By Marika Sboros
US paediatric endocrinologist Robert Lustig’s new book, The Hacking Of The American Mind, could be called Invasion Of The Body And Brain Snatchers.
The sub-title speaks volumes: The Science Behind the Corporate Takeover of Our Bodies and Brains. His focus is control of the American mind but he goes global. He shows that the invaders are ubiquitous and not just in corporates worldwide. They’re in governments, in our homes and on social media. They can be parents, other family members, friends, colleagues and strangers.
You may know Lusting as best-selling author of Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and Disease. You may also know him from his seminal lecture, Sugar – The Bitter Truth a viral YouTube video.
His latest book is, therefore, just a logical next step, a new front in Lustig’s ongoing war on the “other white stuff” – sugar. He covers bold new ground in government legislation and subsidies governing the food industry over 40 years. He also shows how these have contributed to easy availability of addictive substances and mind control.
Crucially, he shows that these forces have ingrained in our psyche the premise that pleasure is happiness, Lustig says. With that, they have perverted and subverted the meaning of those two emotions, he says. They have also made them into the bedrock on which our economies and the “corporate consumption complex” are built.
Rise of digital ‘neuromarketing’
His writing is the fruits of multiple perspectives that flow from Lustig’s professional background. Lustig was a neuroscientist before becoming a neuroendocrinologist and paediatrician. He is now professor of paediatric endocrinology at the University of California, San Francisco.
He is also a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with an MD from Cornell University and Masters of Studies in Law (MSL) from the University of California. And Lustig is a public health authority on how sugar fuels diabetes, obesity and metabolic syndrome epidemics. As a result, his major focus is legislative changes needed in the food environment to reverse chronic disease.
Click here to read: Gary Taubes and the case against sugar
Lustig looks in-depth at the drug industry’s hacking of minds. Crucially, he also looks at the harmful effects of social media on bodies and brains.
Adding digital “neuromarketing” makes an already toxic mix more poisonous, he says. It creates an unprecedented pandemic of chronic disease in body and mind. Parents are unwittingly aiding and abetting the effects of a poisonous brew on their children.
In the book, Lustig calls for change in digital environments to further consolidate disease reversal. He takes a deep dive into biochemistry and the way the brain works. That includes his unique view of the relationship between hormones and behaviour. In effect, Lustig doesn’t see behaviour so much as neural pathways and biochemistry.
The point of this book, he says, is to get readers to see them too. It’s a vital step on the path to understanding that consumption of addictive foods and use of technology is not always knowingly under control.
‘Jekyll and Hyde’ brain chemical
To get there, he outlines products and lifestyle habits that affect the release of two neurotransmitters, dopamine and serotonin.
Dopamine has been much in the news lately. It enjoys the dubious distinction as a “celebrity molecule”. British clinical psychologist Vaughan Bell once dismissively described dopamine as “the Kim Kardashian of molecules”. It’s the one involved in desire, ambition, addiction and that most powerful of human drives, sex.
Dopamine is the brain’s “reward” neurotransmitter, Lustig says. It is excitatory. It leaves you feeling like you want – and need – more.
Click here to read: Sugar addiction: beating ‘elephant in the kitchen’
Other researchers have identified dopamine’s role in getting us “hooked on tech” and social media. They have called Facebook “an empire of empires built upon a molecule” – dopamine.
That can seem over-the-top demonisation of both Facebook and dopamine. After all, dopamine doesn’t work in a vacuum. It is part of an intricate network of neuromodulators that all exert broad and multifaceted influences on decision-making and behaviour.
And Facebook may be bad but in an increasingly bad bunch. Other social networks, such as Instragram and Pinterest, may be even more effective pushers of addictive little dopamine surges.
Lustig calls dopamine the “Jekyll and Hyde” transmitter. Too little and you can’t get off the couch, he writes. Too much and you may become aggressive, paranoid and prone to addiction and depression.
Serotonin’s ‘sweet spot’
There’s also a “sweet spot” that allows the brain’s reward pathway to function optimally. Finding dopamine’s sweet spot is an important pit stop on the journey Lustig takes you on in this book.
Sugar is one of the major triggers of dopamine. It shows up in the birth of Coca-Cola and Coke’s Open Happiness campaign first unveiled in 2009 that is still going strong. It lies in the tale of Atlanta pharmacist John Pemberton who invented the product to cure his morphine addiction. That’s a “sordid story” that the company has “written out” of its history, Lustig says.
It helped to make sugar the “cheap thrill” it is today. It is a delivery vehicle, he says, that mainlines addictive substances “straight into your nucleus accumbens”. That’s the part of the brain that plays a central role in the reward circuit. It contributes to addictions and depressive cycles.
Sugar is the cheapest of many substances of abuse, Lustig writes. It is the reward to which society regularly exposes us all. It’s the one we can most easily afford and makes us all potential addicts, he says.
It also makes parents and other family members into “pushers”.
Big Mac and other usual suspects
McDonald’s is another company that began dishing up dopamine reward surges early on with its “Happy Meals “. Its tagline of foods was a tacit admission of having addictive intentions in mind, Lustig says. McDonald’s wisely dropped it from ad campaigns.
Of course, sugar is just one of Lustig’s usual suspects and makes for many fascinating claims in this book. One is that the quest for happiness “begins and ends with optimisation of serotonin transmission”, he says. And achieving that is whole easier said than done.
It makes the drug industry very much a mixed blessing. It’s the reason that anti-depressants have become the third most commonly prescribed drug in the US.
Click here to read: Taubes and the sweet and sour case against sugar
In particular, Lustig looks at the little green-and-white pill containing 20 milligrams of fluoxetine hydrochloride sold under the tradename, Prozac. Prozac is one of a class of drugs known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. These drugs have a “narrow therapeutic window”, says Lustig, and anyone not properly supervised “might jump out of” that window.
Therefore, serotonin out of balance can give morose people the “motivation” they need to kill themselves.
Lustig also makes an interesting case for more intelligent, focused research into other substances that may be safer, more effective treatment for depression. Among these are psilocybin, the active ingredient in so-called “magic mushrooms” and LSD, (lysergic acid diethylamide). LSD is a synthetic chemical made from a substance found in ergot, a fungus that infects rye. These have structural similarities with serotonin, he says.
The rise of ‘medical mushrooms’?
That’s part of psychedelic therapy that is experiencing a revival right now. Lustig speculates that it could lead to, among others, helpful “medical mushrooms”.
However, he says that scientists have yet to determine precisely the role of mind-altering drugs to achieve heightened consciousness and/or contentment. Thus, along with philosophical and ethical debate, careful scientific investigation in controlled settings is needed before experts can safely trust the public with any “key to nirvana”.
Whether we like it or not, we “are our biochemistry”, he says. And in reality, we – and others – can manipulate that biochemistry naturally or artificially for both good or for bad.
Lustig presents the myriad obstacles in the pursuit of happiness but also gives solutions. Along with his medico-scientific background, one of Lustig’s many strengths is his reader-friendly writing style and ability to translate complex neuroscientific theories into bite-sized portions for lay readers.
He lightens the seriousness of his book with humour and understands laughter as medicine.