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How Do Companies Engineer Our Unhappiness?
In The Hacking of the American Mind, Robert Lustig holds up a much needed mirror to our consumption habits.
Though Robert Lustig is best known for his role as a pediatric endocrinologist—his 2009 lecture, “Sugar: The Bitter Truth,” has been viewed on Youtube over 7.3 million times—he conducted six years of postdoctoral research in science at Rockefeller University; he also worked in a neuropharmacology lab at MIT as an undergrad. He may have made his mark in neuroendocrinology and childhood obesity, but he began his career studying the brain.
This was back before imaging data and MRI were available. Still, over thirty years ago, he recognized a behavioral connection between dopamine and serotonin. This chemical awareness remained in the back of his consciousness until he was working on his first book, Fat Chance, a scathing critique of the sugar industry and addiction, in 2011. A few year later he was leading psychiatric rounds when he met a recovering heroin addict.
The woman told him she had found pleasure in kicking heroin. Lustig raised an eyebrow. Heroin provides pleasure. Sobriety offers contentment. In other words, heroin is dopamine, recovery serotonin. This woman had it backwards. She was confusing her newfound happiness with pleasure.
Do words matter? Lustig thinks so. His new book, The Hacking of the American Mind: The Science Behind the Corporate Takeover of Our Bodies and Brains, depends on this argument. Happiness originally meant to be content. We’ve become so accustomed to the immediate reward offered by dopamine—through food, technology, pharmaceuticals, and other salable means—we’ve forgotten true happiness arises from the slow unfolding of contentment. His book is an attempt to take the word back.
First, Lustig had to understand how the word has been coopted. As he recently told me,
If you’re told by every TV commercial and everybody you know that you’re unhappy, to ‘buy this and you’ll be happy,’ you start to believe them. But it doesn’t make you happy; it actually makes you unhappy. It works for industry because it gets you to buy more, but it doesn’t work for us.
The root of happiness is hap, which means “luck.” Words such as happenstance and perhaps express chance occurrences. Lustig believes the original intention of happiness should be more akin to Aristotle’s term, eudemonia, which the philosopher coined as a synonym for “contentment.” Lustig admits happiness has a cultural connotation—a Christian and Buddhist might define the term quite differently. Given the global uptick in addictions and psychological disorders, a redefinition makes sense.
Lustig uses Nicholas Freudenberg’s “corporate consumption complex”—tobacco, alcohol, food, guns, cars, and energy—as an example of companies selling us “hedonic substances”: products that go above and beyond our survival necessities that simultaneously tap into our brain’s reward pathway, which is in stark contrast to its contentment pathway.
In the reward pathway, dopamine is the vehicle of communication between our ventral tegmental area (VTA) and nucleus accumbens (NA), the region that attends to rewards. The NA is a “learning pathway.” Habits are formed here. If a habit brings us pleasure we repeat the routine. Hello one-click. Endogenous opioid peptides (EOPs) are released when engaging in this routine. If that term sounds familiar, that’s because it’s the same pathway morphine and heroin use to generate pleasure. As with those substances, social media and shopping feel good until we need a stronger, then a stronger dose, until we’re hooked. We never have enough because more just feels so good.
The contentment pathway is altogether different. The dorsal raphe nucleus (DRN), located in the midbrain, sends serotonin through the cerebral cortex. The result is not the quick rush of pleasure, but rather the relaxed sensation of feeling at ease in your skin. You don’t need more because you realize you already have so much.
Unfortunately, the dopamine loop is more seductive. When I mention the recent New Yorker investigation of the Sacklers, the family that engineered the opioid crisis while taking no responsibility for their aggressive and misleading marketing of Oxycontin, Lustig replies,
I have talked with many Coca-Cola executives who will not let their children drink it.
Which is reminiscent of the Facebook “like” creator disconnecting from technology and Steve Jobs refusing to let his kids use an iPad. Earning billions of dollars from addictive products while avoiding the trappings of those products is morally bankrupt. Lustig tells me it’s rather clear-cut, though. In October, 2013 he spoke to the Mexican government about the possibility of a proposed soda tax. In a closed door session he was told,
We don’t care who lives or dies; it makes no difference. It’s about the money. You have to show us how this is going to either make us or saves money.
Lustig did just that. The tax passed in 2014. Two years later it appears that besides saving nearly 19,000 lives, revenue from the tax will save nearly a billion dollars in health care costs. The data are there. The challenge is getting companies and governments to pay attention.
Which is the opposite direction America is headed. Lustig writes that the American processed food industry rakes in $1.46 billion per year, with 45 percent being profit, while the health care system spends $3.2 trillion, with 75 percent of the diseases treated being avoidable. The imbalance is stark. We pay into a destructive food system that we again pay into at the other end. Though the numbers are clear, we’re doing little about it.
The entire food supply is contaminated; people don’t even know what food is today. We explain to parents what food is because to many of them Cheetos are food. And if you think Cheetos are food then you’re never going to get it.
While Lustig is refreshingly critical of various industries throughout his book, his “Four C’s” are prescriptive:
The Hacking of the American Mind is an empowering observation of the modern American mindset, one that has been engineered to keep us consuming from birth to death. Reverse engineering our way out of this mess requires a diligent resurgence of serotonin. Patience has long been considered a virtue. For it to work, we have to employ it. As Lustig shows, now is the perfect time to do so.
Derek is the author of Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health. Based in Los Angeles, he is working on a new book about spiritual consumerism. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.
A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.
- There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
- A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
- Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.
First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)
Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.
All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.
Image source: European Space Agency
The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.
Into and out of Earth's shadow
In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.
The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."
In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."
When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.
The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.
BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.
MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.
Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.
Research suggests that aging affects a brain circuit critical for learning and decision-making.
As people age, they often lose their motivation to learn new things or engage in everyday activities. In a study of mice, MIT neuroscientists have now identified a brain circuit that is critical for maintaining this kind of motivation.
Why not just divide the United States in slices of equal population?
- Slicing up the country in 10 strips of equal population produces two bizarre maps.
- Seattle is the biggest city in the emptiest longitudinal band, San Antonio rules the largest north-south slice.
- Curiously, six cities are the 'capitals' of both their horizontal and vertical deciles.
Sweeping re-alignments<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDYwMTAwOC9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyMzU3ODA1NH0.u_5xakBvkYwgPtiwLU3z-1e082hBeqwS4Rl1uiJqdF4/img.png?width=980" id="23ff1" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="24a5b6ec251a11f3ed7aaefc205dde17" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="Printed in March 1812, this political cartoon was drawn in reaction to the newly drawn state senate election district of South Essex created by the Massachusetts legislature to favor the Democratic-Republican Party candidates of Governor Elbridge Gerry over the Federalists. The caricature satirizes the bizarre shape of a district in Essex County, Massachusetts, as a dragon-like "monster". Federalist newspaper editors and others at the time likened the district shape to a salamander, and the word gerrymander was a portmanteau of that word and Governor Gerry's last name." />
The original cartoon of the 'Gerry-Mander', published in 1812 in the Boston Centinel.
Image: Elkanah Tisdale (1771-1835), Public Domain.<p>One way for a political party to manipulate the outcome of elections is to 'gerrymander' electoral districts: manipulate their boundaries to increase the likelihood of a favorable outcome (see also #<a href="https://bigthink.com/strange-maps/53-ever-been-ger..." target="_blank">53</a>).</p><p><span></span>The term is almost as old as the United States itself, and the practice continues to disfigure the electoral map to this day. Perhaps these maps can serve as the inspiration for a radical solution. </p><p><span></span>They show the contiguous United States (i.e. without Alaska and Hawaii) sliced latitudinally and longitudinally into ten straight-bordered bands of varying size, so that each contains exactly 10 percent of the population. </p><p><span></span>Although certainly not intended as a reflection on electoral redistricting, it's tempting to see these sweeping re-alignments of the U.S. as a suggestion with some potential in that direction. </p>
United Strips of America<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDYwMTA4MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NzE1MjQ1MX0.WpISo-g15B5O3qXbHXHf-7lQtAainpO7zPuizXWFOGs/img.jpg?width=980" id="d6656" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="72ed7c905283f9979ec0f82d451ad261" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="Reddit user curiouskip used U.S. Census population data to divide the 'Lower 48' into deciles (ten equal parts), each representing about 30.8 million people. Each decile is consigned its most populous city as 'capital'." />
The contiguous United States, divided into horizontal and vertical deciles.
Image: u/curiouskip, reproduced with kind permission.<p>Reddit user curiouskip used U.S. Census population data to divide the 'Lower 48' into deciles (ten equal parts), each representing about 30.8 million people. Each decile is consigned its most populous city as 'capital'.</p><p><span></span>Looking at the top map, which divides the U.S. into 10 longitudinal strips, we see</p><ul><li>Seattle rules the northernmost slice of territory. It is the broadest, and therefore also the emptiest one.</li><li>The Chicago, Omaha, New York City and Indianapolis strips complete the northern half of the country. And indeed: 50 percent of the population occupies roughly one half of the country, from north to south.</li><li>The dividing line between the top and bottom halves of the country runs from just north of the San Francisco Bay to halfway across the Delmarva Peninsula.</li><li>Capital cities of the southern strips are San Jose, Charlotte, Los Angeles, San Diego, and Houston.</li><li>The Houston Strip is divided into two non-contiguous areas. Florida maintains its panhandle, albeit much reduced. </li></ul><p>The bottom map shows the U.S. divided latitudinally into 10 bands of equal population. </p><ul><li>San Jose and Los Angeles both retain their capital status, this time of the two westernmost strips.</li><li>San Antonio is the main city of the Big Empty, more than twice as wide as the second-broadest band.</li><li>The dividing line between America's eastern and western half, population-wise, is far off-center: it skirts the eastern edge of Chicago, making the western half much bigger than the eastern one.</li><li>Houston, Chicago, and Indianapolis also remain the largest cities in their respective bands.</li><li>Further east, Jacksonville and Philadelphia get to rule over their strip of America, while Charlotte and New York City keep winning, both vertically and horizontally.</li></ul><p>Redistricting a country into zones of equal population – and that being your only criterium – will create districts that are randomly diverse, and perhaps also, at least in this case, unmanageably large. </p><p>However, mixing up the political map with a bunch of straight lines as the only instrument is something that has been considered before. Usually, the objective is the wholesale removal of age-old divisions. <br></p>
Perfectly square departments<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDYwMTEzOS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYwOTQyMzIwOH0.kYuf58g0bjsPL9DGPq5PycZ7PDJMnItT0rfrPonOP3k/img.jpg?width=980" id="89a68" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="5b81a43e785997bb1f11f72548659a9f" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="\u200bCh\u00e2ssis figuratif du territoire de la France partag\u00e9 en divisions \u00e9gales entre elles, proposition annex\u00e9e au rapport du 29 septembre 1789 \u00e0 l'Assembl\u00e9e nationale de la commission dite Siey\u00e8s-Thouret" />
France divided into 80-odd geometrical departments: failed proposal by Jacques-Guillaume Thouret (1790).
Image: Centre historique des Archives nationales – Atelier de photographie; public domain.
European Pie<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDYwMTQ0Ny9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxNTE5NDE3OX0.dPcY1tkO7nwkx6IX98Sleh7AmBpDnwlcJLfC_Z-WBlY/img.jpg?width=980" id="b35d7" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="84509a9425e13c0dd8fbe00df28a197e" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
In this rather outlandish proposal, continental Europe's 24 cantons center on Vienna.
Image: PJ Mode Collection of Persuasive Maps, Cornell University.<p>And in 1920, an anonymous author – possibly the Austrian P.A. Maas – proposed slicing up Post-World-War-I Europe as a pie, into 24 slices that would center on Vienna's St. Stephen's Cathedral. Each of those slices would be made up of a wide and random variety of linguistic, ethnic, and religious groups – and that would be the point: the better to unite them all into one massive superstate (see also #<a href="https://bigthink.com/strange-maps/a-bizarre-peace-proposal-slice-europe-up-like-a-pie" target="_blank">851</a>).</p><p>Needless to say, both plans never left the drawing board. Would a proposal for the longitudinal and/or latitudinal redistricting of the U.S. have more traction? <br></p>
Coast-to-coast precedents<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDYwMTIwOS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MDM2OTE0OX0.52UjcA_YD9Y9UB9_hoSctI_xBrRDALZ2DRLkIo9a8RM/img.jpg?width=980" id="10784" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="1999808ea21e11162fdb9181c3912753" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="Illustration of the Connecticut Charter boundary, 1662" />
Putting the 'connect' into Connecticut: the Nutmeg State extending from the Pacific to the Atlantic.
Image: Connecticuthistory.org<p>Well, for one, coast-to-coast polities have some pedigree in America's past: some of the first colonies had claims that extended from the Atlantic all the way to the Pacific. </p><p>If history had gone entirely the way Connecticut would have wanted, the state would include such inland cities as Detroit, Chicago, and Salt Lake City, and extended to what is now the northern part of California.</p><p>Is such geopolitical weirdness reasonable or feasible today? Absolutely not. But in its randomness, would it be it as unfair as gerrymandering? </p><p><em><br></em></p><p><em>Decile maps of the contiguous United States reproduced with kind permission by u/curiouskip; found <a href="https://www.reddit.com/r/dataisbeautiful/comments/ijyn7p/oc_us_population_deciles_by_latitude_and_longitude/" target="_blank">here</a> on <a href="https://www.reddit.com/" target="_blank">Reddit</a>.<br></em></p><p><strong>Strange Maps #1054</strong></p><p><em>Got a strange map? Let me know at </em><a href="mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org">email@example.com</a><em>.</em></p>