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What’s behind human motivation? Leadership Book Review: Meet Your Happy Chemicals by Loretta Breuning

Motivation, instinct, and my three brains.

Why do I feel attracted toward something or someone and repelled from something else? Why am I impelled to act some way, sometimes to my benefit and sometimes perversely against my benefit? In this insightful and vulnerable book, Dr. Loretta Breuning, a professor at California State University, tells us.

Our brains have been evolving for several million years. As the brain developed, it added functions on top of the old parts — but those evolutionary leftovers are still in there, and they matter! Dr. Breuning lays it out in the following simple scheme: the oldest and simplest functions are our lizard brain, then the mammal brain built on top of that, and finally the cortex of the primate brain. The lizard brain manages our routine bodily functions. The top level, the cortex is where we do our thinking, remembering, dreaming, and talking to ourselves. It’s the middle part, the mammal brain, that’s the focus of this book because it’s the mammal brain that released various “feel good” and “feel bad” chemicals that motivate our behavior.

While the release of these chemicals may provide the motivation for action, they don’t actually force us to do anything. Our primate cortex gives us the final decision about whether to run from something or stay put. But the mammal brain does have a powerful influence over our behavior by triggering these chemicals which are responsible for a whole host of feelings, good and bad.

The role of serotonin is particularly important because of its impact on how we interact with other humans and its affect on our leadership instincts. In mammalian life, those with higher social status had better mating opportunities. Our brains evolved to give us the motivation to climb the social ladder in order to foster the continuance of our DNA. It is serotonin that encourages this behavior. Even though one could argue that there are plenty of mating opportunities around, we retain this chemical programming for social dominance.

I think this is responsible for our ideas of leadership and for the fundamental leader-follower structure. The issue for those who want to create leaders rather than attract followers, and give control, rather than take control, will be that their instincts will signal it’s the wrong thing to do. Fortunately, Dr. Breuning explains how we can rewire our brains. Those feelings may never go away, but ultimately the cortex gives us the deliberateness to be in control, not our instincts.

Learn more about motivation at her website here.


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