We now know that today’s diet, lacking in brain-friendly fats and other nutrients, yet high in sugar and ultra-processed food, is likely to be shrinking our brains, dumbing us down and triggering a big increase in mental health problems. But it isn’t just nutrition that is creating the perfect storm for our mental demise.
The digital culture we exist in is pushing us towards a whole new paradigm of background stress. This is partly because the marketeers have learnt how to get us addicted to their products – applying a level of stress and variable reward to trick the brain’s reward system – leaving you with a ‘gotta have it’ feeling.
So is this where smartphone addiction comes from?
This manipulation of the stress/reward response is one of the oldest mechanisms of the brain. It is both core for our survival, but also makes us more impulsive, manipulatable and, effectively, stupid.
Most of all, it makes us good consumers. Reward, based on dopamine, equals pleasure. We are living in space-age times with stone age minds and multinational companies have learnt how to get us hooked – literally neurochemically addicted to consuming their products.
We are being sold pleasure in the guise of happiness: the happy hour, the happy meal, happiness in a can. But joy and happiness are regulated by the neurotransmitter serotonin, not the latest special offer. And in fact, this pleasure-seeking may be counterproductive.
“The more pleasure you seek, the more unhappy you get” says Professor Robert Lustig, author of ‘Hacking the American Mind’. This is because too much dopamine (the ‘reward’ neurotransmitter) suppresses serotonin (the ‘happy’ neurotransmitter) and we end up feeling unhappy and depressed. This brain hijack may be why depression, suicide and psychiatric drug prescriptions have rocketed to the point where, in the UK and US (and probably elsewhere), there are almost twice as many prescriptions for psychiatric drugs per year than there are people.
“We are the most in debt, the most obese, the most medicated and the most drugged up adult population in human history” says Lustig. We have literally learnt how to fool our brains and in doing so have fooled ourselves, by creating addictive behaviours and addictive foods.
It seems dopamine, the brain’s main neurotransmitter of reward and desire, is the key.
Of all the changes that have taken place in the 21st century, the ‘digital revolution’ has changed our world beyond recognition, seemingly speeding up time. Yes, our diet and environment have changed a lot, but what’s really changed, especially in cities that now house half of humanity and an estimated two-thirds of the world’s population by 2035, is the pace of life. People all over the world are sleeping less, having less downtime, feeling more anxious and stressed and burning out at a far higher rate. This is reflected in the increasing rate of work absenteeism, depression and suicide, especially in cities.
The speeding up of communication – emails, smartphones and digital media – means that we are supposed to react to demands, and are bombarded with them, at an ever-increasing speed.
We have literally become addicted to our phones(8). The average person picks up their phone 352 times a day – more than every three minutes, and swipes it thousands of times a day. A UK survey reports 62% cannot make it through dinner without checking their phone. Almost half of us report anxiety if we don’t have our phone, or a signal, suffering ‘nomophobia’. We are going to sleep with our phones and checking them first thing on waking up. One survey found that one in ten university students in the US admitted to having checked their smartphones during sex!
Why? Basically, to sell stuff. “I feel tremendous guilt,” admitted Chamath Palihapitiya, former Vice President of User Growth at Facebook, to an audience of Stanford students. “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops that we have created are destroying how society works.” Whether it’s Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, LinkedIn or any other platform, the core design is to get your attention, then show you ads tailored to your attributes and behaviours which the technology learns about you. Facebook, for example, has learnt how to do this with prompts, swipe downs, red icons that you press and don’t know what you receive. Is it a ‘like’? Do I have more ‘friends’? Or has another person ‘linked’ to me on LinkedIn etc.
Facebook even knows when you’re feeling ‘insecure’, ‘worthless’ and ‘need a confidence boost’ or are ‘bored’, and can make sure you receive a notification of a ‘like’ at just the right time to keep you hooked. If you find yourself checking your phone at the slightest feeling of boredom, purely out of habit, know that programmers work very hard behind the screens to keep you doing exactly that. A study of 143 undergraduates at the University of Pennsylvania, limiting use to 30 minutes a day versus a control group found significant reductions in loneliness and depression (9). The researchers concluded, “Our findings strongly suggest that limiting social media use to approximately 30 minutes per day may lead to significant improvement in well-being.”
Whether it’s a text, a notification or a ‘like’, just like sugar, this digital consumption triggers a reward signal in our brains. The marketing algorithms schedule the precise times to deliver our digital diet and serve up the extra addictive quality of a variable reward.
Your brain’s reward system
It’s to do with a tiny organ in the central hippocampal area of the brain called the nucleus accumbens. This is the headquarters of our dopamine-based ‘reward’ system.
The more dopamine you release the more receptors shut down, so you seek more pleasurable behaviours and foods. Insidiously and unknowingly your brain has been hijacked and the symptoms you feel are the direct consequences of an intended addiction. Gambling, gaming, overeating, sex, drugs, food, social media and other digital addictions are all part of it. We end up needing this constant stimulation and, to fuel that, need instant energy foods and drinks – sugar and coffee.
The issue here is to understand how the combination of sugar, caffeinated stimulants, alcohol, tech and social media addiction, shopping, gambling, gaming and so on can hijack your brain’s natural reward system and result in the opposite – you feeling more tired, anxious, unfulfilled and depressed. If that’s happened to you, rest assured there are some simple suggestions that will help you reclaim your brain’s full potential for feeling good, energised, clear, focussed and purposeful.
Simple ways to win back your brain
- Limit your time spent on social media – 30 minutes a day max is a good target but you may need to build down to this. Turn your phone off (or to ‘airplane’ mode) at least an hour before bed and keep it that way for at least an hour in the morning. If you have to have it on, don’t check social media for a couple of hours.
- Limit your intake of caffeine to under 100 grams a day – that’s one strong cup of coffee or two weaker cups of tea. If you have a second cup, use the same tea bag, or have a filter coffee ‘run through’. Avoid all caffeine after noon.
- Avoid buying food that contains added sugar, dates or raisins – if in doubt, read the label and remember sugar is often disguised as high fructose corn syrup. When looking at food labels remember 5g is a teaspoon of sugar and foods with more than 22.5g per 100g of sugar are considered high sugar and those with 5g or less per 100g are considered low sugar. Ideally, only have sugar in whole fresh fruits. Fruit juice is also high in sugar so best avoided or limited.
- Limit your daily intake of alcohol to 20 grams, or a maximum of two small glasses (125ml is one small glass) of wine. Have at least two days a week alcohol-free.