“Wild” means meeting your own needs. We don’t feed wild animals because it undermines their ability to meet their own needs. I was reminded of this by a blog warning to tourists in Costa Rica:

“Don’t Feed the Monkeys. Conditioning them to expect human handouts diminishes their self-reliant survival instincts. Monkeys usually roam 17 km per day, but if they know people are going to feed them, they get lazy and don’t get the exercise they need.”

The word “wild” is often used in the opposite way, of course. “Going wild” suggests a temporary break from the demands of meeting your own needs. Wild creatures are a useful reminder that meeting your own needs all the time is the natural state of affairs.

Sometimes we are so eager to connect with others that we reward them in ways that undermine their survival skills. A familiar example is the parent who rewards their beloved child with the same treat whether they succeed or fail at a task. In the name of kindness, many people unwittingly reward bad behavior. You can end up “domesticating” a person in a way that turns the into a pet, unable to survive without your unnatural resources.

This deprives the person of the happy brain chemicals stimulated by the act of meeting our needs. For example, a monkey’s dopamine is stimulated when it climbs a high tree for a piece of fruit. If you just hand them the fruit, no dopamine is stimulate…in the long run.

In the short run, handing over the fruit spikes the monkey’s dopamine spike because it’s an unexpected reward. The mammal brain is designed to learn from unexpected rewards. A dopamine spike builds neural pathway that helps the brain find more of the unexpected rewards in the future.

When a monkey first receives food from human, the reward is unexpected because it came without effort. That conflicts with the monkey’s prior experience. The new experience trains the monkey to expect reward without effort. No intelligent critter is inclined to invest effort climbing trees when it has learned to get fruit the effortless way.

Once the dopamine spike builds a neural pathway, the reward is expected. Now the dopamine stops. It has done its job. To get more, the monkey will have to be hungry and forage successfully; or to get a bigger sweeter reward handed to it by humans. And soon the bigger reward will be expected and it will take even more to get the monkey excited..

It’s not surprising that our mammal brain is always on the lookout for the next big thing. This explains the curious conflict over food that you see among domesticated animals who are not actually hungry. I’ve seen this with temple deer in Kyoto, temple monkeys in Jaipur, squirrel monkeys in Bali, baboons in Cape Town, and the giraffes at my local zoo. And I was reminded of it by the blog post on Costa Rica:

The monkeys can be rather aggressive. They’ve been known to take swipes, snatch bags and even purposely pee on people standing under them. It’s also against the law, so forget the tempting photo-op and just don’t do it.

About the author: Loretta Breuning, PhD, is the author of Habits of a Happy Brain and Professor Emerita of Management at California State University, East Bay. She’s Founder of the Inner Mammal Institute, which offers a wide range of resources that help you build power over your mammalian brain chemistry. Check it out at InnerMammalInstitute.org



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