, Diet.com's Diet and Fitness News Reporter
Loretta Graziano Breuning PhD
Loretta Graziano Breuning, PhD
is founder of the Inner Mammal Institute and author of Habits of a Happy Brain: Retrain your brain to boost your serotonin, dopamine, oxytocin and endorphin levels
. Her work has been featured on Forbes, NPR, Psychology Today, and a wide range of podcasts. The Inner Mammal Institute offers free resources that help you build power over your mammalian brain chemistry. Dr. Breuning’s many books, videos, blogs, and digital resources have helped thousands of people make peace with their inner mammal.
I know an elephant with huge cravings. His story will help you find your power over your own cravings. It all started on the elephant’s sixteenth birthday.
Sixteen is a huge milestone in a male elephant’s life because they start their period around then. (No kidding! Elephants are one of the rare species with a male hormonal cycle, known as “musth.”) Well-meaning zookeepers threw a party for the elephant and gave him a sheet cake.
He sucked in the whole cake in a few seconds. Happy guests applauded and went on to their own cake without noting the problem. That elephant just triggered a huge dopamine surge from the huge amount of calories. Dopamine is the brain’s reward signal. A huge reward builds a huge pathway in the brain that anticipates huge rewards in the future.
You might think a sheet cake is not huge for an elephant, but it's colossal compared to an elephant’s natural diet. Wild elephants live on tree branches. They forage for 16 hours a day to get enough nutrition from this meager source. An elephant’s intestines are not very efficient, so half of what they eat comes out the other end. So an elephant has to forage, chew and poop for a week to get the reward value of a sheet cake.
In the state of nature, an elephant’s brain releases dopamine each time it steps toward meeting its needs. The mammal brain is not designed to make you feel good all the time. It evolved to reward you with happy chemicals when you do things that promote survival. It’s hard to meet survival needs in the state of nature, but dopamine rewards you for each step.
Our ancestors did not have refrigerators. They had to forage constantly to meet their needs. If they waited until they were starving to seek food, they would not have enough energy to find it. Dopamine motivates you to start seeking now by making it feel good.
Now imagine visiting elephants in the wild and offering the energy bars in your backpack. You trigger a dopamine surge that tells the elephant, “WOW! This really meets my needs!” The dopamine builds a pathway that connects every sight and smell of that moment. This wires the elephant to scan costantly for energy bars and visitors with backpacks. With such a huge reward anticipated, tree branches don’t seem interesting.
Once you hit the dopamine jackpot, your brain is not interested in small trickles of dopamine. It scans for more jackpots.
This is why we dwell on things that are not good for us. The first time you tried your favorite dopamine stimulator, it paved a neural pathway in your brain. Now, your dopamine starts flowing when you see anything related to that moment. Whether you get a reward or not, you keep expecting it because the pathway is still there.
An elephant will return to tree branches when it gets hungry enough. It is motivated by small dribbles of dopamine when there are no alternatives. It is not holding out for a world of constant sheet cakes. The elephant brain cannot construct abstractions so it focuses on the choices in front of it.
We humans don’t like going back to small dribbles of dopamine once we have enjoyed a huge surge. Our big brains can imagine rewards that are not ... Continue