By Marika Sboros
US paediatric professor Robert Lustig’s new book, Hacking Of The American Mind, is a riveting read. It’s like a scientific Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. Only this time, earth-bound “alien” invaders are brain snatchers too.
That makes this book a must-read if you care about your health in body and mind. And the health of those you love. Especially your children.
Lustig’s focus is control of the American mind, but Hacking has relevance for minds globally. The sub-title speaks volumes: The Science Behind the Corporate Takeover of Our Bodies and Brains.
The invaders are ubiquitous and not just in corporates. They’re in governments and in our own homes. They are parents, other family members and friends. And they’re in social media.
They have ingrained in our psyche the premise that pleasure is the same thing as happiness, Lustig says. They have perverted and subverted the meaning of those two emotions. They’ve made that premise the bedrock on which our economies and the “corporate consumption complex” are built.
Hacking can look very different from Lustig’s other best-sellers. You may know him as best-selling author of Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and Disease. Or from his seminal lecture, Sugar – The Bitter Truth that went viral on YouTube.
Hacking is a logical next step, a new front in Lustig’s ongoing war on the “other white stuff”. He covers bold new ground in government legislation and subsidies governing the food industry over the last 40 years. He shows how these have contributed to the ease of availability of addictive substances.
The rise of digital ‘neuromarketing’
Lustig takes a penetrating look at the drug industry hacking minds. Crucially, he also looks at social media and their harmful effects on bodies and brains.
He shows how the effects of adding digital “neuromarketing” to an already toxic mix. It creates an unprecedented pandemic of chronic disease in body and mind. He shows how parents are unwittingly aiding and abetting the effects of a poisonous brew on their children.
Hacking is the fruits of the multiple perspectives that flow from Lustig’s professional background. He is a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, with an MD from Cornell University. Lustig was a neuroscientist before becoming a neuroendocrinologist and paediatrician. And he has a Masters of Studies in Law (MSL) from UC Hastings College of the Law in 2013.
He is now Professor of Paediatric Endocrinology at the University of California, San Francisco.
Lustig is also a public health authority on how sugar fuels diabetes, obesity and metabolic syndrome epidemics. A major focus is legislative and other changes in the food environment to reverse chronic disease.
In Hacking, Lustig adds the call for change in digital environments to further consolidate disease reversal.
His book is 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 you to see them too. That’s a vital step on the path to understanding that consumption of addictive foods and use of technology is not always under our control.
Lustig on ‘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 is the brain’s “reward” neurotransmitter, Lustig says. It is excitatory. It leaves you feeling like you want – and need – more.
Dopamine has been much in the news lately. It enjoys the dubious distinction as a “celebrity molecule”. It’s the one involved in desire, ambition, addiction and that most powerful of human drives, sex.
British clinical psychologist Vaughan Bell once dismissively described dopamine as “the Kim Kardashian of molecules”.
Click here to read: Sugar addiction: beating ‘elephant in the kitchen’
A recent article in The Observer looks at dopamine’s role in getting us “hooked on tech” – and social media. It describes Facebook as “an empire of empires” that is built upon a molecule”. And that molecule is dopamine.
The Observer article quotes Facebook founder and former president Sean Parker describing how Facebook dishes up regular “dopamine hits”, for example, when someone likes or comments on a post or photograph.
That can seem a little 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 the best of 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 of it and you can’t get off the couch, he writes. Too much and you may get aggressive, paranoid and prone to addiction and depression.
Serotonin’s ‘sweet spot’
And as with so many things in science and medicine, there’s 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.
The same applies to the sweet spot for serotonin, through what Lustig calls the “sublime science of serotonin”.
Serotonin is the brain’s inhibitory “contentment” or “happiness” neurotransmitter, he says. It’s the one that tells your brain that you don’t want – or need – more.
Ideally, you need both dopamine and serotonin in optimal supply. However, dopamine easily overwhelms serotonin, as Lustig shows.
Sugar is one of the major triggers of dopamine. It shows up in the birth of Coca-Cola. 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, Lustig says. 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.
It lies in Coke’s Open Happiness campaign first unveiled in 2009 that is still going strong.
Sugar is the cheapest of our 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 everyone a potential addict, he says.
It also makes relatives – and parents – into “pushers”.
More 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 tacit admission of having addictive intentions in mind, Lustig says. McDonald’s wisely dropped it from ad campaigns.
But of course, sugar is just one of Lustig’s usual suspects. That 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 drugs 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 that is 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 that anyone not properly supervised “might jump out of”.
The reality is, therefore, one too ghastly to spend too much time contemplating in this book. It is that 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 and 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”.
He also admits that scientists have yet to determine precisely the role of mind-altering drugs to achieve heightened consciousness and/or contentment. This requires careful scientific investigation in controlled settings. That’s along with philosophical and ethical debate before experts can safely trust the public with any “key to nirvana”.
Whether we like it or not, we “are our biochemistry”, he says. We – and others – can manipulate that biochemistry naturally or artificially. And for both good or for bad.
Lustig presents the myriad problems and obstacles in the pursuit of happiness, contentment, peace of mind or whatever you call it. He also gives the solutions.
Along with his scientific training, one of Lustig’s many strength is his reader-friendly writing style. He translates complex neuroscientific theories into bite-sized portions for the lay reader.
He also laces and lightens the seriousness of his book with humour. Lustig understands that laughter really can be best medicine.