Dr. Robert Lustig is probably best known for his books and activities warning about sugar and the damage it does to the human body, notably in his bestseller, Fat Chance. In his new book, The Hacking of the American Mind: The Science Behind the Corporate Takeover of Our Bodies and Brains (2017), he continues that warning, pointing out that refined sugar (refining sugar turns it from a food into a drug) is “the most expensive burden on society,” worse than either tobacco or alcohol. Refined sugar wastes some $1.8 trillion in health care spending in the United States alone by contributing to the diseases known as “metabolic syndrome”: heart disease, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, fatty liver disease, chronic liver disease, and cancer to name only the most prominent ones. But Lustig is not content with warring on sugar here; he adds several other addiction problems that are promoted by corporate America in its lust for profit, mainly alcohol, sex, processed food, shopping, and the technology that has given us the internet, computers, and the smartphone. What is really compelling about his book, though, is that Lustig makes use of his background in neuroscience to explain for us just how these “pleasurable activities” work in the brain to motivate us, reward us and often get us hooked. The major theme he propounds is that the corporate promotion of such activities intentionally confuses us about the difference between the reward system which gives us pleasure, and the happiness system which gives us contentment. That is, we are constantly shown via advertising that Coke, for instance, will make us happy, when what it really does is gives us a momentary pleasurable hit (and no food value) from sugar and caffeine. This is because the two systems at issue here— reward on the one hand and happiness on the other—are mediated by different brain systems. The reward/pleasure system is governed by the neurochemical dopamine, which provides motivation or drive, and the opioid peptides like endorphin, which provide us with the reward. Contrarily, the happiness/contentment system is the product of serotonin, which operates via two receptors, one of which provides contentment, the other of which often provides mystical experiences. What’s interesting is that “the same factors that increasedopamine (technology, lack of sleep, drugs, and bad diet) also decreaseserotonin” (p. 147 note).
What Lustig does is show us, first, how the dopamine system works, and the negative effects that happen when cells get overloaded, down-regulate (meaning we need more drug to get the same effect) and we get addicted. This is not necessarily due to weakness or moral failing. It is due largely to the fact that modern life (driven by the “corporate consumption complex”, i.e. the six industries that sell us tobacco, alcohol, processed food, guns, cars, and energy) loads us up with chronic stresses via easy access to addictive substances and activities. You might think it is exaggeration to include processed food in this list, but Lustig gives us a statistic that simply stuns us: where the annual profit margin for Big Pharma is 18% (pretty hefty), it is paltry compared to the processed food industry which grosses “$1.46 trillion per year, $657 billion of it gross profit, for a gross profit margin of 45%”(p. 87). So these hucksters have a very big incentive to get us hooked.
But, you may ask, why are we so driven by dopamine in the first place? Because, Lustig points out, dopamine is the neurotransmitter that ensures the survival of the species. We need to be motivated so that we act to preserve ourselves and pass our genes on to the next generation (hence we are powerfully driven to eat and to reproduce.) To demonstrate this, Lustig tells us about an anti-obesity drug called rimonabant. It was approved in Europe as a drug to suppress obesity by blocking the CB1 receptor from access by our own brain compound, anandamide, which keeps us eating. Rimonabant actually worked quite well; people who used it stopped eating junk food and lost weight. But the problem was, they lost all pleasure in food and became anxious, depressed and even suicidal. In other words, to lose your motivation for reward (via dopamine) means you lose your motivation for life.
The problem comes in with our modern civilization (as Lustig puts it: “reward and stress are the hallmarks of modern civilization” p. 146). We are stressed by daily life, not just short term, which is what the cortisol system is for—to prepare us to fight or flee—but chronically, constantly, as in many modern occupations. In the face of chronic stress, we are encouraged, brain-washed really, to seek relief and happiness in the substances and procedures that seem to offer happiness, or at least distraction: sex (instead of love), smartphones, sugar, processed foods (loaded with sugar) and so on. And we are encouraged daily, hourly, every minute on platforms like Facebook, to buy our way out of stress; to see buying as happiness itself. As Lustig puts it, “Conflating pleasure and happiness is inherently biased and misleading” (p. 190). More simply put, it is propaganda. And the corporate purveyors of this propaganda have succeeded in finding ever-more accurate ways to target those most likely to seek happiness by buying their useless products. As part of this propaganda, we are told that having all these choices in products makes us “free.” Lustig begs to differ: “Our environment has been engineered to make sure our choices are anything but free. It chronically nudges us toward reward and drives us away from happiness and contentment” (p. 147).
Having cell phones, especially smartphones, is only the latest invention of such environmental engineering intended to work on our dopamine system. It takes very little to understand how addictive these devices can be. As Lustig points out, “for most people, the cell phone is like a slot machine. With every ding, a variable reward, either good or bad, in store for the user—the ultimate dopamine rush” (192). Why is this? Because we have a need for surprise; it’s visceral, says Lustig: as humans we are always looking for something new. This, according to Lustig, “stokes our dopamine and our nucleus accumbens” (the brain area where dopamine registers), and “the frequent checking of cell phones, waiting for something to change, is linked to anxiety and depression” (193). This is key to understand. Sold as a way to keep us instantly gratified and thus make us happy, cell phones in many users seem to have the opposite effect: they make many of the most ardent users depressed. Lustig cites a study of 4,000 teenagers, where “total media use correlated with the prevalence of eventual depression, especially in boys” (197). He also cites a horrifying 2010 case from South Korea to demonstrate how addictive such technologies can be: a couple became so obsessed with raising their two “virtual children” online that they let their actual three-month old daughter starve to death (p. 194). He also cites studies by Sherry Turkle demonstrating that “there is a forty percent loss of empathy in college students as a result of possessing a smartphone” (p. 235).
Enough said. Lustig has recommendations for his readers, and they are astonishingly simple (though probably not simple to accomplish in our society). He calls them the Four C’s of Contentment: Connect, Contribute, Cope, and Cook. Connectsimply means develop face-to-face communication with a network of friends, as humans are meant to do. Contributepoints out that self-worth is enhanced by volunteering or otherwise working to enhance the well-being of others. This has been proven over and over. Coperefers to several things: getting enough sleep, which is vastly underrated in our culture, getting exercise (also underrated), and mindfulness, for instance, through some form of meditation. Simply slowing down, turning off one’s devices, can be vastly effective. Finally, Cook: do your own cooking with real ingredients. This should be the simplest one of all, but not for the “one-third of Americans who currently don’t know how to cook” (p. 279). This is simply mind-boggling to this writer, but apparently it’s true. And the fallback for all those non-cookers is one of the chief contributors to our health crisis, processed food. Loaded with sugar and fat and chemicals and made to survive almost forever, it is the chief culprit contributing to sicknesses that should never happen in the first place.
Lustig has some fascinating things to say about the serotonin side of things as well, not least the reminder that psychedelics, once criminalized, have been making a comeback among therapists and brain researchers. This is because their chemical structure is very similar to the structure of serotonin. So, compounds like LSD and psilocybin bind to both serotonin-1a and -2a receptors, meaning that they provide both contentment, and mystical experiences. Anti-depressants also work in these brain areas, blocking the reuptake of serotonin so that more is left to contribute to happiness rather than depression. But I will have more to say about these when I write about Michael Pollan’s recent book, How to Change Your Mind, which investigates the new therapies and his own late-in-life psychedelics trips in depth.
To sum things up for Lustig’s book, we could do worse than use his own coda: “the corporate consumption complex—technology, sleep deprivation, substance abuse, processed food—these are the killers of contentment and the drivers of desire, dependence, and depression” (p. 280). Find ways to rid your life of those, or at least keep them in check, and you can go a long way toward moving in the direction of that happiness whose pursuit is promised as an inalienable right in the Declaration of Independence.