Robert Lustig Explains How to Un-Hack Your Brain

IMG_2217Entering twenty minutes past his scheduled start time, Robert Lustig blew into Kramerbooks on Thursday and delivered a diatribe against the evils of sugar to promote his new book, “The Hacking of the American Mind.”

Lustig, who has achieved fame via a YouTube video about the same subject that has reached over seven million views, is convinced he has the answer to happiness.

“I have a very modest agenda for tonight,” said Lustig. “I expect and hope to solve the healthcare crisis, solve the social security crisis, solve the opioid crisis, solve the depression crisis, and make America happy again. Let’s see how we do.”

Lustig was bombastic and emphatic during his hour and a half long speech. He frequently called out to the audience for their participation and response, which was stacked with friends and admirers.

During his several-slide-a-minute presentation, Lustig took a drive-by shot at the high costs of Obamacare, reminded the audience that healthcare costs would cause the government to become unable to fund social security by 2035, and then careened on to the differences between visceral and subcutaneous fat. There were many charts and graphs flashed for these topics, but they were whisked away as soon as the audience had an idea of what they were seeing.

Lustig then lectured on the rise of the mountains of sugar he has seen in many of our foods.

“This is the grand plot,” said Lustig. “Not a conspiracy, I am not a conspiracy theorist, a plot.”

The plot, according to him, was allowing more and more sugar to enter our foods that caused us to become unhealthy and yet increasingly addicted to the processed foods we eat. In fact, Lustig has cowritten a cookbook in the past in order to wean us off of that dependency.

“If you don’t know how to cook, you’re hostage to the food industry for the rest of your life,” said Lustig.

At one point early in his speech, Lustig called out to Michelle Mietus-Snyder, a preventive cardiologist who according to Lustig has served as a member of the nutrition committee of the American Heart Association. Lustig asked her to confirm in front of the audience that the “fat hypothesis” – the claim that high-fat diets were causing a rise in metabolic illness – had been debunked by the American Heart Association. Mietus-Snyder confirmed.

To explain the false scapegoating of fat, Lustig said “You’ve been hacked,” which is a phrase he used five times over the course of the evening. He used the word “hack” around a dozen times in total.

Lustig went on to compare sugarcane to the coca leaf and opium, and compared refined sugar in turn to cocaine and heroin (the illegal drugs derived from those raw materials.)

“Sugar is the other white powder,” said Lustig.

Lustig explained the relationship of sugar with dopamine in our brains, a hormone that is often triggered by other addictive substances.

“Sugar is a gateway drug,” said Lustig. “Sugar is the cheapest of all thrills.”

All of this was an attempt to explain Americans’ misguided relationship with happiness. Lustig showed the preamble of the Declaration of Independence as an introduction to our issues with depression and happiness.

“Everybody recognizes this document,” said Lustig. “There’s one line everybody in the whole world knows: ‘Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.’”

The pursuit of happiness, to Lustig, has been conflated with the pursuit of pleasure, which is distinct from happiness. Representations of delirious pleasure masked as happiness such as the music video for Pharrell’s “Happy” and a Saturday Night Live short starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus entitled “Heroin AM” appeared around halfway through the presentation in order to demonstrate the absurdity of our conflation of pleasure and happiness.

“Funny? Not so funny,” said Lustig. “The ultimate hack [is] the substitution and conflation of these two words: pleasure and happiness.”

The final section of Lustig’s presentation was devoted to simple tips designed to allow the receiver of this advice to finally approach – if not reach – happiness. Lustig divided his advice up into four C’s: connect, contribute, cope, and cook.

Connections, specifically with other people in a face-to-face setting, are meant to drive up empathy and sociability in people through mirror neurons, which help improve happiness because humans receive serotonin, the “happiness” hormone, from the use of these mirror neurons.

Contributing, specifically to some sort of charitable or philanthropic cause, similarly can make a person feel happier, as opposed to spending money on yourself.

“If money’s the thing that drives you, there’s never enough,” said Lustig. “In fact, that’s a great way to get depressed.”

Coping, according to Lustig, is a skill that more people need to develop. Specifically, he advocates for better sleep habits and more mindfulness.

“Multi-tasking: what a load of you-know-what,” said Lustig. He explained that only 2.5 percent of the population could actually multi-task, and that everyone else was only distracting themselves.

“In fact, every time you change from one task to the next, you get a bump of cortisol,” said Lusting, referring to a hormone associated with stress.

Mindfulness, alternatively, exercises a person’s prefrontal cortex, according to Lusting, a region of the brain he refers to as the “Jiminy Cricket.” With greater mindfulness, said Lustig, people can reduce the amount of stress that they feel.

Cooking, Lustig’s final piece of advice, is of course the one most directly associated with his prior research. Lustig advised against stress-eating and warned that processed foods contain unnecessarily high amounts of sugar and too few nutrients.

“Real food is the exact opposite,” said Lustig. “Cook for yourself. It’s connecting – if you’re with your family, it’s contributing, and it’s coping because you have to focus. It’s all of the above, and that is how you get happy.”

Lustig ended his speech by expressing hope that he solved all of the crises that he listed at the outset, and encouraging the members of the audience to take his advice to heart.

“If you’re happy now, hey, fantastic,” said Lustig. “If you’re not happy, you better buy the frickin’ book.”


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