do something, you know, create, change how we are feeling. And when you do the whatever you do, whether it’s play a video game, or pick up a drink, when you do that pattern with repetition, that’s how the habit gets built in. That’s how that neural pathway gets built in. And then we have to work pretty, you know, but what the thing that’s important about this, that’s really critical, is there’s a lot of language around people drinking, right and anything else, whether it’s, you know, overconsuming, like I said, food or whatever, a lot of negative stereotypes that people have, that people are broken, or people are diseased, or people are, you know, they’re, that it’s some some character flaw, when it actually is just our human brains doing what human brains evolved to do. I mean, they are the things that we are doing are just, they’re, they’re a part of a system that is operating it, you know, your brain doesn’t make a judgment on whether a habit is good for you or bad for you. It just knows that it’s trying to seek reward, it’s either avoiding pain, it’s trying to conserve energy. And it’s doing all these things very purposefully by design. And now that we become aware of it, that’s how we can we can shift it habit that doesn’t serve us. Yes, I’m cautious about this idea of blaming the world for stigmatizing you, because that’s another way of disempowering yourself. And like, if, if the world would change, then your life would be easy, but in fact, the only solution is to build a new pathway. So even like if everybody is just, you know, smiling and massaging you every minute, you’re still having the pathways you have until you build new ones. So it’s not worth being defensive. But building the new pathways is the challenge. And if I could talk about that for a minute, yeah, so we have to build a new reward pathway. So how would you build a new reward pathway? Well, what reward is going to feel good, nothing feels as good as the reward you already know. Because that has a big pathway. It’s sort of like taking a person who loves to eat X, and you’re offering them y and they don’t get excited about why. But if if, if x didn’t exist anymore, and they had y for a few days in a row, they would be wired to love why. And that would be their new normal, but in the interim, it just feels weird. And so your brain wants what it already has. Because just That’s how you’re wired. And the other thing that I think is very important, so many people are focused on diet and exercise, and I just think this is wrong, because you need to build a new reward habit, you need a reward. So if I say, do 50 pushups when you feel like how Getting a drink, your inner mammal is gonna say, well, it’s not a reward. So, so I suggest to people to make a reward list, you can list healthier rewards, you can collect movies that you love, you can give yourself time to read that novel, you always wanted to read or learn to play the guitar that you always give yourself a reward. That’s just healthier, but don’t make it like, you know, give up alcohol and also give up all these other things. Right? No, I completely agree with you. And I also think that it’s, you know, I talk a lot about this, using this, this beautiful, brilliant brain, human brain that you have, because we did evolve a prefrontal cortex, when our mammals, you know, the mammals did not. And so this human brain that we have, and I know, you talk about this, too, this this logical, verbal brain that we have is able to predict things in the future, it’s able to set goals, it’s able to anticipate things, this is not something that our, you know, the the mammals can do. And so that’s a part of really becoming, you know, of, of all of this, it, dopamine, and all of that feeds on our ability to, to live into the future and to set a future goal and to really create a life. You know, I believe that humans we’re, we’re, we’re happiest when we are evolving into the better a better version of ourselves. That’s what keeps us going. Yeah, but there’s a complication in that, because so many people in the recovery movement, I don’t know why, you probably know why better than me, they try to panic you. And they say, if you keep doing this, you’re gonna die. So when I’m always talking about how to train your mammal, brain and your human brain to work together, like a horse and rider. So if you have a rider who says to the horse, you’re gonna die, you’re gonna die, you’re gonna die. Why would that horse want to work with that rider when they’re giving them all of that negative reinforcement. So what you said is great is positive expectations about the future. So we need to have positive expectations about the future rather than negative expectations about the future? Absolutely. And I think that that’s a message that I hope that I share with people all the time is just, that’s what I mean, there’s a lot of, and I don’t really, I don’t work in the recovery space, so to speak, because I never had a physical dependence on alcohol. I’m an adult child of an alcoholic, but I, myself just had a psychological dependence, a habit cycle that I that I turned to alcohol to try to, again, change affect how I was feeling. But there’s a lot of rhetoric in the recovery space that we are powerless, right, that alcohol is the problem that this, that everything else around us when in fact, I just completely disagree with that I believe that most people are completely powerful. It isn’t, you know, but it takes determination. It takes persistence. And it takes consistent effort to redirect that brain and to really get your brains working together that, you know, the verbal brain and the nonverbal brain, but once you understand it, and this is key, and I really, truly believe this, and it’s why I love the work that you’ve done. Once you really get this and you understand it, it makes it makes working with it easier. You know, what is it like, once you begin to understand it, and once you really get knowledge, and that’s kind of one of my key tenants is I’m always trying to get people to educate themselves on the science of their own brain, really trying to understand what’s happening in their own brain. Because once you understand it, it’s like, oh, wow, this is actually pretty cool. I can really work with this. Yeah, yeah. Yeah, the bottom line is that a habit is just a pathway in your brain that got built from past experience. And the only solution is to build a new pathway. That’s the only solution. So no kind of pills, no kind of mumbo jumbo from other people. The only solution is to build a new pathway by feeding your brain new experience, and the new experience is to feel good in a different way. Exactly. I talk a lot about changing how you think about alcohol, how you think about these things, because we’re taught a lot of messages socially. We’re taught a lot of messages from our parents. We’re taught a lot you know, things that you like you say, the past and I think I shared this with you, but I really, truly, you know, this was a part of this journey for me was really understanding that the past only exists today in what I think about it, so I can choose how I view these things. I can choose how I you know, alcohol doesn’t make a party better. It’s the connections that I make with free. You know, it’s the things that I enjoy talking to people is it’s spending time with, with friends, it’s, you know, it’s that kind of thing. That’s what helps you. That’s what helps me feel connected and probably releases those, you know, those those happy chemicals, right? Yes, but also, if a person doesn’t especially like parties, and things they need alcohol to relieve right to party, you know, that’s the point is, fill your life with rewards that you define as rewards. And you know, develop your reward list so that you’re always ready. And especially when you know that you have a difficult thing coming up, playing yourself a healthy reward right after, so that you’re always managing your emotions. So you always have something positive to look forward to. And then you train your brain to say, oh, I can manage my feelings. I don’t have to anticipate horrible feelings and then counteract it with with some drug because I have a whole bunch of other tools for feeling good. Yeah. Oh, I love that. I love that. Okay, as we’re wrapping up and saying goodbye, one of the things that I heard you talk about on somebody else’s podcast, and I really enjoyed it, I really loved it. Was this idea about finding things to be positive about in your life that you create, as opposed to looking for, you know, the, I mean, yes, we all I call it puppies and rainbows. Yeah, exactly. So we all love, you know, I mean, I enjoy it. And we should be, you know, it’s not like we shouldn’t be enjoy those things. And they shouldn’t be something that we can be happy about. But tell me what that about your take on this about positivity that you created? Sure. So as you mentioned, your inner mammal cares about survival. That’s what it’s looking for. So it wants to know that you have the strength to survive, that you have confidence in your own ability to manage whatever comes along. That’s really what makes you happy and protects you from feeling bad. So where are you going to get that? Well, you’re not going to get it if you’re constantly telling yourself, you know, I’m a jerk, or everybody else is bad to me or whatever. So every time you do something where you’re proud of your own action, that you replay that, and every time you handle a situation, well, every time you create something valuable, so focus on your own strength and problem solving skills, because that’s what’s really going to give your inner mammal that, that good feeling that you have the ability to be safe. That’s that’s what makes it happy. Nice. So I could probably talk to you all afternoon, I’m sure we could just about I love the conversation, I love learning more about, you know, the inner mammal and just being able to talk to someone about the two different brains. And really just the coordination of those brains and how to help each other. I mean, help people really understand it all, which is just fundamental to helping us change anything in our lives is understanding. So I really appreciate the work you’ve done. And I appreciate you taking the time to talk talk here on the show. Tell everybody where the best place they can find you and learn more. Sure, inner mammal institute.org. I have a lot of free resources, videos, books, podcasts, infographics. So lots of ways to learn about natural healthy ways to stimulate your dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin and endorphins. And he said international institute.org. And I was wondering if he could I raise another little? Yeah, absolutely. So when you said about in the recovery movement that you don’t like a lot of the dialogue around demonizing alcohol. I think their concern is that when people say, we don’t have to abstain, we just have to cut back. But then as soon as a person has one drink, then they can’t stop themselves from having another. And it reminded me of after a talk I gave someone came up to me and they were counseling people with eating problems. And they said, by the time I realize what I’ve done, I’ve eaten half of a pizza. Or another person says, you know, by the time I realize what I’ve done, I’ve already eaten half of a container of ice cream. So it’s this sort of time lag between what your inner mammal wants and then what your conscious brain is like seeing it and putting on the brakes. Because you could think about like you said, your inner mammal is sort of run Going from a tiger it’s running from a bad feeling. You don’t even know the bad feeling because it’s a bad feeling you have when you were a kid, when your neuroplasticity was high, and that’s when your brain built. So you’re running from that bad feeling so fast and burying yourself in some disruption so fast that there’s like a time lag. So. So I think the first step is to be aware of that whole process. And so before you actually start trying to build a new habit, to try to become aware of that first moment, when you say to yourself, boy, I’d love to have a drink. Or I’d love to have x, you know, it’s just that’s like a real habit. And I tell people, like once you realize that you’re having that, like, stand up and turn around in a circle, or tap your elbows or just do something that a physical gesture helps to embed it in your mammal brain and build the connection between your conscious and your unconscious of okay, I’m starting to need a reward because I’m having negative feelings that I want to run away from. Yeah. Oh, I love that too. Yeah, absolutely. I have a tool that I share with people called PB and J, which is pause, breathe, and just 10 minutes. And it’s really about that it’s it’s getting us to, to pause when that happens when that urge comes that that primitive, more, you know, The urge is almost is more primitive. Right. And it’s coming from that mammalian, that mammalian brain. And I, and I’m sorry, because now I thought of something when you said that. So I have to say one more thing. The demonizing alcohol, it’s more just that what I don’t like is that it makes it seem as though somebody doesn’t have the choice to pick up a drink or not pick up a drink, and the alcohol doesn’t spring from, you know, spring from the cup. It’s right, we make that choice, we make that decision. And we talk about making plans ahead of time and actually using that prefrontal cortex to make a logical plan for drinking ahead of time. So we start to train our brains to use that part of the brain as opposed to just reacting to the brain in the moment, which is that more primitive? You know, dopamine search brain? Fabulous. Yes. So, wow, okay. Well, like I said, we could talk for for hours, and I would be remiss in holding in saying what I what I told you would be the the time commitment. So I really appreciate it, Loretta, I appreciate you taking the time, and I will share everything in the show notes folks on how to connect but there are great resources on your website. And the book, the habits of a happy brain is a really great, very interesting science reading, which a lot of the people that listen to my show really enjoy the science behind it. So I know they will get out get a lot out of that as well. Fabulous. Absolutely. Thank you very much for being on the show today. Thanks so much for having me. Bye. Thank you for listening to the alcohol minimalist podcast. This podcast is dedicated to helping you change your drinking habits and to create a peaceful relationship with alcohol. Use something you learned in today’s episode and apply it to your life this week. Transformation is possible. You have the power to change your relationship with alcohol. Now, for more information, please visit me at www dot Molly watts.com