The best books on the animal mind

Loretta Graziano Breuning Author Of Habits of a Happy Brain: Retrain Your Brain to Boost Your Serotonin, Dopamine, Oxytocin, & Endorphin Levels
By Loretta Graziano Breuning

Who am I?

I’m the founder of the Inner Mammal Institute and author of many books on the mammalian neurochemistry we’ve inherited. I started this research because the psychology I’d been taught wasn’t working for my students or my children. It wasn’t even working for the children of psychology professors! I knew we were missing something big. I started studying animals, and suddenly everything made sense. We have the same neurochemicals controlled by the same limbic system as other mammals, which is why the social behavior of animals is eerily familiar.  Here are five books that shaped my insight into the mammal brain in all of us. But I must mention the wildlife videos of David Attenborough as well. They made a huge contribution to my understanding of animal impulses, which is why my first book is dedicated to him. Attenborough was not just a talking head; he was the prime mover in the drive to record animal behavior in the wild.

I wrote...

Habits of a Happy Brain: Retrain Your Brain to Boost Your Serotonin, Dopamine, Oxytocin, & Endorphin Levels

By Loretta Graziano Breuning,

Book cover of Habits of a Happy Brain: Retrain Your Brain to Boost Your Serotonin, Dopamine, Oxytocin, & Endorphin Levels

What is my book about?

When you feel good, your brain is releasing one of the happy chemicals: dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, or endorphin. We want these good feelings all the time, but they’re not designed to be on all the time. They evolved to reward you for taking a step that promotes your survival. They are quickly metabolized and habituated to, which is why we’re so eager to stimulate more. We don’t do this consciously because the mammalian limbic system doesn’t process language. It can’t tell you in words why it is releasing a good or bad feeling. It just allows electricity to flow down neural pathways connected by past experience. This is why we all repeat behaviors that made us feel good in the past, even when we know better. Fortunately, you can build new neural pathways when you know how your brain works. It’s not easy, but you can feel good in healthy ways when you know the truth about your happy chemicals! I went on to write many other books. The latest is Status Games: Why We Play and How to Stop.
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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Chimpanzee Politics: Power and Sex Among Apes

Why did I love this book?

This book started it all for me. I didn’t know about the social rivalry among animals, but when I read this, the world made sense. This long-term study of zoo chimps shows how hard our closest relatives work to raise their status in the troop. The reasons why they do it are explained in any textbook on Evolutionary Biology, but this book reads more like a soap opera. I also liked DeWaal’s next book, Our Inner Ape: A Leading Primatologist Explains Why We Are Who We Are. It compares chimps to bonobos, a recently discovered ape with different lifestyle choices. After that, DeWaal started writing books that fit the romantic view of nature. It sounds like science, but it’s filtered to fit an ideology.

By Franz DeWaal,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Chimpanzee Politics as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The first edition of Frans de Waal's Chimpanzee Politics was acclaimed not only by primatologists for its scientific achievement but also by politicians, business leaders, and social psychologists for its remarkable insights into the most basic human needs and behaviors. Twenty-five years later, this book is considered a classic. Featuring a new preface that includes recent insights from the author, this anniversary edition is a detailed and thoroughly engrossing account of rivalries and coalitions-actions governed by intelligence rather than instinct. As we watch the chimpanzees of Arnhem behave in ways we recognize from Machiavelli (and from the nightly news), de…

Book cover of Macachiavellian Intelligence: How Rhesus Macaques and Humans Have Conquered the World

Why did I love this book?

Macaque monkeys are machiavellian, get it? This is a proper academic survery of macaque social behavior in the wild. I was amazed to learn that social climbing behaviors is not just a chimp thing, and not just a male thing. Female monkeys are shameless social climbers, and this promotes the survival of their genes just like biologists tell us. Monkeys cooperate as well as compete, but they calculate when to cooperate and with whom. In short, they cooperate when it promotes their genes. When the calculating behavior of humans gets you down, it’s helpful to know how monkeys do the same thing. A similar book on a different species is Baboon Metaphysics: The Evolution of a Social Mind, by Cheney and Seyfarth. Yet another is The Lemurs' Legacy: The Evolution of Power, Sex, and Love. I studied one primate after another and kept seeing the same basic patterns, which are surprisingly similar to daily life among humans.

By Dario Maestripieri,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Macachiavellian Intelligence as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Judged by population size and distribution, Homo sapiens are clearly the most successful primates. A close second, however, would be rhesus macaques, who have adapted to - and thrived in - such diverse environments as mountain forests, dry grasslands, and urban sprawl. Scientists have spent countless hours studying these opportunistic monkeys, but rhesus macaques have long been overshadowed in the public eye by the great apes, who, because of their greater intelligence, are naturally assumed to have more to teach us about other primates and about humans as well. Dario Maestripieri thinks it is high time we shelve that misperception,…

The Territorial Imperative

By Robert Ardrey, Berdine Ardrey (illustrator),

Book cover of The Territorial Imperative

Why did I love this book?

Animals are picky about who they mate with. Biologists have explained a wide array of mating strategies, and this book is an “intimate” look at one of them: territoriality. This book gets down and dirty, as it were, to see how animals fight for turf and how it promotes their genes. It’s a great read - not a stuffy textbook - and it’s part of a series of 4 so you may want to keep going as I did.

Another older book that opened my eyes is The Human Side of Animals by Vance Packard. Together, these books showed me that it’s not just apes and monkeys that compete for status; it’s a staple feature of social animals. And if you want a real textbook on the subject, the best of them, after 50 years, is still E.O.Wilson.

By Robert Ardrey, Berdine Ardrey (illustrator),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Territorial Imperative as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A territory is an area of space which an animal guards as its exclusive possession and which it will defend against all members of its kind. In this revolutionary book Robert Ardrey takes a concept familiar to every biologist, brings together for the first time a fair sampling of all scientific observations of this form of behavior, and demonstrates that man obeys the same laws as does many other animal species. With African Genesis Mr Ardrey stirred up enough storm to last an author, one would think, for a lifetime. In The Territorial Imperative, however, he explores more deeply and…

Book cover of A Primate's Memoir: A Neuroscientist's Unconventional Life Among the Baboons

Why did I love this book?

This book tackles the subject from the perspective of the guy behind the binoculars watching animals in their natural habitat. It’s great reading, especially for me because I spent a year in Africa. Sapolsky is a noted neurobiologist, but this book blends the science with his “true life adventures.” The writer has a political agenda, however, which is increasingly manifest in his other books. Science-sounding information is filtered and spun far more than people realize.

By Robert M. Sapolsky,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked A Primate's Memoir as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In the tradition of Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey, Robert Sapolsky, a foremost science writer and recipient of a MacArthur Genius Grant, tells the mesmerizing story of his twenty-one years in remote Kenya with a troop of Savannah baboons.

“I had never planned to become a savanna baboon when I grew up; instead, I had always assumed I would become a mountain gorilla,” writes Robert Sapolsky in this witty and riveting chronicle of a scientist’s coming-of-age in remote Africa.

An exhilarating account of Sapolsky’s twenty-one-year study of a troop of rambunctious baboons in Kenya, A Primate’s Memoir interweaves serious scientific…

Book cover of Reaching the Animal Mind: Clicker Training and What It Teaches Us about All Animals

Why did I love this book?

Clicker training taught me that the mammal brain learns from whatever behavior gets rewarded. I first learned about it in the book Kicked, Bitten, and Scratched, and I even had the joy of participating myself as a zoo docent. But the method was developed by Karen Pryor, and her book Reaching the Animal Mind is a great introduction to the subject. An even more fun read is her book on how she developed the method, Lads Against the Wind. The title refers to an old term for dolphins. Karen taught dolphins to do amazingly complex feats by blowing a whistle when they displayed behavior that would earn a fish. The rest is history!

By Karen Pryor,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Reaching the Animal Mind as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From the founder of “clicker” training, the widely praised humane approach to shaping animal behavior, comes a fascinating book—part memoir, part insight into how animals and people think and behave.

A celebrated pioneer in the field of no-punishment animal training,Karen Pryor is responsible for developing clicker training—an all-positive, safe, effective way to modify and shape animal behavior—and she has changed the lives of millions of animals. Practical, engrossing, and full of fascinating stories about Pryor’s interactions with animals of all sorts, Reaching the Animal Mind presents the sum total of her life’s work. She explains the science behind clicker training,…

5 book lists we think you will like!

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