“Once upon a time we were happy. Then the snake showed up. And we’ve been miserable ever since. “
-Dr. Robert Lustig
As a school librarian, I have been reading all sorts of articles lately on how corporations are infiltrating our collective thought processes. The consequences for young adults are dire. Atlantic Magazine, as one recent example among many, just published an especially damning piece on the pathology behind smart phones. Of course, we could have made the same claim 50 years ago with the onset of advertising. In the 1960s, however, we could switch channels, or – better yet – turn off the boob tube, as my father used to call it. Today, there is no escaping the insidious call to distraction unless you’ve mastered some sort of jujitsu mind control practice. I certainly haven’t. I cave to the iPhone jingle as quickly as the next student—almost, anyway—even though I rail against their habits as the closet librarian hypocrite.
It’s one thing to realize that we can’t turn off our cell phones or say no to the Happy Meal because we’re just plain weak, but quite another matter altogether when you understand that our desires are purposely engineered to sabotage our most noble efforts as individuals.
This article takes its title from Dr. Robert Lustig’s latest book, The Hacking of The American Mind, which penetrates beyond the politics of food. Dr. Lustig is a practicing pediatric endocrinologist (meaning he specializes in hormone problems in children) and obesity research scientist at the University of California San Francisco (UCSF), an academic medical center. He made his initial mark with his first book, Fat Chance. As Dr. Lustig frames the issue, our apparently innocent addictions to pepperoni pizza or chocolate bars are anything but innocent. These addictive impulses are biochemical in nature, and they drive our behaviors in ways that scientists are just beginning to understand. Big Business gets it, though. They use this science of addiction to keep us hooked to their bottom line profit.
Here’s the premise, in a nutshell, as told by Dr. Lustig in The Hacking of the American Mind:
Standard issue now are Capri Sun, Netflix, and Snapchat. You might argue, well, that’s progress, that’s convenience, that’s technology, that’s our new instant gratification culture—buy a pleasure to increase happiness. But what if those pleasures, ostensibly developed and marketed in the name of increasing your happiness, actually did the opposite? What if they actually made you unhappy? What if they changed your brain so that happiness was sapped from you? What if today’s kids are actually canaries in the coal mine? What if these same brain changes extended to your coworkers, to your friends, to your family members, and to you?
Dr. Lustig connects a series of dots in successive chapters, most notably linking biochemistry, public health, economics, psychiatry, medicine, nutrition, theology, and history. On a grand scale, he illustrates a cultural, metaphorical mind hack of sorts. Lustig tiptoes around conspiracy theory, as this would suggest a conscious corporate and government malevolence to hijack the public. Yet, when you look back to Woodward and Bernstein investigating Watergate, or whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand’s publication of the “tobacco documents” that brought down Philip Morris, et al., and, most recently, Russia’s 2016 election hack, what else can the public conclude besides conspiracy? This is the great irony behind conspiracies today: There aren’t any! The sabotage stands in plain sight for anyone who’s still thinking in the morass of “fake news.”
Dr. Lustig’s current book is similar to one of his previous books, Fat Chance, in that he applies biochemistry to educate readers about our toxic environment and, worse, how and why we still find ourselves trapped in an apparent no-win situation. Conventional wisdom says that the first step in addressing a problem is in recognizing the actual problem. This is not a very easy step in terms of the hacking process, which Dr. Lustig touches upon in nearly every chapter. If we don’t fully understand what’s happening to our brains, and if we are unclear on which particular industries are doing their best to capitalize on our addictions under the guise of selling happiness, then we will remain lost and confused. The crux of the matter, according to Dr. Lustig, is that we confuse the difference between reward and contentment.
The primary reward neurotransmitter is dopamine. In effect, it tells the brain to supply the body with more “feel good” synapses. And, from an opioid habit to binge-watching television, we know that too much dopamine leads to addiction. Serotonin, on the other hand, is the contentment neurotransmitter, which ideally holds the dopamine impulses in check with something like, “Yes, this feels great, but I have had enough. I am content.”
And this is where The Hacking of The American Mind becomes most intriguing. The simple pleasures have vanished, while also morphing into something that must be bigger and better in order to inspire “happiness.” The Big Mac–already supersized from the age-old burger with pickles, onion, mustard and ketchup–changed to the Pico Guacamole with 100% pure beef, and the soda pop morphed into the Big Gulp. The list goes on, ad infinitum. Who doesn’t know this feeling? The things that promise us happiness are actually a subterranean marketing ploy to consume more. We’re conflating pleasure with happiness, while Silicon Valley has infiltrated our heads to the point where we no longer know which end is up.
In the last half century, most of the Western world has grown more and more unhappy. We’re also sicker. This three-pronged marketing, media, and technology industry has capitalized on commandeering our brain physiology to their bottom line. Meanwhile, we’ve surrendered the pursuit of happiness to the pursuit of pleasure.
But, fear not, consumers! The plot is pervasive, but there is also a mind over matter component at play. It’s called self-control. Neuroscience has a better understanding of pleasure and happiness forces, and how they are manipulated in our media-rich environment. This means that we can now pinpoint the causes and, in turn, the treatments, for our own well-being. In a word, resist. And, when this gets old, cook!