Do you feel like we’re at a turning point in history?
Every who has ever lived has felt that way because the brain sees the world with itself at the center. We think its wrong to be self-centered, so we tend to overlook this core facet of cognition. The mammal brain evolved to meet its needs by looking for ways to stimulate happy chemicals. In the state of nature, behaviors that stimulate happy chemicals and avoid unhappy chemicals lead to reproductive success. Today we seek more happy chemicals with less reproducing, and chronocentrism helps us do it. Here’s how chronocentrism stimulates your dopamine, oxytocin and serotonin.
Chronocentrism stimulates dopamine
Dopamine is stimulated by the expectation of reward. The good feeling starts flowing as soon as you feel that you have found the pattern in your environment. Like a mouse who figures out the best path in a maze, our pattern-seeking brain rewards us with dopamine when we fit the pieces together. People have always constructed patterns to predict the future because it feels good.
Life is hard because the brain quickly habituates to old rewards, so it takes “new and improved” to stimulate your dopamine. One type of new and improved is the belief that you’re watching the turning point in history. You expect your efforts to have results, and that turns on the dopamine. You expect your contribution to survive in future generations, which satisfies the animal urge for a legacy. Even anticipating negative events triggers dopamine because avoiding harm is a huge reward to the mammal brain.
Chronocentrism stimulates oxytocin
The mammal brain releases oxytocin when it has the safety of social support. Oxytocin is soon metabolized, however, and a mammal feels unsafe until it stimulates more. Animals meet this need by making frequent signals that help them locate their group mates. In the modern world, making frequent expressions of concern for the course of history helps you stay connected to your herd. Every time you feel unsafe, you can these exchange signals and enjoy an oxytocin reward.
Chronocentrism stimulates serotonin
Research in the 1980s showed that social importance stimulates serotonin in monkeys. As much as we hate to think so, the good feeling of serotonin rewards a monkey for raising its social status. In the modern world, agonizing about the course of history raises your status. The serotonin is soon metabolized so you have to agonize about the course of history again and again to keep feeling it.
Chronocentrism relieves cortisol
Some day you will die and the world will go on without you. Humans can terrify themselves with abstract thoughts that animals don’t bother themselves with. Cortisol transforms the abstraction into a visceral sense of threat. When this awful feeling takes hold, one way to sooth yourself is to believe that you are living at the turning point in history. You may not be around for some future events, but you will be here for the important stuff.
The Greater Good
Your brain built its mental model of the world in order to meet your needs. You may think you are only interested in the greater good because that belief helps you meet your needs. It raises your status, which rewards you with serotonin. It connects you to the herd, which rewards you with oxytocin. It fits new developments into familiar patterns, which rewards you with dopamine. Invoking the greater good is an effective way to meet your needs, but your brain will keep filtering human history through the lens of what’s relevant to its own survival. And it will always feel like we’re at a turning point in history.
About the author: Loretta Breuning, PhD, is Professor Emerita of Management at California State University, East Bay and the author of The Science of Positivity and Habits of a Happy Brain. 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.