BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,
BTRIPP
btripp

... and you've got me wanting you

I'm having a bit of a quandary as to how to approach this one. First of all, I have to admit it's been almost 3 months since I read it (long story), so it's not particularly “fresh” in my mind, although I do have maybe a dozen of my little bookmarks in it pointing to stuff I found of particular interest. Flipping through it, I'm realizing that if I tried to give it an in-depth look, we'd be having to negotiate a 10,000 word review, but as it has a virtual “fire hose” of information, I'd feel like I'd be skimming if I didn't delve into some of the details. Oh, well, here goes an attempt to reach a middle ground on it.

Dr. Robert H. Lustig's The Hacking of the American Mind: The Science Behind the Corporate Takeover of Our Bodies and Brains is a fascinating, if not fun, book … and came into my hands via the LibraryThing.com “Early Reviewer” program. I am very torn here between outright enthusiasm about much of the depth of information, and the buzzkill (somewhat literally) of its author's attitudes and crusades. My first qualms come, as they often do, with the title/subtitle … I, frankly, expected a quite different book than what this ended up being, something along the lines of a marketing tell-all about “hacking” our minds and “corporate takeovers” of our bodies. Nope. Not even close. While Lustig rails against “Big Sugar” and other societal bogeymen, very little info here verges into the practical tell-all territory of, say, Ryan Holiday's Trust Me, I'm Lying, or similar marketing books, which is what the front of this would have suggested to me, were I walking past it in a bookstore.

The author has been in a long battle with sugar and fats (and obesity and resultant disease), with a number of publications out on the subject (most notably, apparently, his Fat Chance which is name-checked on the cover). One can hardly fault his background … he did his undergrad work at M.I.T., got his M.D. at Cornell, has a law degree, is a pediatric endocrinologist specializing in childhood obesity & neuroendocrinology, and “has authored 120 peer-reviewed articles and 70 reviews” … and his medical training is certainly key in the parts of this that I found most valuable. However, there were various “red flags” for me here, not least of which is that he's based out of the University of California, San Francisco, which, while not Berkeley, is unarguably the “ground zero” region for loony-tunes public policy advocates, and one has to wonder if his particular crusades would find far less support in more politically/philosophically moderate settings.

Anyway, in the broadest of broad strokes, the book is about brain chemistry, the body's reaction and processing of various substances, how these systems have parallels in other behavior, and how those behaviors are encouraged by those making money on them. Oh, and how pretty much anything that we're evolutionary hard-wired to want to consume is bad for us.

Despite the above, there is a certain measure of humor in the book, with self-depreciating asides counterbalancing the occasional jabs at certain groups and individuals. And, ultimately, the core of the book is philosophical, with two sets of paralleled related concepts: pleasure and happiness, and reward and contentment.
… because pleasure and happiness, for all their apparent similarity, are separate phenomena, and in their extreme function as opposites. In fact, pleasure is the slippery slope to tolerance and addiction, while happiness is the key to long life. But, 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.

Reward and contentment are both positive emotions, highly valued by humans, and both reasons for initiative and personal betterment. It's hard to be happy if you derive no pleasure for your efforts – but this is exactly what is seen in the various forms of addiction. Conversely, if you are perennially discontent, as is so often seen in patients with clinical depression, you may lose the impetus to better your social position in life, and it's virtually impossible to derive reward for your efforts. Reward and contentment rely on the presence of the other. Nonetheless, they are decidedly different phenomena. Yet both have been slowly and mysteriously vanishing from our global ethos as the prevalence of addiction and depression continue to climb.
While the above may seem like an extensive quote, he follows this with two pages of contrasting reward and contentment … which is awesome stuff, but I guess you'll have to pick up the book to get into those. And, mind you, I've not even gotten out of the introduction at this point.

He notes that most of the work in this area has been done on animal models (and can you compare “depression” in a rat with depression in a human?), and that “most human studies … are correlative, not causative … you can only say that two things are related to each other” (following up this with a page of details regarding brain scans, blood tests, neurochemicals, etc.). He also notes 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. As a New Yorker, I admit that if someone tells me to jump, my first two words in response are not “How high?”
In the first chapter here, he primarily looks at the idea of happiness (in relation to pleasure), from word roots and historical contexts, on through global polling and even genetic factors. He says that the book is about our culture not distinguishing between the related reward and contentment, even at the biochemical level, noting that this becomes “the basis for many of today's most successful marketing strategies”, and drives “the six biggest industries which sell us various hedonistic substances (tobacco, alcohol, food) and behavioral triggers (guns, cars, energy)”.

The second chapter is about cause and effect … “You see declining school performance. I see inefficient brain mitochondria. … You see drugs of abuse. I see presynaptic transporters of postsynaptic receptors. … “, etc. Pre- what, post- what? Yes, the science stuff … he goes on to say “we're gong to need a very short (I promise) course in neuroscience”. Now, here's where it gets frustrating for me, I really enjoy this part of the book, but it's an amazing rush of info, and I'm guessing putting much of any of the details here will just be confusing (let alone taking up way too much space), so I'm going to try to cherry-pick some items that will help make later stuff make sense. These various experiences have their roots in brain chemistry …
The reward pathway utilizes the neurotransmitter dopamine to communicate between the neurons of the ventral tegmental area (VTA) and the dopamine receptors of the nucleus accumbens (NA) to generate the feelings of motivation that attend reward and learning.

The contentment pathway utilizes the neurotransmitter serotonin to communicate between neurons of the dorsal raphe nucleus (DRN) and multiple sites throughout the cerebral cortex, where the brain interprets impulses as “good” or “bad”.

The stress-fear-memory pathway consists of four areas. The amygdala, or your “stress” center, is in communication with the hypothalmus (at the base of the brain), which controls the stress hormone cortisol. The hipocampus or your “memory” center interprets memories as both good and bad. … The fourth area is the pre-frontal cortex (PFC) … that inhibits behaviors that put you at risk. …
If you think that's a lot, those are actually just the describing labels for graphics of the brain … the actual copy related to these is much more rambling (it describes the vagus nerve – shut down by the hypothalmus in times of stress – as “the vegging, chillaxing nerve”) and detailed. Speaking of detailed, there is a lot of fascinating stuff in here of receptor sites, molecules that bind to those, how these get processed, and sent on to trigger other things … but there are lots of these, so if you like this stuff as much as I do, you're going to have to pick up a copy of the book. Since these three pathways come into play a lot in the book, I guess I'm going to throw in the following as well:
      These three pathways generate virtually all human emotion, and in particular those of reward and contentment. The motivation for reward is experienced when the dopamine signal reaches the NA. A host of different stimuli (power, gambling, shopping, internet, substances) generate signals of reward, but that internal feeling of reward is pretty much the same whatever the trigger. This is also why virtually any stimulus that generates reward, when taken to the extreme, can also lead to addiction. …
      Conversely, while experiencing happiness is predicated upon sending the serotonin signal, the actual interpretation of that signal isn't as simple. It also depends on the receptor that is receiving that signal, which changes how you experience it. …
Speaking of receptors, there's one that's found in many of these brain pathways, the CB1 receptor, which is geared to connect with anandamide, an endogenous brain compound, which is similar enough to marijuana's psychoactive component, THC, that either works to alleviate anxiety, heighten mood, increase social functioning, and makes us want to eat (cf. “the munchies”). There was a drug developed a decade ago called rimonabant, which was leveraging the latter of those effects to be a quite successful anti-obesity drug. Users lost a lot of weight, largely due to no longer getting any pleasure from eating. Unfortunately, “they derived no pleasure from anything”, and 21% of those on the prescription developed clinical depression, with many committing suicide. Lustig says this “clearly demonstrates that the biochemistry drives the behavior – and the emotions”, and suggests “that reward-seeking behavior is a double-edged sword”, with benefits to the species, but not necessarily to the individual (a section on love/lust follows, which I'm skipping due to the complexity, as it involves “two different neurotransmitters … two different brain areas of residence … two different targets of action … two different sets of receptors, and two different regulatory systems … each influences the other”).

This brings us to Part II (of V), only 15% through the book. Obviously, my concern with running 10,000 words up top was right on the money if I keep up this way. There are a few things in this part that I found quite engaging, that I want to get in here, but the latter 3 parts I think I can skim over a bit, as they're more “social” and thereby lend themselves to paraphrasing more than the chemistry does.

The title to Chapter 3 is “Desire and Dopamine, Pleasure and Opioids”, which would make a nice combo of album names for the right band. He starts this out noting that “regardless of the species, the motivation to attain reward (eat, fight, mate) remains virtually intact and unchanged throughout evolution” and points out the role of cash in our culture “because money buys prestige and power and sex and big toys”. And all forms of reward have the danger of manifesting addiction (as he notes, “one reward is never enough”, or as the great Tom Lehrer put it: “More, more, I'm still not satisfied!”).

I wish I could stick some of the chemistry graphics from this in here (that's both iffy on “fair use”, and impractical working from an ARC, as the images in here are low-res versions of what I assume to be in the final published edition), because they're fascinating, such as the four steps of “dopamine synthesis and metabolism” and “synthesis and metabolism of serotonin”, which feature juicy descriptions such as “The amino acid tyrosine is acted on by the enzyme tyrosine hydroxylase and receives a hydroxyl group to form L-DOPA” (you see the difficulty with paraphrasing here) … plus one that I think I'll end up at least walking through here in a bit.

The next chapter, 4 - “Killing Jiminy: Stress, Fear, and Cortisol”, deals pretty much with the words there, but with a lot of details on stuff like the “cascade” of chemicals that lead to cortisol, and the dance of the amygdala and the PFC (prefrontal cortex) in behavior. An interesting point brought up here is that, with repeated chemical assault, neurons with specific receptors can be killed off and they don't grow back. Chapter 5, “The Descent into Hades” picks up on this:
There's a price to pay for reward. It used to be measured in dollars, pounds, or yen, but now it's measured in neurons. As the monetary price of reward fell, the physiological price of reward skyrocketed.
This deals with the way reward drops with repetition, and how this can lead to outright addiction, he notes: “If the post-synaptic neurons are only damaged but still alive, your dopamine receptors can regenerate over time.” … but if you don't stop the behavior, the neurochemical process can “snowball”, with reactions all up and down the pathway getting critical. Of course (and this is most clearly illustrated in heroin users), timing the cessation of behavior is key, because otherwise there will be withdrawal, as the body tries to deal with the sudden change of chemistry, and going back after a time (to one's previous “normal” dose) can manifest as an overdose, being more than the now-less-tolerant systems can handle. He lists the 11 criteria (in a somewhat more discursive mode than this list currently defining addictive disorders), and then discusses a number of different examples, and the brain chemistry behind them, including one fellow (illustrating “addiction transfer”) who goes from being hooked on cigarettes, to alcohol, and then sugar (and “wanting to tear his eyes out” when he tried to kick that addiction). This leads into a look at John Pemberton, the Atlanta pharmacist that invented Coca-Cola, who had become addicted to morphine following the Civil War and “developed his sacred formula {as part of} a long-standing attempt to wean himself off his addiction”. He spent 21 years searching for an opium-free painkiller, and:
Ultimately, he developed a concoction that included cocaine, alcohol, caffeine, and sugar. Four separate hedonic substances, four somewhat weaker dopamine/reward drugs, to take the place of one very strong one.
I'd love to type up the paragraph here where he walks down the list from heroin to sugar (on three levels of access), but while it's charming, it's a bit long (but fingers grandma as a reliable sugar “dealer”), so you'll have to pick up a copy. There is this, however, that plays into the later chapters:
Everyone has become a willing consumer of the two lowest common denominators. Sugar and caffeine are diet staples for much of the world today. Coffee is the second most important commodity (behind petroleum), and sugar is fourth.
Which brings us to Chapter 6, “The Purification of Addiction”, which starts out with a very interesting overview of the history of “hedonic substances” – noting that “prior to the eighteenth century, virtually every stimulus that generated reward was hard to come by”, and aside from behaviors such as gambling and prostitution, there was pretty much only sugar and alcohol to be had. He walks through assorted historic notes: the Yamnaya people were trading cannabis 10,000 years ago, the Sumerians first referenced opium in 5,000 bce, the first mention of wine is in 4,000 bce, and the first mention of a commercial brewery in Egypt in 3,500 bce … and the first description of addiction is in China around 1,000 ce.

The next bits in here are pretty much sociological and economic. There is a 67% use rate of alcohol in the adult U.S. population, with nearly a quarter of those being “binge drinkers”. Lustig notes that the profit margin for “Big Pharma” is 18%, but contrasts that with the processed food industry (big users of sugar) at a whopping 45%. He points out that “virtually all humans have a sweet tooth … it's inscribed into our DNA”, and implies that this is evolutionary “because there are no foodstuffs on the planet that are both sweet and acutely poisonous”. Sugar “was a condiment” up until WW2, when the drive to create new-better-faster overtook the food supply, and really started to get into everything in 1975, with the introduction of high-fructose corn syrup. The two types of dietary sugar, glucose and fructose, have interesting differences. On one hand, Lustig describes fructose as “vestigial”, being that “there is no biochemical reaction that requires it”, yet glucose is essential, and “if you don't consume it, your liver makes it”. They also differ in how they impact the brain (in scans), with glucose activating “consciousness and movement” areas, and fructose lighting up the reward pathway “and several sites in the stress-fear-memory pathway”. The rest of this chapter delves into particulars about sugar, and controversies of making an essential food item an “addictive substance”.

This brings us to Part III of the book, looking at “contentment”, with its first chapter (#7), being the rather straight-forwardly titled “Contentment and Serotonin”. This first looks at what drugs “evidenced the greatest societal impact” … Lustig claims it to be Prozac, citing the figures that between 16-18% of Americans are likely to suffer major depressive disorder, “and that any given moment 6 to 8 percent of the people you know are affected”. He says “psychiatric drugs are truly a miracle of Western Civilization”, yet modern psychopharmacology arose from a “serendipitous finding” involving a tuberculosis drug that vastly improved the moods of those taking it. When Prozac (the first in the class of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors – SSRIs – currently the #3 most prescribed class of drugs) came out in 1986, its prescriptions exploded, largely because it was effective for both “retarded” (would kill myself if I had the energy) and “agitated” (anxious, irritable, sleepless, and miserable) depression. One of the effects of this was “in-patient psychiatric facilities closed faster than Blockbuster Video … there weren't enough depressed people in the hospitals to keep them open”. While currently “more people under the age of sixty-five take antidepressants than any other medication”“there's no biomarker for depression, no blood test that your doctor can administer”, and the diagnosis of depression is based on a questionnaire that scores subjective responses – perhaps being the reason so many end up on these drugs. Most of the rest of this chapter looks at the brain chemistry of serotonin, but there was one factoid I thought I'd pass along … while dopamine has only five different receptors (with two of those handling most of the traffic), serotonin has at least fourteen, making “it very difficult to piece together what is happening in any specific brain area”. One of the main take-aways from this is: “the quest for happiness begins and ends with optimization of your serotonin neurotransmission” (throw in 42, and you've pretty much got all the big questions answered).

OK, so next is probably the most “fun” chapter here, #8 – “Picking the Lock to Nirvana”, which deals with hallucinogens. There is another graphic here that I wish I could reproduce – it shows the chemical structures of serotonin, psilocybin (“shrooms”), LSD (“acid”), mescaline (“peyote”), and MDMA (“ecstasy”), all of which have extremely similar forms. In the caption Lustig notes:
The tryptamine derivatives psilocybin and LSD can bind to both the serotonin-2a receptor (the mystical experience) and the serotonin-1a receptor (contentment). The phenylethlamine compound mescaline binds only to the serotonin-2a receptor. MDMA or ecstasy … not only binds to the serotonin-2a receptor, it binds to the dopamine receptor as well.
Much of this chapter involves the research in this area, the political responses (sub-section “The Feds Raid the Party”), but also looks at the resurgence of hallucinogens in a number of fields, especially in hospice situations, where they can be much less isolating than heavy doses of opiates (and, in an a study that I encountered elsewhere, the use of ketamine to treat depression) … and at some more of the chemistry. He describes a 1997 study which was looking at specific reactions of different brain areas to hallucinogens, starting with the visual cortex, Lustig reports: Injection of radio-labeled psilocybin lights up the visual cortex like a Christmas tree.”

He closes this chapter with a bit of a warning, which, I suppose, speaks to the overall thesis of the book:
      We are our biochemistry, whether we like it or not. And our biochemistry can be manipulated. Sometimes naturally and sometimes artificially. Sometimes by ourselves but sometimes by others. Sometimes for good and sometimes for ill.
Next up is Ch. 9, “What You Eat in Private You Wear in Public”, which deals with food and brain chemistry. This looks at how you get serotonin from tryptophan – “the basic ingredient to inner contentment”. There's the better part of a page here walking the reader through the chemistry, with one take-away being that only about 1% of the tryptophan ends up as serotonin in the brain eliciting the comment “It's no wonder we're unhappy.”. He discusses the relationship between serotonin and sleep, and notes that our consumption of large amounts of sugar and caffeine doesn't help. As one would guess from the chapter's title, he goes into a lot of types of food, which leads him to introducing “metabolic syndrome”, a number of chronic metabolic diseases:
… heart disease, hypertension, blood lipid problems such as hypertriglyceridemia, type 2 diabetes, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, chronic kidney disease, polycystic ovarian disease, cancer, and dementia …
He uses metabolic syndrome as a bit of a catch-all, from suggesting that well-marbled beef comes from cows with it (that just got butchered before getting sick from it), to pretty much “what ails ya”. This then moves into looking at gut bacteria, and omega-3 fatty acids (noting that the best source of these is in algae – we typically get it secondhand from fish), including lots of details that I'm sparing you.

Did I mention that there are 19 chapters, each addressing a different topic (in considerable, and sometimes quite technical, detail)? We're up to Chapter 10, “Self-Inflicted Misery: The Dopamine-Cortisol-Serotonin Connection”, which could be called “Stress, Drugs, and Rock & Roll Brain Chemistry” featuring MDMA, LSD, the functions of the DRN (dorsal raphe nucleus), a quote from George Bernard Shaw, references to the Dalai Lama and Scarface, and insomnia, depression, & suicide. Lustig charts out the chemistry involved in depression, addiction, and unhappiness (which “hovers at 43 percent of all Americans … {who are} on the same spectrum as those who are clinically depressed, they're just not as severe”), while suggesting that we might have less “free will” than we suppose (“Our environment has been engineered to make sure our choices are anything but free.”), leading us into the next Part, IV – “Slaves to the Machine: How Did We Get Hacked?”

In the last two Parts, things get somewhat murky, as the book moves from chemistry into sociology (to pick one descriptor of several that could apply). I'm opting to deal with Part IV as a continuum, something that aligns with Lustig's note about these five chapters saying that he'll demonstrate:
… how the confusion between these two terms {reward and contentment} in the name of “progress” has inflicted personal, economic, historic, cultural, and health / health care detriments to individuals and to society in general. Moreover, this confusion continues to be stoked by industry and government in order to preserve and sustain persistent economic growth at the expense of the populace.
He starts off with the Declaration of Independence's “happiness”, first noting the decline in the mean American life span over recent years, going into a lot of demographic data, and breaking that down by race, and making other assertions along those lines (and throwing in an Eagles lyric quote to liven things up). From the Declaration, he visits Thomas Jefferson, and George Mason, from whom was borrowed the “happiness” bit, which got replaced by “property” in the Constitution (cf. the 5th Amendment) … dopamine trumping serotonin. Pivoting on a quote by Aristotle, he then looks at drugs, both legal and not, with a survey of how strong narcotics, prior to 2000, were primarily available just in intravenous form, but in recent years there has been a growth in oral forms, and doctors prescribing them. This is partly due to a 2001 change in Joint Commission (certification organization) standards that required hospitals to add “pain” as a vital sign, with state boards punishing doctors for inadequately addressing pain. Of course, that's one side of the coin … Lustig notes that in states that have legalized pot, the use of SSRIs have declined inversely proportional to the increase in marijuana use.

Next he gets into contrasting happiness (the surveys of which peaked in the 1950's, with figures being pretty much steady since 1972) with money. Oddly, studies show that one's level of happiness is not directly tied to one's money, but “how well you are doing relative to everyone else”, and that seems to be true across all settings. This leads to a look at global figures and how the GDP of countries don't predict happiness. The U.S. is #13 on a list of “happiest countries”, with a number of European socialist countries in the top 5, implying that in an artificially “leveled” population, there's less reason to be unhappy with one's position within society. Back in the U.S., a study showed that “contentment demonstrated a logarithmic relationship with income until a maximum of US$75,000 … after that, the relationship disappeared” with more income above that hardly moving the needle – “reward is not contentment, and that increasing reward does not translate into happiness”.

From here he gets into a chapter about individual vs. corporate rights, featuring various historical elements, and a list of what he sees as particularly pernicious, laying most of the blame at the feet of the Supreme Court, and more specifically Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. in a series of decisions in the late 70's. He notes that “… we're all now living in … Powellville. All dopamine all the time with a soupçon of cortisol thrown in to stir the pot.”. Much of this approaches “rant” territory with Lustig launching salvos at various industries, parts of government, and assorted politicians … and outright stating that the manipulation of the brain chemistry from the first parts of the book is both intentional and based on substantial research.

The next chapter gets edgier … “naming names” of corporations the author feels need calling out. These include Coca-Cola, and McDonald's, as well as a handful of media pushing sugar, caffeine, and alcohol. From there he turns to the whole erectile dysfunction industry, which stands in for the more general use of “fear” in marketing, and raising the question of what separates “marketing” from “propaganda”, and introduces (to me, at least) the term neuromarketing, which is based on facial coding and other analyses of subjects being exposed to marketing materials. Next to get roasted are smartphones, with issues raised from accidents while texting, to anxiety issues related to gaming, to the medium being used as a vehicle for “bullying”. This then slides into a look at Facebook, which strangely segues into the economics of the stock market, “elastic” vs. “inelastic” price gauging of products, and this in relation to “hedonic stimuli” such as alcohol, gambling, and, of course, sugar (which Lustig claims “wastes $1.8 trillion in health care spending”). The last chapter of this part is called “The Death Spiral”, and is a less-than-cheery look at disease, health care, insurance, and Social Security (described, accurately, as a “legal Ponzi scheme”). The main take-away here is basically that we're screwed – on several fronts.

The last part of the book is “Out of Our Minds – in Search of the 4 C's”, which are (to not leave you hanging): “Connect”, “Contribute”, “Cope”, and (oddly) “Cook”, and, as you might suspect, these are also the topics covered in the last four chapters. Here the author attempts to chart a way out of the “corporate takeover of our bodies and brains” of the subtitle. This starts with reviewing the serotonin material (with focus on “-1a” receptor) preceding, dips back into the hallucinogen studies (with the “-2a” receptor), and then drifts into religion. Here he goes into a quick run-through of various experiments on believers and non-believers, even to folks in 12-step programs, and comes up with the concept that “it's the social engagement or emotional bonding that correlates with contentment”. This then moves into a look at how our social structures may have evolved, the benefits of “performing acts of compassion”, how contact with others can effect us (à la one study that suggested “obesity can be transmitted within social groups”), how much of the brain gets involved with processing feelings of rejection, and why “social media” doesn't quite stack up as “social” interactions as far a brain chemistry is concerned.

The next chapter, “Contribute”, deals with value exchanges – primarily money, of course. One interesting study cited had a group of lottery winners, compared with a control group, compared to a group of accident victims, both of the non-control groups had “spikes” (positive and negative) of happiness in the short term, “but over the next several months each group's level of subjective happiness returned to baseline levels”. This leads into a discussion of food (with the interesting data point that the U.S. spends 6.7% of the GDP on food, vs. both the French and Japanese who spend more than twice that, at 14% … noting that we buy lots of subsidized foodstuffs). He then introduces some work on materialism and sense of well-being, including the suggestion that there's an inverse correlation between these (which he backs up with a Ben Franklin quote). Next comes a look at work situations, “altruism vs. spite” (involving interpersonal games and related brain activity), messing with behavior by dosing with citalopram (an SSRI that increases serotonin), the psychology of Chinese depending on whether the lived north or south of the Yangtze, a pitch for volunteering (which “improved depression, life satisfaction, and well-being, as well as … a 22 percent reduction in risk for death”), and some brain chemistry related to donating money vs. having similar amounts put in play via taxation.

In “Cope” the topics of sleep, mindfulness, and exercise are considered, in relation of the concept of “adaptive or maladaptive” stress. Much of this has to do with nurturing the prefrontal cortex (which needs all three of those), but “unfortunately, our environment has claimed our PFC as collateral damage”. The sections dealing with sleep are a bit “naggy”, with all sorts of studies about sleep deprivation (which costs the U.S. economy $83 billion a year), plus dictates about how you should sleep (turn off the TV – he must not have hyperactive squirrels running around in his head that need to be distracted some nights!). He moves from nagging about the TV to nagging about “screens” in general, and then runs this into a rant about multitasking. This gets contrasted with meditation, which he not only recommends but touches on a couple of practices, and notes that regular meditators “have clear differences in brain structure”, although he does admit that there's no clear answer regarding if it's people with those brain differences who choose to meditate, or if meditation causes these changes. He mentions some mindfulness programs, and uses these to segue into the exercise topic via a study that used mindfulness training as an add-on for one group of obese subjects. This then goes into the differences between “visceral” and “subcutaneous” fat, the former being “the driver of the diseases of metabolic syndrome and depression”. Remarkably, there are studies indicating that mindfulness meditation can decrease this fat, and other studies showing the effects of exercise between pairs of twins. He, of course, suggests that exercise is likely to improve mood, and could be boosted in combination with meditation.

Finally, we end up at “Cook”, which seems to be an odd spin on this, except that he's framed this in contrast to “toxic food” (that stuff that's being sold to us – especially sugar). He has a bunch of statistics here, one of the more telling is that the American Heart Association's recommendations for sugar consumption for children is just 3-4 teaspoons per day, when the actual consumption is 22 teaspoons per day (for adults, it's 9 and 19.5 … unless you're not Caucasian, with those demographic groups consuming a quarter to a half more). What makes this a difficult subject on a personal level is that only about 51% of the sugar we consume is in forms (desserts, etc.) that we'd recognize as sugar – the other 49% is essentially invisible, added into almost everything to provide end-user appeal: bulk, coloring, flavor, moisture, and preservative functions. However, some of his figures look pretty iffy from where I'm sitting (for instance: “sugared beverages alone account for 180,000 deaths per year worldwide” … uh, OK). The remainder of the chapter is a pretty rough attack on all things sugar (especially those nefarious folks who constitute “Big Sugar”), and recommendation that sugar be subject to the same sort of governmental assault as was levied at tobacco over the past half century or so.

Anyway, I really didn't expect (or want) this to go as long as it has (nearly 6,000 words!), but there is so much info in The Hacking of the American Mind, that I really felt like I wasn't doing it justice to do a non-orbital fly-by and call it “reviewed”. Of course, the science of this probably attracts me more than most, so you've had to suffer through some of that, but I assure you, I only skimmed the surface. While I don't agree with the author's Big Government solution to Big Sugar, the non-political parts are very interesting, and this would likely be a good read for anybody interested in what goes on in their brain, or what goes into their mouths. This just came out a couple of months back, so should be available a the surviving brick-and-mortar book stores, and the online guys currently are knocking nearly 40% off the price … so you might consider getting your hands on a copy.


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