This is David’s follow up from his previous book, “Grain Brain”, other works of his include “Brain Maker” and “The Grain Brain: Whole Life Maker”. I knew “Brain Wash” was a to-do after the wealth of data-backed information he provided in his first go around. David is a neurologist and Fellow of the American College of Nutrition. He’s won myriad leadership awards for his medical expertise, and has proven an innate ability to thoroughly examine a multitude of subjects including anxiety, depression, preventive care, chronic disease management, gut health and the societal effects of social media. It concludes after 250 some pages with a 10 day program coupled with a meal plan with 40 recipes. Below are my notes from the book, don’t skip this one.
Our brains are increasingly running on a program controlled by others— nakedly commercial interests hoping to capture the primitive brains desire for instant gratification.
Your attention and decisions are sold to the higher bidder, to companies with the best understanding of how to manipulate your psychological of how to manipulate your psychology for profit.
Companies understand how to tap into the powerful neurological pathways, creating irresistible addiction to short term pleasures and a commercialized illusion of sustainable joy— we call this state of separation from sustainable happiness disconnection syndrome.
The top eight characteristics of disconnection syndrome include mindless activity, loneliness, impulsivity, chronic stress, poor relationships, narcissism, instant gratification, and chronic inflammation.
Then prefrontal cortex is credited with executive function and higher order brain function such as our ability to plan for the future, express empathy, see things from the point of view of another, understand right from wrong, make thoughtful decisions and engage in social behavior. (basically all the things that make us human)
Unfortunately, modern life conspires to keep our brains from taking full advantage of our prefrontal cortex due to impulsivity, fear and a need for instant gratification which are triggered by an over-activation of the amygdala (which is the emotional center of the brain).
Neurotransmitters are received through dendrites, which convert the neurotransmitters back into electrical signals and the message moves on. this complex wiring allows neurons to communicate with one another and generate biological wonders such as thought, sensation, and movement.
The brain is plastic, meaning it can reorganize itself my forming new neural connections throughout a persons life. it’s pliable, impressionable, and moldable. i.e. every time you experience something new, your brain slightly requires to accommodate that new experience.
It wasn’t until we evolved into mammals that the next level of brain development occurred. this would become known as the limbic brain, which sits atop the brain stem and receives input from the old reptilian brain below.
The limbic brain generates emotions based on sensory input. like those of the brain stem, the limbic brains responses are automatic and frequently reflexive—without conscious analysis, reflection, or interpretation. these responses developed out of a need for preservation and survival. within the limbic brain we find the physical and emotional basis for primal experiences such as hunger, pain, sleepiness, anger, fear, or pleasure.
One thing that makes the limbic brain so significant is that it’s associated with the release of dopamine and the brains natural opiates, called endorphins. dopamine significantly influences our reward circuits and behaviors, including habits and addictions.
Reward circuits are pathways in the brain that govern or responses to rewards such as food, sex, and social interactions.
The limbic system is not a single structure, it includes the amygdala, hippocampus, thalamus, hypothalamus, and cingulate gyrus.
The prefrontal cortex helps manage perceived threats. this self regulation is crucial for goal-directed behavior and has been related to many consequential outcomes in life including physical and mental health; psychological well being, and interpersonal relationships.
Stimulating the prefrontal cortex remotes successful self regulation by altering the balance in activity between the prefrontal cortex and subcortical regions involved in emotions and reward processing. i.e. people with anxiety disorders could potentially use this approach to not only manage their conditions but also improve the parts of their brains that render them better able to focus, make good decisions and generally see the world as a kinder place.
Early life stress has be shown to affect the connection between the amygdala and prefrontal cortex which can lead to aggressive behavior, attention problems, mental health disorders, etc.
Abnormal amygdala functional connectivity in young children can be a potential marker for latent risk for poor emotion regulation capacity and may manifest in clinically relevant symptoms later in life.
All of us are in a perpetual state of anxiety and disquietude, being sleep deprived and surrounded by the constant flow of negative news not only puts us into a primal “survival mode” but also creates a profound downstream effects on our brains wiring and resulting behaviors.
When we’re stressed or feel fearful our bodies respond by releasing chemicals and hormones, namely cortisol.
Cortisol triggers blood sugar and influences immune function. the classic fight or flight responders in when adrenaline and noradrenaline (aka norepinephrine) flood the system, raising heart rate and blood pressure and changing the flow or blood throughout the body. this primes is to deal with the stressor.
When we’re stressed the amygdala activates stress pathways which in turn input prefrontal cortex regulation and strengthen amygdala function. this becomes a vicious cycle, bc the high levels of constant stress keep the amygdala in the driver seat where we’re acting out of emotion.
Slow/thoughtful: prefrontal cortex
Reflexive/rapid emotional responses: amygdala
Stress fuels the amygdala and poisons the prefrontal cortex and even alters the physical structure rendering increasingly unable to suppress impulsive behavior.
We pursue short term quick fix pleasures while simultaneously avoiding pain and it greatly increases dopamine uptake, which makes its so difficult to break the cycle.
Common examples of establishing dopamine balance is binging high carb foods. living in a chronic state of heightened amygdala based reactions make us vulnerable to developing patterns, habits, and routines that attempt to manage these reactions and this leaves us feeling out of control and overwhelmed.
We should note that our food cravings, especially for sweet, sugary foods, have their roots in our ancestry because it represents a potent survival mechanism. it proved helpful for our hunter/ gatherer forebears to actively seek out the proverbial fig tree. sugar, or the sweet taste, indicated that the fruit was ripe and at its peak nutritional value. typically this would occur in late summer and fall, the sugar would help our ancestors produce and store body fat for the cold winter where there would likely be a caloric scarcity.
Sweetness dramatically activated the brain’s dopamine reward pathway— why do you think you still want desert after a big dinner, or how you can barely finish what’s on your plate but completely demolish the sugary treats after dinner? dopamine. and to make matters worse, over-stimulation of the reward system alters dopamine signaling which leads to addictive symptoms and weakens the prefrontal cortex.
High negativity = higher cortisol = turbocharged amygdala
Disconnection syndrome (chronic illness, chronic stress, chronic inflammation) leads to unhappiness and makes us look for quick short term fixes to stimulate dopamine, however when we use the short term fixes over and over it feeds directly back into our home base disconnection syndrome, restarting the vicious cycle.
Product developers and magicians work in similar ways. they start by looking for blind spots, edges, vulnerability, and limits of people’s perception so they can influence how to push people’s buttons.
Its crucial to understand that your mindless state of scrolling social media’s directly benefits corporations pockets and keeps you from questioning the use of your time.
As we fall into this digital world, we learn to live without the emotional connections that make us social beings interconnected through humanity. i.e. the smell of grass when we had our first kiss, the smell of hit chocolate after sledding, or the sound of birds chirping by your window when you wake up early on the weekend.
Social media is directly tied into our self worth. we’re all vulnerable to social approval, the need to belong, be accepted by our peers and adhere to our primal urges to be social within a tribe to survive. liking and posting on social media light up all the neurotransmitters but the reward center is being manipulated and your reward system is being hacked right before your eyes.
Only in humans is empathy a complex form of psychological inference that involves multiple mental processes: feeling what another person is feeling, knowing what another person is feeling, and wanting to respond compassionately to another persons distress.
Theres two types of empathy: affective, which gives us the ability to experience the emotions of others. then there’s cognitive empathy, which is also known as “theory of mind” or “perspective taking”, the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and see things from the perspective of others.
Narcissism is the deficit of empathy — a lack of focus on or caring about others. it involves a sense of entitlement, hyper focus on oneself, high selfishness, disregard for others.
Theres two types of narcissism: one type may prove to be advantageous bc it encompasses a set of personality traits involving high self esteem (which translates to higher likelihood of career success) but bc the trait involves low empathy, interpersonal relationships can suffer. the second is the “clinical type” involving a fixed and inflexible pattern of delusions of self importance and uniqueness, a pervasive pattern of grandiosity, an excessive need for admiration. (this is known as BPD)
Positive effects of empathy include heightened feeling of trust, creativity and compassion, lower cortisol/stress/inflammation levels, improved perception of others and an ability to relate/bond, improves mood regulation and capacity to combat frustration, heightened appreciation for nature/the world around us.
A 2016 chinese study looked at 176 students and found that narcissism was related to decreased cortical thickness and decreased volume in the prefrontal cortex.
Narcissism is a symptom of disconnection syndrome, we know that chronic stress and cortisol separates the prefrontal cortex from the amygdala which makes us more impulsive and emotionally reactive.
People high on the narcissism scale had significantly higher levels of cortisol in response to negative emotions.
Nature is the ultimate connector. it’s our origin and it centers us and our genes which have developed for millions of years under nature’s influences. it is the kryptonite of disconnection syndrome — get outside, get moving.
In the 1800s, tuberculosis ran rampant throughout europe. despite many attempts at developing an effective treatment, nothing seemed to work. then the “open air treatment” was created. this protocol emphasized adequate exposure to outside elements, with fresh air, both by day and night. we believe that some of the benefits conferees may have been the result of sunlight exposure and its critical role in vitamin d production: VD turns on innate immunity to tuberculosis. by the 20th century, tuberculosis sanatoriums became common in the united states and arizona became the home to patients with TB, asthma, rheumatism, and numerous other diseases.
Put plants in the house, they do this in hospitals bc it gets their patients back to nature in some form. it lowers anxiety, bp, heart rate, etc. doctors in scotland are now prescribing time outdoors and in the presence of wildlife.
Part of the allure of essential oils (phytoncides) is the relaxation we feel upon inhaling them (there’s a reason they’re so popular in spa’s/hotels) i.e. smelling cedar wood (called cedrol) found that it led to increased parasympathetic activity which is associated with a relaxed state.
“Thousands of tired, nerve shaken, over civilized ppl are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home. wilderness is a nessecity” — John Muir
CBT, or cognitive behavioral therapy, is one of the only evidence based options currently prescribed by doctors (other than drugs) designed to change negative thoughts and behaviors. one particularly fascinating study looked at whether undergoing CBT outdoors would increase the potency of the technique.
“For all nature is doing her best each moment to make us well. she exists for no other end. do not resist her” — Thoreau
Nature requires the brain for peaceful well being and supports the body’s overall physiology. it can positively interact with our immune systems and physically alter brain waves, changing activity across the brian to promote pro social, altruistic behaviors and opposed to materialistic/self involved tendencies that define disconnection syndrome.
“The food you eat can either be the safest and most powerful form of medicine or the slowest form of poison” — Ann Wigmore
Food companies use us an experiment, adding addictive, toxic substances to get us hooked and yet we have a habit of blaming only the consumers when they’re unable to stop themselves from eating and drinking these products.
As we learned to to farm/grow crops, we began to eat more calories than we needed and the human diet suddenly shifted to one that focused on far fewer types of foods. this reduction in diversity may well constitute the most dramatic dietary shift in human history. with lack of diversity came a lack of nutrients, and as our dietary choices became narrower, we grew wider.
Pulitzer prize winning author Jared Diamond is one of the worlds leading historians and geographers, he calls agriculture “the worst mistake in the history of the human race”. he notes that hunter gatherers had a highly variable diet in contrast to early farmers, who retrieved most of their sustenance from only a few carbohydrate based crops.
Yuval Harari echoes this sentiment in his book sapiens: “the agricultural revolution certainly enlarged the sun total of food at the disposal of humankind, but the extra food didn’t translate into better diet or more leisure…the agricultural revolution was history’s biggest fraud.”
The importance of food goes well beyond its nutrient content. moment to moment our food choices allow each of us to control our gene expression, enhance or reduce inflammation, enhance our bodies ability to detoxify and create important antioxidants.
More than 99% of our species’ time on this planet was spent with lower amounts of refined carbs, higher in helpful fat and fiber.
Big agriculture + big food = big problem — we’ve nearly doubled the share we spend on processed foods and sweets (11.6% to 22.9% over the past 30 years)
Author of “why we get fat” gary taubes says we don’t get fat because we overeat, we overeat because we’re getting fat.
Our craving for sugar doesn’t just start in the brain. in fact it appears to be a link between inflammatory excess abdominal (visceral) fat and the activation of our dopamine reward based system.
Our fat cells are accomplices in keeping us hooked, ultimately blocking us from connection to our prefrontal cortices and thus preventing us from making good dietary decisions.
Gut bugs play a role in your mood and emotional stability, when the gut is healthy it acts as a literal barrier against inflammation.
The way you think and feel — and in turn experience and respond to the world around you — is highly influenced by the health of your gut, and that is a direct reflection of your food choices.
The happy chemical —> serotonin, the hormone that stands front and center in conversations about mood and depression is serotonin. it affects mood, OCD, PTSD, phobias and even epilepsy. it’s involved in appetite, digestion, sex, bone health, and even psychedelic experiences.
Theres 14 different receptions in the brain for serotonin, all of which serve different purposes. 9% of serotonin is found in blood platelets, where it plays a role in clotting.
Serotonin is manufactured from the amino acid tryptophan, which is considered essential but the body doesn’t make it on its own which means the only way we get it is from food. (tryptophan rich foods include flaxseeds, sunflower seeds, pistachios, cashews, mozzarella, lamb, beef, turkey, spinach, chicken, tuna, crab, oats, eggs)
Gut bacteria are the key to our survival. collectively our microbial comrades are referred to as our microbiome, and they play a role in many physiological functions: they manufacture neurotransmitters and vitamins that we couldn’t otherwise produce, promotes normal gastrointestinal function, provide protection from infection, regulate metabolism and absorption of food, and help control blood sugar balance. they even affect whether we’re overweight or lean, hungry or satiated.
Depression is an inflammatory disorder, which is why sugar and refunded carbs negatively exacerbate symptoms. i.e. mediterranean diet is often lauded for the healthiest choice, bc it’s low in carbs/sugar and high in healthy fats like olive oil, nuts, seeds — which is correlated with more than 30% reduced risk of depression.
Poor food choices —> increases blood sugar, weight, inflammation, cortisol, amygdala activity, impulsivity and decreases serotonin activity and prefrontal cortex activity = disconnection syndrome
Our exceptionally complex and especially large prefrontal cortex — and therefore our ability to empathize, love, create conscious intention, feel compassion, and exist as high performing beings — may stem from our physical prowess.