How to Tame Your Inner Mammal with Dr. Loretta Breuning

How to Tame Your Inner Mammal with Dr. Loretta Breuning


When I first encountered Dr. Loretta's work on Youtube, I was delighted because she has created a valuable body of work that helps us understand the why and how behind our animal impulses that don't always support our human aspirations to be better, to thrive, and to be at peace with ourselves and with the world. 

In this special interview, Dr. Loretta helps us see that there is nothing wrong with us -- even if our brains would have us think otherwise because of evolution, neurotransmitters, and socialization.

Loretta Breuning is Founder of the Inner Mammal Institute and Professor Emerita of Management at California State University, East Bay. She’s the author of Habits of a Happy Brain, and many other books that have been translated into Spanish, Russian, Chinese, Arabic, French, Turkish and German.

Learn more at 

To learn more about me (or to sign up for the upcoming free webinar), come to 

Full Episode Transcript

Hello! This is Episode 58 of Born to Thrive with Jamie Lee. I’m your coach and host, Jamie Lee.

How are you?

Yesterday, I was at the Catalyst Conference and it was a phenomenal experience where I met really amazing leaders, both women and men, who are working to further diversity and inclusion, particularly for women in corporate America.

And I was interviewed and asked, “What tips do you have for women leaders on how to negotiate?” and my first tip was, first, you gotta ask, very specifically and concretely, for what you want. And if you’ve been listening to this podcast, you know that the reason I do the work I do is so I can walk the talk I give which is: You gotta ask.

And I’m so happy to tell you I did exactly that.

In the last episode where I talked about neurotransmitters, I was quoting Dr. Loretta Breuning quite often. I found her work on YouTube. I thought it was phenomenal. It’s educational and entertaining and it makes sense and it helps us be happier and be able to tame our animal impulses and be better human beings. It’s everything that I believe in.

And so I reached out to her and I made a very specific ask. I said, “Dr. Loretta, would you please come on to my podcast?”

And she said YES.

So this is a special interview with Dr. Loretta on how to tame your inner mammal at the negotiation table. Dr. Loretta is the founder of the Inner Mammal Institute - the website is And she’s also Professor Emerita of Management at California State University East Bay. She’s the author of Habits of a Happy Brain and many other books that have been translated into Spanish, Russian, Chinese, Arabic, French, Turkish, German and more.

So I hope you enjoy this interview and come on by to for next week’s special webinar if you want to sign up for that and join in the live conversation, that would be awesome. It would be really great if you’d leave an iTunes or Anchor or Google Play or Spotify review, wherever you listen to this podcast.

Without further ado, please enjoy this interview with Dr. Loretta Breuning of Inner Mammal Institute.

Jamie: Hi, Dr. Loretta!

Dr. Loretta: Hi! Nice to see you!

Jamie: Yeah! I’m so happy to have you on the podcast. It’s so amazing because I just did a webinar where I quoted you on the neurotransmitters and the impact on our social behavior, particularly when it comes to negotiating or engaging in conversations where we’re trying to reach agreement. And so I’m so thrilled to have you on the show and one of the questions I always my interviewees is: What was a negotiation - by which I mean a conversation leading to agreement - that had the biggest impact on your life and career? And I’d love to learn what you learned from that experience.

Dr. Loretta: Yes! Well, as I thought about it, one thing just kept coming to my mind and it was a negotiation with myself that had a very big impact. So, when I was in my twenties, I worked on Wall Street. I was in a training program. And I actually got a bad review. And I have such a clear memory of this because - and I don’t remember a lot - I was so upset that I walked home. So I walked home from Wall Street to Midtown and just debating and debating and the thing that kept coming to my mind is I want to quit. I know it’ll look bad on my resume but is life about your resume? Is my resume the only thing I’m living for?

So that was the whole debate over and over. And interestingly, I had been a waitress in grad school and college and I just dreamed of being a waitress so I didn’t have to worry and I started calculating how much I could...and then I thought, you know what? Being a waitress won’t really cut it. And I realized that I would be better off in the long run to be just a middle of the road banker, that if I just worked seven hours a day as a banker and went home and had a full life that that would be better than either trying to be a superstar banker or a waitress.

And that middle path, I never thought of that before and it was so liberating. And the end of the story - this is sort of the introduction of my new book Tame Your Anxiety, I don’t tell the whole story but - I realized that I had so many other interests that in order to really focus at work, I would have to give up all my interests and pretend to only care about this institution that I didn’t care about whatsoever or particularly agree with the day to day decision-making, which of course is not to say that I could run the world better as every 20-year-old thinks. I was motivated by other things and I was going to give myself permission to keep doing those other things despite the fact that they made me look bad when I was at work because my mind was always on other things. So that’s the short story.

Jamie: So, in other words, you negotiated with yourself during this 3.3 mile walk while you were stinging from this bad review.

Dr. Loretta: Yes!

Jamie: Yeah, so it sounds like you made peace with yourself. I love what you said, you gave yourself permission to live…

Dr. Loretta: In the middle lane, I call it the middle lane.

Jamie: Yeah, in the middle lane. And I’m curious, in the book you mentioned, is it Ten-Year or Tenure?

Dr. Loretta: Oh, sorry! Good question. Tame Your Anxiety.

Jamie: Oh, Tame Your Anxiety! Oh, beautiful. You know, I really appreciate that because the reason I got started in this line of work as a coach helping people with negotiation and leadership is because I encountered so much anxiety when it came to speaking up and asking for what I wanted, so I love that story. Thank you so much. So tell us more about the work that you do with the Inner Mammalian Institute.

Dr. Loretta: Inner Mammal Institute.

Jamie: Oh! I’m sorry, Inner Mammal Institute.

Dr. Loretta: It’s fine.

Jamie: Why is it important to understand our inner mammal or our animal impulses?

Dr. Loretta: So, we’ve inherited our brain chemicals from animals, both our happy chemicals and our unhappy chemicals and we wire them up in our own unique way but the impulses are so strong and yet nonverbal because they’re the impulses that helped animals survive. And when a person forces themself to only believe their own verbal logic, I call it your own personal publicity agency. You know, it’s like your own press releases, they’re not the whole story. And when you know how these chemicals work in animals, you say, “Oh wow! That’s exactly what I’m doing! That’s exactly what everyone else is doing!”

And then you can sort of give yourself a break and the main focus of my work is to help people build new neural pathways because our old neural pathways are built in youth and they cannot be perfect and we can always improve them. And, I’m sorry, and the neural pathways are what control the chemicals but because they’re built in childhood, they’re more primal impulses.

Jamie: So for those of us who don’t really understand brain science, would you explain what a neural pathway is?

Dr. Loretta: Sure, sure. And by the way, my training is not in neuroscience. So, I left academia and I did my own research and I connected the dots and I am not saying the same thing as other people are saying because, in academia, they’re very, very, very limited to what they can say and my work draws more from animal research that was done before it became taboo to do animal research.

So, neural pathways. So, we’re all born with billions of neurons but very few connections between them. The electricity in your brain flows like water in a storm, so it just flows wherever the pathway is well developed. And the difference between a developed pathway and an undeveloped pathway is a lot of things, so I don’t know how much detail you want me to go into but you probably heard about synapses connect.

So there’s a lot of little, real physical changes, many of them permanent, most of them built from repetition, from youth because we have more myelin when we’re young. And the last things is that chemicals, happy chemicals and unhappy chemicals, you can think of them as paving on the new neural pathways. It’s not exactly how it works but you can see how, in the animal world, when an animal finds food and it’s like yay! And that yay feeling builds connections that help the animal find food in the same place again.

When an animal is attacked by a predator, fear chemicals then build a pathway that turns on the fear the next time the animal is in that location. So this builds a sort of a navigation system that nonverbally tells you this is good for me and this is bad for me.

Jamie: Fascinating. First of all, I just want to say I love that you went from waitressing and banking to teaching and I know that you used to be a professor of management. So, from teaching professionals to now helping us understand our animal brains. I love this because, as a negotiation trainer, I always talk about the 3-A trap and how people have this natural impulse to either avoid, to accommodate, or attack in conflict situations and I think what you just described explains why we have this unconscious impulse to undermine ourselves because of the neural pathway that’s been built in our youth and also because of how our brain is wired.

Dr. Loretta: Yes, exactly. But it’s a little more complicated because when...every one of us is born in the same situation where we have urgent survival needs and absolutely no ability to do anything about it. So we’re all born with this sort of feeling of desperation and what do we do about it? We cry. So that’s our only natural, hard-wired survival skill and it works, so when you cry, your needs get met and fortunately over time, each time your need gets met and happy chemical released, your brain builds a pathway that says oh, that worked, that worked, that worked so hopefully you learn other things that work other than crying and that’s how we learn to talk, etc., etc.

But at a deeper level we all have threatened feelings and we all link somehow that other people are necessary to relieve that threat but just how we negotiate with other people is very individual, built on the random experiences that we’ve had and in academia, this is unfortunately reduced to nature or nurture, which they define as either your genes, which is currently the popular view, or nurture they define as our society, which is bad.

And this is totally off-base, I think, because your actual early experiences are very powerful and they’re very individual. So it’s not what society says, it’s how your parents interacted with you and even if you have two twins, parents cannot interact with them the same way, so it’s just a random set of experiences that build our neural pathways.

Jamie: Thank you for that. I appreciate that. I’d love to learn more about some of these chemicals, as well as what strategies do you teach to help us overcome the neural pathways that’s wired from our youth so that we can overcome them and do better.

Dr. Loretta: Okay. So, I’ll explain each of the chemicals and that’s a long story, so first I’ll do the quick, the short, easy answer to the final question you had which is what can you do about it, which is building a new pathway takes a lot of repetition and use and repetition means you’re feeding your brain new...did I say…after youth it takes a lot of repetition and feeding your brain a new experience is not so easy when you’re not just doing the natural animal impulse.

So how can you design a new experience, for example, in your case, it would be asking for what I want? So if you ask for what you want again and again and again, a new pathway builds but it’s not gonna feel good in the beginning and so you repeat it knowing that it will eventually feel good because the neurons will connect and it will flow. Until then, how can you make it feel a little more comfortable so you don’t feel so bad about it?

Jamie: Yeah.

Dr. Loretta: So let’s look at each of the happy chemicals to see what makes us happy. So, the first one is dopamine and dopamine is the expectation of a reward, so expectation subjective, when do you expect that you’re gonna get a reward, but it’s basically built on the dopamine of your past. So anything that got you a reward in the past built a pathway that said this is gonna work, this is gonna work, I’m just about to get it, I’m just about to get it.

Now you can see how anyone could think of examples of how that can work in daily life but you can also think of why most of us, we repeat ourselves. We do stuff that worked in the past, even when it stops working and we have trouble trying a new strategy because we don’t have the pathway that flows.

Jamie: Mm-hmm.

Dr. Loretta: So, I’m trying to keep this short, I’m sure you can think of a lot of ifs and buts. And a complication is that our brain habituates to what it already has. So let’s say you’re dying of thirst and you walk to an oasis and you’re so happy when you get closer to the oasis. But when you have unlimited running water, it doesn’t make you a bit happy. So it’s like this weird combination between the pathway to the oasis of your past but then it doesn’t make you happy because you have to meet a new need in a new way like a new and improved reward in order to get the big surge of dopamine that you’re hoping for rather than just going back to the same oasis and filling your water bottle every day.

Jamie: Yeah, that’s really interesting.

Dr. Loretta: Yeah, so that’s dopamine, so I’ll just quickly do serotonin and oxytocin.

Jamie: Okay.

Dr. Loretta: So, oxytocin is the chemical that gives us the good feeling of trust. Now in the world of small-brained animals, they stick with the herd and then they can lower their guard so they feel a little safer from predators and that feels good and that’s what we’re all looking for. But animals are not always nice to each other, so that’s why the animal is always sticking to its own herd because a different herd is going to reject it.

And the animal is also worried, like when the herd runs, it has to run too. So when you get separated from the herd, your oxytocin falls and then you start feeling like you’re in an isolated mammal that’s about to get eaten.

But to complicate it more, bigger-brained mammals like apes, they can have one-to-one trust rather than just herd trust but they invest a lot of effort building that, which is the image we always see of two apes grooming each other’s fur.

Now, the complication is - so this is why we have to groom each other - the guy you groom may not groom you back, that’s complication number one. In nature, when your grooming partner is threatened, they scream for help and you’re expected to go because your brain has built these trust bonds but you may risk your life trying to save another ape and then when you’re in trouble, they may not try to save you, so there’s a real risk involved.

Jamie: It really got complicated!

Dr. Loretta: Yeah. But it doesn’t always work. But the other thing is that sometimes someone you let get close to you may attack you. So we love that feeling of trust, so we want to build trust bonds but it’s not safe to trust everyone, so our brain evolved to make careful decisions about when to release the trust.

But how does it make that decision? It’s hard, so it relies on your old oxytocin pathways. So that’s why we all repeat ourselves and we tend to trust in that situation that worked before and not to trust in that situation it didn’t trust before even though the paths can never be a perfect predictor of new situations.

Jamie: May I add that this totally makes sense why people gravitate towards people who look like themselves.

Dr. Loretta: Yes, yes, exactly. Because it matches your old trust pathways. But even on a more complex level because in the modern world, people are interacting with all different kinds of people but everyone can think of that early situation that built trust for them and the early situation that disappointed them and that we overinvest in finding similar situations to the one that worked and avoiding the one that didn’t work, even though there was a lot of randomness to them.

Jamie: Mmm. Yeah, good to know. So, tell us a little bit about cortisol because I know the stress response is something that we all have to contend with when we are trying to be brave, bold, ask for what we want. We feel that stress and it can feel as if we’re gonna die, we’re gonna get shut out from the herd, and…

Dr. Loretta: Yes, yes, absolutely. First, would you mind if I do serotonin first?

Jamie: Oh yeah, absolutely! Tell us about serotonin, yeah.

Dr. Loretta: So serotonin is another one of the happy chemicals and it’s the one you hear about in the context of antidepressants and again, I’m condensing a very big, long story and I’m happy to talk to anybody about it and my books explain in more detail. But in the mammal world, there is a social hierarchy in every group of mammals and when a mammal raises its social position, it gets more food and mating opportunity and it risks also bad consequences when it asserts itself.

So when you assert successfully, you get serotonin. When you assert unsuccessfully, you get cortisol and no one likes to talk about this but it’s so easy to see that this is what’s going on in our brain all the time.

Now, the bottom line is that serotonin is quickly metabolized so you want more and you want more and you want more but if you’re always asserting yourself then, oh, that’s not always gonna go well so you can end up with some cortisol. But then when you don’t assert yourself and your serotonin is gone, then you feel bad and you’re like how can I get more?

So this is complicated and frustrating and this is a problem that we all live with and everyone thinks something is wrong with the world, something is wrong with me or my life. Nothing is wrong. This is how our brain works and the only reason we are making ourselves crazy over this is because our lives are so damn easy that our bellies are full and we have so much energy left to stress over these social questions.

Jamie: Right and I was thinking about this, how it could be really minute social interactions like, take for example, I was in a class and somebody was smiling and my brain wanted to think that this person was smirking at me and I realized oh, my brain wants me to think that I’m at a lower social position because it wants to interpret this as a socially compromised position, you know what I mean?

Dr. Loretta: Yeah!

Jamie: But it was simply serotonin in play and cortisol in play here when I was thinking about what I was thinking about.

Dr. Loretta: Also those circuits are built from early training and they’re so deep and the consequences of doing it wrong when you’re a kid are so high that that’s why we build those big circuits. I have to tell you a great story that you’ll love. When McDonald’s first opened in Russia, that was an example of a culture where smiling, like looking directly at someone and smiling at them, is that ha ha ha, which is similar to the chimpanzee world, which I can explain more, but bottom line…

Jamie: So if you make eye contact and smile, it’s like they’re looking down on you.

Dr. Loretta: Yes and no. It’s more complicated because in the animal world, actually the smile is fear and animals don’t have the same facial muscles we have so it’s not really a smile but it’s like a fear but it’s the one that makes direct eye contact like that it’s like I’m bigger than you are, just try and mess with me!

Jamie: Interesting.

Dr. Loretta: So when McDonald’s first opened in Russia, in Moscow, they had people outside with megaphones explaining that the McDonald’s tradition is that your server smiles at you and to please understand that they’re not laughing at you but this is the McDonald’s tradition. Can you imagine?

Jamie: Wow. I was in Japan last year and that reminds me how in Japanese culture it’s very impolite to make direct eye contact.

Dr. Loretta: Yes. This is in my book Tame Your Anxiety, so I was the same way. So I grew up Italian and it was the same thing, I didn’t learn how to make eye contact with people and I had to train myself. And I did it by looking at supermarket clerks and I trained myself to become aware that I was having these feelings that were not about the situation but that were old feelings and if I was anxious then I was only anxious with a supermarket clerk so it was a good place to practice.

And I found that what was more triggering to me is that when I did make the effort to look directly at someone and if they didn’t look back at me because that felt so hurtful and then I had to remind myself that this poor person spends their whole day looking at people who may not look back at them so they’re just trained to look away so they don’t get hurt. So then you realize that it’s not about you, so that was very helpful.

Jamie: Yeah, thank you so much for reminding us that there’s nothing wrong with us.

Dr. Loretta: Yeah, yeah. And so much of the psychology that’s available, it’s either something’s wrong with you or something’s wrong with the world and…

Jamie: Something’s wrong with that person, that person is a narcissist, whatever.

Dr. Loretta: Yeah! Blame, blame, blame.

Jamie: Mm-hmm. I really appreciate your approach, which is not about blaming people but just being able to kind of have a metacognition, be able to understand how our brains work so that we can think with the higher part of our brain or what I understand to be the prefrontal cortex and I think that is the key to really thriving, living a thriving life, not just surviving you know from our animal impulses.

Dr. Loretta: Yeah. So the prefrontal cortex has less power than you think, so that’s why I try to encourage people not to think oh there’s my good brain and my bad brain and my good brain has to fight my bad brain. So that’s what my new book Tame Your Anxiety is about.

So the idea is, the way I try to explain it is you have a ship like the Titanic and when it’s going in one direction and you want to turn it to a new direction, that is so hard that you actually don’t see the ship move for 20 minutes. So it’s very hard to redirect and that’s what your prefrontal cortex can do. And that’s so hard, it take so much energy that you can’t use for other things like having routine conversations and driving and brushing your teeth. So you’re basically saving it for emergencies, okay?

So the rest of your life has to run on your big, built pathways. So the real challenge is to build new pathways because you’re not gonna have enough prefrontal cortex to do everything. So if your old pathways aren’t working for you, to build a new pathway so that you can do the new thing on automatic rather than expecting your prefrontal cortex to do it.

Jamie: Yeah and I love that because my mission is to help people create powerful mindset shifts and ultimately, I think the mindset shift is a new neural pathway.

Dr. Loretta: Yeah! So let’s think about what would be the new neural pathway that we would want a person to have. So what you’re thinking, what you talked about, the three As…

Jamie: Yes, it’s avoid, accommodate and usually it’s a cycle right? You avoid a conflict and then you just give in to whatever they ask you, accommodate, you’re like “Sure, okay, I’ll do it, yeah, no problem,” even though inside you’re sort of resenting the situation. And then over time the resentment grows and grows until it become untenable and you explode and you attack and you’re like “How could you?!”

And sometimes you don’t even attack the person with whom you actually have stressful thoughts. It’s like you attack another person in your sphere of influence who has lower power than you. Let’s say if you’re a parent you might get angry at your kid or you might get angry at your subordinate, or if you have a life partner, because there’s less repercussion with them, right? And then the cycle can continue over and over again. I’ve experienced myself.

Dr. Loretta: Yes. Oh, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. And it’s so easy to see when other people do it so it’s very powerful when you can see it in yourself. So here’s the thing. So my philosophy is to focus on what you want rather than what you don’t want. So what do we want? So we don’t want the three As, so what do we want instead? And that’s what a person needs to use the prefrontal cortex to blaze that new trail through the jungle the first time and then keep repeating that trail until it builds a new neural pathway. But you can’t do it until you can first verbalize it because that’s what the prefrontal cortex is doing.

So let’s think, what are we wanting when we don’t what I want is - and I’ll just take a guess and then you can put it into your language - so we want to first acknowledge to ourselves when there’s a conflict, which means that we want some authentic sense of our own desires and then maybe you could say an empathic sense of the other person’s desire and then we want a way to help find, I know the cliche is a win-win, but let’s say to create an effective solution that meets both of our needs.

Jamie: Exactly, yes. That’s it. That’s exactly it. I want to create solutions. I want to express my needs.

Dr. Loretta: I want to be authentic with myself about my own needs first.

Jamie: Yes!

Dr. Loretta: And then I want to communicate my awareness of the other person’s needs and I want to believe that there’s always a way to do it and even if the other person is digging in their heels to believe that no matter how that person is digging in, I don’t have to see them - this is my favorite thing - I don’t have to see that person as a gatekeeper in my life. There is always a path that I can create that can meet my needs regardless of whatever that person is.

Jamie: Beautiful. And I love where you’re headed with this because it’s very similar to my coaching work where I help my clients come up with new thoughts and then you practice the thought and at first it feels unfamiliar, it feels unbelievable, it doesn’t feel genuine at first because of the neural pathway. You have to continue to practice and turn that Titanic ship around, I guess, very slowly until it becomes a believable thought.

Dr. Loretta: Yeah. So you asked me about cortisol and I didn’t explain that and this is a perfect time. So, when you are wanting to do this new thought and it starts feeling bad, that bad feeling is cortisol and it’s caused by an old cortisol pathway and our brain evolved to prioritize bad feelings because a threat can kill you than missing out on a reward can kill you.

So anything that triggered your cortisol in the past built a huge pathway that says oh no, if you do this again, something awful is gonna happen. And so, for some people, it’s just asking for something. For some people, it’s just acknowledging to yourself that you want this thing and acknowledging that this other person in front of you is not a hundred percent on your side. And so to say, you know what? I’m a big boy. I’m gonna put on my big boy pants and this other person is not on my side so I’m believing in myself and my own ability to meet my needs despite the fact that other people are not necessarily on my side.

Jamie: So powerful and that’s how you generate self-confidence, believing in yourself. Yeah. This has been such valuable content, I’m so grateful for you, for the work that you do, I think it’s really going to help a lot of people make peace with their own brains, their lives, and ultimately to thrive. So, thank you so much. Now, tell us where can people go, our audience go to learn more about your work about Tame Your Anxiety?

Dr. Loretta: So my website is and I have a lot of books including Tame Your Anxiety which is available in March 2019 and my introductory book Habits of a Happy Brain: Retrain Your Brain to Boost Your Serotonin, Oxytocin, Dopamine and Endorphin Levels and a bunch of other books. And I have videos, some of them are very short and I know people often say oh, I have someone I want to show this to and I think a five-minute video and the videos, as you know, are humorous so that makes it more approachable with other people.

Jamie: Yes, the videos were amazing. I highly recommend them. Thank you so much, Dr. Loretta!

Dr. Loretta: You’re welcome! Thanks so much for having me!

Jamie: Yeah! Please continue your awesome work.

Dr. Loretta: Thank you, thank you.

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