Illustration by David Nielsen

Review: 'The Hacking of the American Mind' shows how 'toxic environment' makes us neurochemically miserable

Jaclyn Lewis

Dr. Robert Lustig treated kids with hormone-related problems for three decades. The pediatric endocrinologist noticed a concerning trend 10 years ago:

“Children still grow,” Dr. Lustig says, “but sadly in my pediatric clinic I now watch many of them grow horizontally rather than vertically. Some take medicines previously reserved for adults, like metformin for type 2 diabetes or benazepril for hypertension” (page 1).

In his newest book, The Hacking of the American Mind: The Science Behind the Corporate Takeover of Our Bodies and Brains, Dr. Lustig shows how our country’s “toxic environment” is harming our health and making us miserable on the neurochemical level.

Dr. Lustig acknowledges early on that there is no “smoking gun” to prove a full-blown conspiracy. Current scientific data on addiction and happiness, or contentment, relies mostly on animal studies and correlative human studies (11). He also explains that “the connecting of our moods and emotions to rational public policy is complex, nuanced, and indirect. People can’t be told what to do” (12).

However, Dr. Lustig says there is enough circumstantial and empirical evidence to show that “pleasure is the slippery slope to tolerance and addiction, while happiness is the key to long life” (7). Some industries blur “the link between their products and disease” and “willingly confuse the concepts of pleasure and happiness with the sole motive being profit” (6).

Therefore, Dr. Lustig writes, “if we don’t understand what’s actually happening to our brains, we become prey to industries that capitalize on our addictions in the name of selling happiness” (7). In short, our brains have been “hacked.”

How could a product cause discontentment? Isn’t contentment an individual choice? “Indeed,” Dr. Lustig says, “you are in charge of your own thoughts, which are yours and yours alone. But you share the process of emotion generation and its experience with every other human on the planet” (26). The chemical processes in your brain that generate physical feelings of pleasure and contentment are what are being “hacked.” This is why it’s important to understand the physical differences between pleasure and contentment.

Dr. Lustig identifies those distinctions:

  • Pleasure is a sensation driven by the hormone dopamine in the brain. Contentment is a sensation driven by the hormone serotonin in the brain (8).
  • Pleasure can be activated through consuming substances (added sugar, caffeine, cocaine). Contentment cannot be activated with any substance and requires actions or experiences (graduating college, the birth of a child, introducing someone to Christ).
  • Pleasure occurs through the act of “taking” and the thrill is gone quickly (buying a gadget or bauble, winning a video or casino game). Contentment occurs through the act of giving and is long-lasting (time or money to a worthy project, care and attention to a spouse or friend).
  • Pleasure-seeking unchecked can lead to addictions, and, in the case of food addiction, metabolic syndrome (foods spiked with sugar, compulsive behaviors such as shopping, TV watching, porn). Contentment is not addictive, and, like eating vegetables, is supportive of physical health (walks through nature, playing with grandchildren) (9-11).

Dr. Lustig says that the confusion between pleasure and contentment “continues to be stoked by industry and government in order to preserve and sustain persistent economic growth at the expense of the populace” (152).

“We spend money on hedonic pleasures, trying to make ourselves happy, and in the process we drive dopamine, reduce dopamine receptors [our brain’s ability to register pleasure], increase cortisol [a stress hormone], and reduce serotonin, to ever further distance ourselves from our goal” (152). Despite our country’s economic abundance, “we’re prosperous but not happy,” or healthy.

Recent data supports this:

  • Life expectancy declined for men and women in 2014, adjusted for age (153).
  • Infant mortality increased between 2014 and 2015 (154).
  • Suicide rate increased in the white middle-class demographic in 2015 (155).
  • Deaths from opioid overdoses quadrupled since 1999 (163).
  • Death rates increased for all metabolic syndrome diseases, adjusted for age (206).

As one example of how we’ve been hacked, Dr. Lustig asks us to consider the food industry, which grosses $1.46 trillion a year (200).

Added sugar in processed food drives chronic metabolic diseases such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease (201). We’ve known this since nutritional researchers John Yudkin in the U.K. and Sheldon Reiser in the U.S. “correlated sugar consumption with heart disease” around 50 years ago (184).

Yet sugar has been subsidized by the federal government since 1971, when President Nixon pushed for policy to lower food prices (183). The food industry uses sugar as an inexpensive way to increase food palatability and shelf life (183-184, 269-270).

What’s more, when “the sugar industry came under intense scrutiny” because of Yudkin and Reiser’s research, Dr. Lustig says the Sugar Association increased efforts to market sugar in a positive light.

“[The] Sugar Association established a public relations arm called Sugar Information, Inc., and hired a PR firm to blanket the country with pro-sugar propaganda. Saying that sugar was the ‘quick energy’ to provide the ‘willpower you need to undereat’ and ‘to curb your appetite’—in other words, deceptive advertising designed to drive your dopamine upward. In 1972 the Federal Trade Commission took Sugar Information to court and shut it down” (184).

Fast forward to 2015, when our health care system spent $3.2 trillion mostly treating the preventable chronic metabolic diseases that added sugar drives. These metabolic diseases are slowly killing over 50 percent of the population (201-202).

To thrive in our toxic environment, Dr. Lustig urges us to add “The 4C’s of Happiness” into our daily lives: 

  • Connect (social support).
  • Contribute (giving).
  • Cope (sleep, prayer, exercise).
  • Cook (real food low in added sugar) (221-267).

This article is one of three about Dr. Lustig’s work. Read them all here.

If we don’t understand what’s actually happening to our brains, we become prey to industries that capitalize on our addictions in the name of selling happiness.

Dr. Robert Lustig

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