How Propaganda Hacks Our Brains

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Photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from qimono / Pixabay

There was a time when the difference between marketing and propaganda was a bright line. Marketing, in the old days, had some responsibility to tell the truth. At the very least, ads could not be blatantly false. Propaganda, on the other hand, was a construction of lies designed to appeal to our baser instincts and to what we already believed. From a biological perspective, it triggered the dopamine receptors that provide us with immediate and short-term pleasure.

Nowadays, the line between news, marketing and propaganda has become blurred.

Politics, social media and most of our modern technologies are designed by corporate America to provide us with immediate gratification. To trigger our dopamine receptors. The problem is that the long-term effect makes us unhappy and depressed.

At least that is what Dr. Robert Lustig, who is one of the world’s experts on endocrinology, addiction, happiness and depression, claims. Lustig is also a professor at the University of California, San Francisco, where he specializes in neuroendocrinology, and the author of The Hacking of the American Mind. In this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcasts, he talks to Jeff Schechtman about what is essentially the biology of the Trump era.

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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to Radio WhoWhatWhy. I’m Jeff Schechtman. Think about some of the things that occupy us lately. A discussion about Facebook and the impact that it has on our thinking, our attitudes and our decisions. The introduction to the new iPhone, which is always eagerly awaited as if the new phone will be life-changing. The healthcare debate with its focus on opioid addiction and a cost code driven in large measure by the food choices we make. Add to this our polarization, our division, our siloing, our lack of connection, our ability even to make contributions and assuage our conscience simply by clicking or swiping left or right. And our ability to get almost anything we want at any hour, just with a click. It’s fair to say that we’re addicted to all of this. Addicted to modernity. Did all of this just happen or have there been individual decisions and corporate choices that have led us here? And most importantly, what are the consequences?
  We’re going to talk about this today with my guest, Dr. Robert Lustig. He’s a professor of pediatrics in the division of endocrinology and a member of the Institute for Health Policy Studies at the University of California-San Francisco. He’s authored over 120 peer reviewed articles and it is my pleasure to welcome Dr. Robert Lustig here to Radio WhoWhatWhy to talk about the hacking of the American mind, the science behind the corporate takeover of our bodies and brains. Robert Lustig, thanks so much for joining us.
Robert Lustig: Well thank you, Jeff, so much for having me. To be honest with you, after that introduction I think you should’ve written the book.
Jeff Schechtman: Thank you. I want to talk about how you made the leap from writing about our addiction to sugar, our addiction to processed foods to looking at the broader consequences of our addiction to so many things today.
Robert Lustig: Well, as I was researching Fat Chance, which was really about diet and physical health, it became very clear that there was a treasure trove of information about diet and behavioral health that had finally matured in part because we have the FMRI and the pet scanning, the neuro imaging data now to actually know what’s going on. And I’ve been aware of the serotonin dopamine issue for 30 years, since I was a post-doc in New York at Rockefeller University, but we didn’t really have causational data until very recently. So when I was doing the research for Fat Chance, I said, you know, there’s a book here. And then I went to give psychiatry grand rounds here in America at a medical school and the woman who ran the substance abuse recovery program gave me a tour of the facilities and she herself was a reformed heroin addict and I asked her, you know, what getting clean meant to her. And she said, well, when I was shooting up, I was happy. What my new life has given me is pleasure. And I thought to myself, wait a second, that’s exactly wrong. She’s got it exactly turned around.
  I didn’t say anything to her, but I went and talked to a bunch of psychiatry colleagues and they said, oh yeah. Yeah, we hear that all the time. It’s probably why they’re addicted. And I thought to myself, you know, if this lady thinks it, I’ll bet you everybody thinks it. And of course, I’ve heard things like this similar in my obesity clinic.
Jeff Schechtman: And at the core of this, whether we’re talking about sugar or whether we’re talking about Facebook, is this idea of trying to understand what the core of happiness really is and how it differs from pleasure.
Robert Lustig: Exactly. So, if you go online right now and google pleasure and happiness, the definitions that you will see there will be almost identical because we have confused and conflated the two terms to mean virtually the same thing, but they’re not. They’re actually quite different. And I’ll give you the seven differences between pleasure and happiness right now.
  Number one, pleasure is short-lived. Happiness is long-lived. Pleasure is visceral, you feel it in your body. Happiness is ethereal, you feel it above the neck. Number three, pleasure is taking. Happiness is giving. Number four, pleasure is achieved alone. Happiness is usually achieved in social groups. Number five, pleasure can be achieved with substances. Happiness can not be achieved with substances. Number six, the extremes of pleasure, whether it be substances or behaviors, so nicotine, alcohol, cocaine, heroin, sugar or behaviors, gambling, social media, Internet, video games, porn. All in the extreme lead to addiction, whereas there’s no such thing as being addicted to too much happiness. And finally number seven, pleasure is dopamine and happiness is serotonin.
  So, two different neurotransmitters, two different areas of the brain, two different receptors, two different regulatory pathways. So you say to me, like who cares? Big deal. They both feel good. I want them both. Well, so pleasure is the feeling this feels good, I want more. And happiness is this feels good, I don’t want or need anymore. So they are not the same. And knowing the difference is super important.
Jeff Schechtman: What do you see as fundamentally different today with respect to the way this is being used to further addict us to things? You know, back in the late 1950s, there was a book by a guy named Vance Packard called The Hidden Persuaders that talked about the way that marketing was being used we would refer to it today, you would refer to it today, to sort of hack into our brains. What’s different in terms of the way it’s being done today beyond the fact that we understand the mechanism that’s at play?
Robert Lustig: Well, you’re putting up a very good question. What is the difference between marketing and propaganda? Marketing is using information to espouse your point of view. Propaganda is using disinformation to espouse your point of view. The difference is the truth. If you’re telling the truth, it’s marketing. If you’re telling a lie, it’s propaganda. Point is, propaganda does things to our brain because what it does is it gives us a dopamine boost. It makes you zealous. It increases your zealotry, whether it be for any specific political point of view, or any specific religious point of view or any specific material consumption point of view. Ultimately, those are all found in dopamine. And we know that because we’ve done the experiments.
  Back in the 1970s we had a new drug at our disposal for patients with Parkinson’s Disease called L-dopa, which is a precursor to dopamine. And we would give L-dopa to patients with Parkinson’s. They have a dopamine deficiency in an area of the brain called the substantia nigra, which has to do with motor function. And we would give them this drug and they would get better and their motor function would improve. But what we also noted was that a sizable proportion of these patients became compulsive gamblers or religious zealots. And there’s a now wealth of literature on the role of dopamine precursors in driving these aberrant behaviors. So these are dopamine driven and propaganda is a great way to drive your dopamine.
  Conversely, serotonin is the contentment neurotransmitter. Here’s the problem, dopamine is an excitatory neurotransmitter, so neurons want to be excited because after all that’s why they have receptors in the first place, but neurons are fragile. They like to be tickled, not bludgeoned. Dopamine over-stimulation causes neuron cell death. Now, you don’t want that. So neurons have a plan B. They have a self-defense mechanism. What they do is they down- regulate the number of receptors. So in human terms what this means is you get a hit, you get a rush, receptors go down, next time you need a bigger hit to get the same rush and then a bigger hit, and a bigger hit, and a bigger hit until finally you get a huge hit to get nothing. That’s called tolerance. And then when the neurons actually start to die, that’s called addiction.
  But serotonin is an inhibitory neurotransmitter. It doesn’t down-regulate its own receptor. It doesn’t need to. So you can’t overdose on too much happiness, but there’s one thing that down-regulates serotonin, dopamine. So the more pleasure you seek, the more unhappy you get. And when we are propagandized by industries for their purposes to activate our dopamine, we fall into the perpetualness of addiction and depression.
Jeff Schechtman: Except that in the world we live in today where there is the ability on the part of marketers to slice and dice us in a way that so much of the message is about confirmation bias to whatever people may believe, truthful or not, the difference between marketing and propaganda is almost non-existent.
Robert Lustig: Well, indeed, you are absolutely correct. There’s even a new form of marketing now called neuro marketing, where they read the facial expressions on your face in real time as you’re being exposed and alter the message accordingly based on whether or not your facial expressions demonstrate complicity or not. So it’s not about the message itself. It’s about your point of view. This was actually demonstrated by a neuroscientist by the name of Sam Harris, very well published author. He’s known as one of the four horsemen of atheism. He’s a neuroscientist. He did a great study at UCLA about six years ago. Took a bunch of people, 15 religious zealots and 15 atheists, and he put them in the FMRI scanner and he read them messages that either comported with their personal view or were against, they contradicted their personal view. And it turned out whenever he read a statement that comported with their personal view, they got this big dopamine hit. Whenever they heard a statement the opposite, dopamine was absolutely silent.
  So by providing us with messaging whether it’s true or not that comports with our personal view, we get our dopamine driven out of control, driving both addiction and depression and don’t think that’s not what’s coming out of the White House right now.
Jeff Schechtman: And it’s also what’s coming out of Facebook right now.
Robert Lustig: Absolutely. No question. So Facebook argues that lots of subscribers are depressed because they’re depressed to start with and so they’re looking to Facebook for social validation. So they’re saying well the cause and effect relationship has not been established. Well the fact is, it has. Because we have two week time lag analysis data on whole bunches of people that demonstrate that no matter where you start, after two weeks of Facebook, you are more unhappy no matter what your baseline. So we have the time factor analysis that demonstrates the causation. So, yes, Facebook makes you unhappy.
Jeff Schechtman: And of course, the other part of that, kind of the corollary to that, is that it makes us less open to personal connection which you look at as one of the cores of happiness.
Robert Lustig: Absolutely. So, in order to generate serotonin, you have to actually look, eye to eye, face to face, with the person because you have a set of neurons in the back of your head called mirror neurons, which are reading the facial expressions of the person you’re talking to. It’s the same thing neuro marketers are reading. And what you’re doing is you are generating serotonin in response to those facial expressions by adopting those same emotions yourself. It is the process which we call empathy. No empathy, no serotonin. No empathy, you’re a psychopath. And don’t think we don’t have one of those in the White House.
Jeff Schechtman: The idea, though, that all of these things, the impact of Facebook and certainly we all love our technology, but there is a dark side to all of this. We were talking about one of them with respect to Facebook. Another area you talk about that creates this happiness core is the idea for example of contributions. And no matter how empathetic everybody may be to the events that have taken place over the past month or so with all of these storms, there’s a difference between actually contributing on a personal level and simply clicking or swiping left or right to make a contribution.
Robert Lustig: That’s right. So, in order to increase your serotonin you have to contribute. And the question is what does that mean? It does not mean contribute to your IRA. It does not mean contribute to your bank account. And it does not mean generating boy scout badges because that’s actually a reward not contentment. So, in order to contribute you have to contribute outside of yourself. You have to contribute to your friends, your family, to the greater good, if you will, in order to generate that serotonin effect. Now, can you generate contribution from work? And the answer is, yes you can with two provisos. You have to be able to see that your work helps others and your boss has to be able to see it, too. If both of those are true, you can derive happiness from work. But if not, then you’re not going to. Which case, you’re going to be happiness depleted.
  So there are other ways to do it. There’s volunteerism, clubs, teams, sports, affiliation, altruism of various sorts, philanthropy, you can pay somebody to do it for you, giving to the Red Cross is a great way of expressing contribution and generating empathy for a common cause. That’s a good method for dealing with happiness. Bottom line, if you don’t contribute, you don’t get happy.
Jeff Schechtman: Of course the dark side to all that we’ve been talking about in terms of the personal connection as it relates to this idea of confirmation bias and the dopamine rush that comes from that, is the degree to which it is leading today to the kind of tribalism that we see.
Robert Lustig: Oh, indeed. And there’s a whole book actually called Tribe, that talks about this exact issue. The fact is by surrounding yourself only with like-minded people, what you’re doing is you’re basically upping your dopamine like crazy because you’re getting that hit just like the religious zealot getting their personal world view validated. So that is not happiness, that’s dopamine. That’s pleasure. The more the dopamine goes up, the more the serotonin goes down. So in a sense, you’re depriving yourself of the contentment that normally would be facilitated by your interaction with others.
Jeff Schechtman: To what degree is all of this contributing to a kind of generalized depression some of which we’ve seen, some of which may get worse?
Robert Lustig: Well, 24% of Americans are now on SSRIs. In fact, depression is now a worldwide phenomenon. The World Health Organization says that depression has gone up 18.5% in the last 10 years worldwide, 4.4 million clinically depressed individuals. And here in America it’s just gone through the roof, especially in older people. We always think about teen depression. Of course, that’s a big problem and it continues to be. Suicidal ideation is now tripled in teens over the last 10 years, since the advent of cell phones, since the advent of Facebook. This is not good for our society and I would go so far as to say, it is an existential threat to our children, to our country and really to the entire world.
Jeff Schechtman: What do you see that we can do realistically to begin to address some of this?
Robert Lustig: Well, sadly the Supreme Court and Congress have codified this form of behavior from corporations. It is allowed. It is legal. There’s no recourse by the public in order to be able to sort of roll this back. This is here to stay, which is highly problematic. The only thing you can do is know what they’re doing, how they’re doing it, in order to un-hack your brain because if you don’t know that you’re being hacked, you’ll continue to be hacked. You need to know how you drove into the ditch in order to extricate yourself out of it.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk a little bit about the way you see corporate America using this and the degree to which it is insidious or accidental.
Robert Lustig: It’s not accidental, that’s for sure. It’s quite insidious. Let’s give you some examples. The famous one, the best one, Coca-Cola’s open happiness campaign. 10 years running, longest campaign for the company. Any happiness in that bottle? A whole lot of pleasure.
Jeff Schechtman: Right.
Robert Lustig: You know sugar and caffeine used to be cocaine and alcohol, too, but not too much happiness. And that’s very, very specific and in fact, sugar because of how it affects the reward system is the pleasure that everyone can afford. It is the cheapest of thrills and all you need is a quarter or a grandma. Your grandma is a drug pusher and that’s how you really have to think about this.
  Let’s take another one, happy hour. It’s five o’clock somewhere. You know where it’s five o’clock right now? On NBC TV at 10 am, it’s five o’clock because Hoda and Kathie Lee are having the Today Show happy hour and they’re drinking alcohol at 10 in the morning. Well guess what? In the 10 years that this has been going on, alcohol abuse amongst older women has increased 83.7%. And this is particularly pernicious because Hoda has breast cancer and alcohol is a driver of breast cancer promotion. So we have a breast cancer epidemic in this country. We have an alcohol epidemic in this country. We have a depression epidemic in this country and we are told it’s okay to drink at 10 am.
Jeff Schechtman: Dr. Robert Lustig. I thank you so much for spending time with us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy.
Robert Lustig: Jeff, thank you for the insightful questions and thank you for having me on.
Jeff Schechtman: My pleasure.
  Thank you for listening and joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you liked this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to WhoWhatWhy.org/donate.

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Telelobotomy (MattysFlicks / Flickr – CC BY 2.0).

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