Sometimes people ask me „which books would you suggest to read about BRAIN?“

The short answer is that I’ve read hundred of books (e.g. on psychology) for decades and connected the dots, following my own instinct and this is what I recommend to do.

Psychology was never my career, so I never had to stick to one paradigm to maintain a license or a livelihood. That freed me to weave different strands of psychology: evolutionary, cognitive, developmental, neuro, behavioral, perceptual, and clinical.

I got through a lot of books because I’d rather be reading and because I listen to audiobooks whenever I walk, drive, or do housework. This post shows how I gathered the pieces and connected them, and it ends with my lightbulb moment for each chemical.

Before going on about books, I must credit the nature videos of David Attenborough for showing me the big picture.

He explains why animals seek social dominance so eagerly, and why they gravitate toward us-versus-them behavior. He presents this as standard biology, not as something controversial. But I’d never heard this in academia, so I went searching for more.

I’d been searching for the source of human emotions my whole life.

As a child there were often moments i which I felt „unhappy“ and I was not able to understand in depth the reason for the unhappiness, since I had a had a great parents, no financial problems and I was living in a great place near the sea.

In 2000 I enrolled in a lengthy course on Neurolinguistic Programming. NLP is a structured method for reprograming emotions. I didn’t love it because I felt a “gotcha” tone in its effort to catch you in your old pattern. It seemed to me that everyone was competing to appear more enlightened than the next guy. But I must admit that I was as uncomfortable facing my own patterns as anyone. So I deeply benefited from the pressure to see how I produced my own pain with old circuits. I also got an introduction to the “lizard brain.” And I even learned from the adversarial tone because it taught me to do the opposite and focus on self-acceptance.

In the mid-1990, accessible books about the brain were suddenly abundant. I read them in an effort to be a better parent and teacher. Prominent in my memory are books by Ledoux, Amen, and Pinker. I remember being awed by Pinker’s “Swiss Army knife theory of the brain” in his How the Mind Works. A Swiss Army knife is a collection of individual tools that you take out as needed and then put back. It has no central command center. Pinker suggested that the brain has no central command center. This helped me accept that my verbal brain is not running the show, even if it thinks it is. When Homer Simpson says, “I meant to do that!” he reminds us of our struggle to explain why we do things we do NOT actually mean to do.

In the 1980s, I read a lot of cognitive psychology.  A textbook called Human Information Processing was my bible. The topic of “irrationality” was also getting attention thanks to Kahneman’s early work, and what young person doesn’t love pointing fingers at other people’s irrationality? I looked for cognitive biases in the interpretation of international financial data. The reader may wonder what this has to do with psychology, so a bit of explanation is in order.

Slowly over the decades, I spent enough time in other cultures to see that they have the same problems as “our society”— often worse. That’s how my quest for happiness pivoted from utopian beliefs about other cultures to the universal reality of the brain.

With the years I no longer believed in the Rousseauian premise that we are born happy and “society” is the cause of all unhappiness. My generation tried to make kids happy by eliminating all constraints, but I saw that it didn’t actually make kids happy. Academic social science still clung to the “society-is-the-problem” paradigm, so I didn’t want to invest my remaining time on earth in academia.

Then I discovered the work of E.O. Wilson and Robert Trivers. I read most of Damasio, Wrangham, and Sapolsky (though Sapolsky’s “blame-society” agenda was a challenge to filter out). I loved Robert Ardrey’s four-book series on human origins. His explanations of territorial behavior, foraging, and sexual selection were so clear, even though they violate utopian beliefs. I was tremendously influenced by Elaine Morgan’s The Descent of the Child: Human Evolution from a New Perspective, though that book has been ignored. Other memorable reads at this time were Molecules of Emotion, Gut Feelings, The Brain That Changes Itself, and The Talent Code.

Two other factors had a big influence on me.

I started doing yoga at a studio that preached about stress in the blame-society manner. But it introduced me to “bodywork,” which is therapy that focuses on releasing emotions stored in the body. I ended up at an “alternative pharmacy” that offered a free bodywork class every hour of the day from a different local practicioner. Sampling so many different philosophies allowed me to see the common core instead of becoming a cult follower of any one of them. I taught me that managing emotions is work, for everyone. Most bodywork traditions cite an ancient lineage, which showed me that humans have always struggled to manage their emotions. And because emotions are produced by the body, the conscious mind never has the full story.  Our body runs on habit, but it can learn new habits with much repetition.

Then one day in my mind this question appeared: „How does an animal (and human being as well) produce the behavior so consistently?

The answer: Neuro-Chemicals!

That answer was not explicitly stated in my medical school training nor in any of my psychology books. But it was suddenly obvious to me. I saw the steady link between chemicals, emotions, and behavior. I may have gotten the idea from one of my bodyworkers, who told me how amoeba use chemicals to navigate toward food and away from threat.

Here my moment of insight for each chemical:

Dopamine 

The motivating power of dopamine was suddenly clear to me when I stumbled on the “spinach study.” Monkeys were trained to do a task in exchange for a spinach leaf, and then offered juice instead of spinach. The monkeys’ dopamine soared. Juice is a huge reward to the non-verbal brain because sugar meets caloric needs much more than spinach. But after four days of juice, the dopamine stopped. It had already done its job. I saw how dopamine motivates us to keep looking for better ways to meet needs. And I saw how expectations get wired by experience, so a reward is soon taken for granted instead of sparking joy.

But there’s more. The researchers switched back to spinach instead of juice. The monkeys went into a rage and threw the spinach back at the white lab coats. This showed me why we’re sad when we lose something, even though we weren’t happy when we had it. I realized that our brain is not designed to make us happy. It’s designed to maximize the reward we get on an investment of energy, since our energy is limited. That’s why we get so frustrated when we try and fail to get a reward.

The research was done by Wolfram Schultz at Cambridge University, but I read about it in the fabulous book How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer. Unfortunately, that book was literally cancelled, and withdrawn by the publisher. The author himself has been “cancelled” on the flimsiest pretext.  (His book Proust Was a Neuroscientist is terrific but it doesn’t cover dopamine.)

Serotonin

The “one-way mirror study” showed me how serotonin motivates us to strive for social importance despite our best intentions. Researchers put an alpha monkey on one side of a one-way mirror and his subordinates on the other. The alpha made his usual dominances gestures, but the others did not respond with typical submission gestures because they couldn’t see him. He got very agitated by being ignored, and kept trying to command their attention. His serotonin went down and his cortisol went up. When the mirror was removed and he got the usual deference, his serotonin went back up. You may think he was just one mean monkey, but when researchers removed an alpha, a new alpha always emerged with the same behavior pattern.

This research was led by a psychiatrist at UCLA Medical School (Michael T. McGuire) and funded by National Institute for Mental Health. I found it in the textbook, Evolutionary Psychology:The Ultimate Origins of Human Behavior, and it was reported in the New York Times in 1983. In short, it came from mainstream channels. But it was soon “cancelled,” and is no longer mentioned, nor its many associated studies.

But it seemed important to me, so I searched Google Books for every mention of it, and bought used copies of all of those books. I didn’t want the facts to die. This study helped me see why dominance-seeking behavior is part of life, though the forms change with time and place. (I got a boost in this insight from “The Dog Whisperer’s” moving autobiography.) Now I could see why everyone wants to be special, and feels so threatened by not being special. And I knew why the impulse doesn’t go away just because our conscious brain is trained to say we don’t care about such things.

Oxytocin

My insight into herd behavior came from Temple Grandin’s book, Animals In Translation. Grandin is known for writing about autism, but her career was in livestock management. Slaughterhouses called her to consult when cows didn’t behave. Cows often act wild on the approach to a slaughterhouse. Grandin didn’t settle for the obvious explanation because she takes the animal perspective. She knew that prey animals panic when they cannot see another member of their herd. She observed zigzags in the approach ramps that prevented a cow from seeing the cows in front of it. These spots were exactly where the cows refused to move forward. She designed curved ramps so the cows never felt isolated.

This gave me a more realistic understanding of herd behavior. It’s a simple, selfish survival urge. Oxytocin is usually complicated by calling it the “love hormone.” Love gets defined in idealized ways. Childlike expectations get reinforced. Reality keeps failing to live up to these expectations, and people miss out on the oxytocin they’re seeking. You can blame society, or you get can get real.

Marco Giannecchini