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Detox Your Mind for Clearer Thinking, Deeper Relationships, and Lasting Happiness
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A New Reality
If you want to be happy, be.
WHEN WAS THE LAST TIME you felt truly happy, fulfilled, clear-minded, well rested, and deeply connected not only to yourself but also to the people and world around you? If it’s been a while, this book is for you. You’re far from alone in this feeling. Millions of people are suffering today and either don’t realize it or don’t know what to do about it. Some have given up and are going through the daily motions as best they can. It doesn’t have to be this way.
You can wake up from this state of monotony and start pursuing lasting joy and a deeply meaningful existence—even as you move through struggles, disappointments, and challenges. Those are inevitable. What is not inevitable is feeling chronically untethered, foggy-minded, anxious about an uncertain future, and frustrated—maybe even shattered—by life itself. The thing is, there are very real ways to avoid many of these feelings and, even more important, create ongoing happiness in your life. Some of the strategies shared in the pages ahead will be easier than others, but all will be doable and accessible.
Let us confess from the get-go: we haven’t attained a perfect realization of this goal. We’re on this journey with you. Our belief is that we’ve found a powerful way to reframe and reclaim our potential for exceptional mental and physical health, and we can’t wait for you to implement this in your own life.
Here’s the paradox that persecutes us today: modernity provides us with infinite opportunities. We can eat whatever we want whenever we want. We can completely immerse ourselves in the vast, enticing world of digital media. We can buy goods and services and even find potential mates with the touch of a button or swipe of a finger. We can live around the clock in a virtual world where everything about us is public, from our thoughts and perspectives to our purchases, photos, browsing habits, likes and dislikes, and location. We think this 24-7 “new reality” should make us healthy and happy. But it doesn’t. The systems in place to meet—and exceed in many regards—all our basic needs do not create Utopia. Quite the opposite. We struggle with soaring rates of largely preventable illnesses, and many of us are more lonely, depressed, and anxious than ever before. Genuine joy remains elusive.
The crazy thing is, despite what the incessant news cycle would have us believe, our modern world is relatively peaceful. Yet poll a large, diverse group of people and the vast majority of them will say they think we live in perilous times. They are fearful, uneasy, and nervous. They feel trapped. Life, overall, is just not a pleasant experience. What’s more, distrust in one another has reached a new high. A 2014 survey of ten thousand Americans revealed the biggest division in political ideologies in decades, and since 2004, the percentage of people with negative views of the opposing party has more than doubled.1 For anyone keeping abreast of the news, this finding is probably not surprising.
We promise to bring you a new framework for living your life. Together we are going to find a way to cultivate and maintain a more fulfilling existence beyond robust health and psychological well-being. It’s time for a brain wash of an entirely different kind.
THE PROMISE… AND THE PROBLEM
Imagine for a moment that you’re not particularly concerned about anything. You feel grounded and energetic, not the least bit worn, weighed down, burned out, or dead inside. You trust your body’s innate physiology to take care of you and heal on its own. You’re not overly stressed because you have confidence that any challenges you have will work themselves out. You’re comfortable not knowing what tomorrow will bring, though you have a sense of positive agency over the possibilities. And you are okay with the past, however traumatic it was. You’re even okay with friends who have completely different viewpoints from yours. Everything feels right. Your private self-talk is hopeful, relaxed, and open. The sound track of your life is a song you want to play over and over again.
It’s hard to consider this level of calmness and contentment when the obligations of the modern world feel more inescapable and crushing with each passing day. But this can be your reality. The secret is knowing what’s going on in your head and then changing the circuitry that leads you down destructive paths. This book builds from a simple premise:
Our brain’s performance is being gravely manipulated, resulting in behaviors that leave us more lonely, anxious, depressed, distrustful, illness-prone, and overweight than ever before. At the same time, we feel disconnected from ourselves, from others, and from the world at large.
Few people would debate the fact that poor choices in our day-to-day activities influence our health. For example, we know that junk foods are bad for us and, over time, can lead to all manner of diseases. So why is it that we persist in eating these foods? Why do we consistently choose to consume the wrong things? The answer is complicated, but part of the solution is to understand a basic truth: we are being programmed to ingest these poisons.
Our dietary choices are among many lifestyle habits that can lead to either wellness or chronic disease. Chronic disease accounts for 70 percent of American deaths: half of Americans are suffering from at least one chronic illness, including diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease.2 And while we continue to argue over how to change our health-care system, we forget that we spend 75 percent of our health-care dollars on preventable diseases.3 The World Health Organization now ranks chronic degenerative diseases such as the illnesses we just mentioned as collectively the number one cause of death on the planet, ahead of famine, infectious diseases, and wars.4
That may not be news to you if you are aware of the critical link between poor diet and disease. But what you may not realize is that the food you eat and the beverages you drink change your emotions, your thoughts, and the way you perceive the world. Just as important, your mood and perceptions also directly and powerfully influence your dietary choices. This fact is exploited by the food-production industry and creates a vicious cycle that will destroy your health—and your mind. We will show you how to break it. But this is so much bigger than just our food choices.
Through incessant exposure to advertisements, you are being reminded thousands of times a day that instant gratification is the way to happiness. The message comes in subliminally. Billions of dollars are spent to persuade you to keep pursuing happiness the wrong way, by literally rewiring your brain so that you crave the things that bring you further from your goal. You might think that you are doing everything you are supposed to do in order to succeed at life, but still, things are not wonderful. Social media tells you that everyone else is having a great time. Ads tell you that buying something will change your life or that a diet pill will instantly fix your love handles. Your attempts at eating healthfully are thwarted by a limitless supply of delicious and cheap calories. You feel like being unhealthy is your fault. This depressing scenario is now the norm, fueling a culture of chronic stress. Unfortunately, this type of stress is toxic to the brain, damaging the very parts of it that help you have a sense of agency—to feel in control of your life. And in your attempts to cope, you again turn to instant gratification, making it harder to break the neural circuits that trigger and reinforce this behavior. The escape hatch moves further away. In the chapters ahead, you’ll discover exactly how this happens and what you can do about it. You can be better. Your body and mind want to improve, they just need to know how.
From a biological perspective, many factors lead us into the trap of instant gratification. We’ll explain these factors over the course of the book. For example, you may already know that chronic inflammation is closely linked to many of the diseases that afflict us today. But you may not know that chronic inflammation also influences the brain—leading you to make poor decisions and act impulsively.
In part 1, “Living Under the Influence,” we’ll reveal the mental hijacking that undermines each and every one of us in our search for meaning, joy, and lasting wellness. In part 2, “Breaking the Spell,” we’ll present the tools necessary to think more clearly, strengthen bonds with others, and develop healthful habits. For those of you who need a structural blueprint, we’ve got a practical ten-day program that puts all the strategies together. Indeed, you can begin to change the trajectory of your health and life in ten days.
WHERE WE COME FROM
It’s not every day that you read a book written by a father and son. We joined forces from two completely different generations sharing one question: What makes health and happiness so elusive? Below, we talk about where we’re coming from in our own individual words.
Austin: While completing my residency in internal medicine, I followed the traditional approach to health, which emphasizes the diagnosis and treatment of individual diseases. I did my best to properly identify and manage my patients’ many problems. Yet despite my efforts, most of my patients seemed less than interested in adhering to my carefully crafted plans. Why would they decide against taking life-prolonging medications or eating a diet that would, in theory, protect them from developing heart failure or diabetes?
I mistakenly believed that my interests and those of my patients were the same. This failure of reasoning was resolved when I started asking my patients one question: What do you really care about? I expected my patients to tell me that their health was paramount, but I was shocked by how wrong my assumption turned out to be. Very few people told me that their health was their priority, at least not in the way I expected. Instead, what they valued most were their families, friends, and, surprisingly, even their hobbies. It became clear that these were the things that brought them meaning and joy. What they really cared about was connection. Good health was simply a tool to get them there.
I realized I needed to reframe my perspective on how to help others. If I truly wanted to assist my patients in the best way possible, I needed to start with connection.
This led me to deepen my understanding of how we interact with ourselves, with others, and with our environment. I saw that meaningful connection was not found by buying new things or engaging in quick digital interactions. And yet our culture seems increasingly set on directing us to pursue these endeavors. Worrisome data show that we spend an increasing amount of time each day focused on the short-term fix and miss out on the very moments that consistently improve the quality of our lives. I now understand that the question is not just how to foster connection but also how to identify and remove the aspects of life that keep us from experiencing it. I started by looking at how to improve connection and found that escaping from disconnection may be even more important. The chance to explore this critical topic with my father and to bring these findings to the world has been one of the most gratifying experiences of my life.
David: My mission over the past four decades has been to do my very best to empower through knowledge. The way in which lifestyle—including diet and physical activity—relates to health and longevity has always been a central theme in my books and lectures. I’ve been presenting this information because it might not otherwise be obvious in the face of rampant advertising. It has become clear to me that disconnection is at the core of what’s keeping us from truly embracing health, longevity, happiness, and contentment. These goals are attainable.
This book has been a labor of love. What an honor it is to have been given the opportunity to connect with my son on this project and learn from his perspective as an individual as well as a representative of his generation. This gives me great hope in looking to the future.
UNWIRE AND REWIRE YOUR BRAIN FOR THE BETTER
When we began to research this book, we could not have predicted what we would find. Within the first month, both of us felt at once alarmed and transformed as we embraced the importance of our task. The further we dug into the research, the more we knew we were onto something big—something that had the potential to affect not only individuals (including us) but also the planet and its societies as a whole. This is not a trivial point. The destiny of Earth is at stake here. That may sound like an overstatement, but we will make our case. Happy, connected people make for a happy planet, both in the context of individual health and the environment’s health. When you look around you and consider the state of our planet, you know that things are currently not sustainable. We need you. And we need one another.
We fully appreciate the significant benefits that come from living in the modern world. And we’re not advocating that you remove yourself from it. For example, when it comes to modern technology, we couldn’t have written this book without online research databases and video conference calls. Instead, we are calling for a different approach to our digital world, one in which we are conscious users of our technology—not used by it. Our world provides incredible opportunities to learn from and connect with one another through digital networks, but it’s imperative that we use these opportunities the right way. The world has so much to offer, and the tools to change your life—and health—are right in front of you. We can’t wait to share them.
Despite the scope of this book, our strategy focuses on creating a practical framework that you can implement in your life right away. We live and work in the modern world and understand the limitations of what’s possible and realistic. The good news is that so much of what’s keeping us from achieving lasting health and happiness is within our power to change. We know you can get there—through an overhaul of your mind’s operating system. We don’t have to be victims of poor health, loneliness, and the constant urge to pursue the next short-term fix. This new framework—a reconnecting, life-changing “brain wash”—teaches you how to clean up your mind and activate the brain pathways that bring clear thinking, deep relationships, and mental well-being.
Ready? Let’s get to work.
LIVING UNDER THE INFLUENCE
A Sad State of Affairs
In the materialistic way of life, there’s no concept of friendship, no concept of love, just work, twenty-four hours a day, like a machine. So in modern society, we eventually also become part of that large moving machine.
—HIS HOLINESS THE 14TH DALAI LAMA, THE BOOK OF JOY
WHEN YOU WOKE UP THIS morning, what was the first thing you did? What sequence of events describes your typical morning? Our bet is that your routine has shifted dramatically from what it was just ten or fifteen years ago. How many minutes go by before you check your cell phone or scroll through media, social or otherwise? How many swipes and clicks do you perform? What do you normally eat for breakfast? Cold cereal, a bagel, muffin, pastry, or a doughnut on the go? What kinds of personal interactions do you have with your loved ones before you leave the house?
As you drive to work on the same route you’ve always taken, are you tuned in to yourself and calmly focused on the day ahead? Or are you feeling anxious, scattered, and overwhelmed? Are you texting, checking your email, and talking on your cell phone while you should be concentrating on the traffic signals? When you arrive at work, do you find it hard to focus and concentrate for long stretches of time without the pull of digital distractions? Do you eat lunch at your desk? Do you multitask throughout the day with your phone always nearby? Do you connect with people mostly through emails, texts, and phone calls rather than in person?
After work, do you make time for a refreshing outdoor walk or workout? Or do you get home, pour yourself a drink, and eat dinner—perhaps a meal consisting of processed or packaged food? Do you find yourself going to bed exhausted and spent from the day yet unable to sleep? Do you wake up intermittently throughout the night? And when you rise in the morning, do you wake up feeling down and out, only to go through the same monotonous routine again?
Our society has experienced a fundamental shift since the beginning of the twenty-first century, largely because of an explosion in the availability of personal technology that keeps us locked on the grid. It’s estimated that 70 percent of humans on the planet now own a smartphone.1 Data show that the average internet user spends more than two hours a day on social networking.2 One survey found that 42 percent of the time Americans are awake, their eyes are fixated on a television, smartphone, computer, tablet, or other device.3 Supposing the average American sleeps eight hours a night, that means people spend about six hours and forty-three minutes a day staring at a screen. Over the course of a typical life span, that’s 7,956 days, or nearly twenty-two years.
This tectonic shift has led to a culture of disconnection all around us—we walk around with our heads down, fixated on our devices, avoiding ideas that differ from our own, while confronting constant messages telling us what to do (eat more, buy more, post more, be “liked” more). If we’re really paying attention, we can feel it within us. A void. A sense of longing. Participating in our modern consumerist existence is physically changing our brains. How, exactly? It is cutting off access to the highly evolved part of the brain that lets us see the big picture and make well-thought-out decisions. Simultaneously, it is strengthening the pathways that make us impulsive, anxious, fearful, and constantly craving a quick fix. This rewiring leads us to spend our time and money on things that do not bring us long-term happiness. It leaves us constantly unsatisfied. And that’s exactly where corporate interests want us to be, because it leads to higher profits. The frightening truth is this: our brains are increasingly running on a program controlled by others—namely, commercial interests hoping to capture the primitive brain’s desire for instant gratification.
Your attention and your decisions are sold to the highest bidder, to companies with the best understanding of how to manipulate your psychology and biology for their own profit. These companies understand how to tap into powerful neurological pathways, creating a nearly irresistible addiction to short-term pleasures and a commercialized illusion of sustainable joy. We call this state of separation from sustainable happiness disconnection syndrome, and it’s time to take a stand against it. Below is a visual representation of the top eight characteristics of disconnection syndrome. We’ll be exploring each of these in detail within the context of brain health and function.
A MODERN-DAY PARADOX
Step 1 in taking a stand against disconnection syndrome is to take a hard look at the difference between the world we’re led to believe in and the actual facts. Looking behind the curtain at the reality we currently face can be daunting. But through this process comes true power. By appreciating things for the way they are, you begin to take back control of your life. With an understanding of how and why your brain has been hijacked, you can choose to change your life. Replacing choices that don’t help you with those that do frees you to pursue long-term satisfaction and lasting fulfillment. And when you can take control of your brain’s wiring, you can build a system that continues to make those good choices.
At first glance, it would seem we’ve never had more opportunities to pursue and achieve happiness than we do today. Everyone on social media appears to be smiling, and TV commercials would have us believe there is a drug to fix every mood disorder we might experience. And yet rates of anxiety and depression continue to climb. Suicide rates increased in nearly every state from 1999 through 2016, and among adolescents, rates soared 56 percent between 2007 and 2016.4 This is the case even though the number of antidepressant prescriptions in the United States has gone up by more than 400 percent since the 1990s.5 And we’re taking more drugs in general, both legal and illegal. Around half of older folks (age sixty-five and up) with anxiety are taking benzodiazepines (e.g., Xanax, Valium, and Ativan)—medications with well-known and potentially life-threatening side effects.6 Insomnia afflicts about one-fourth of American adults, leading many to turn to sleep aids.7 What’s more, global trends show rates of alcohol use rising, especially in the increasingly Westernized economies of India and China.8 Binge drinking among adolescents and young adults is also on the rise worldwide.9 To be sure, these sobering statistics are not reflective of a satisfied culture.
One might expect that our obsessive use of social media would make us feel more connected to others, but nearly half of Americans report sometimes or always feeling lonely. People reporting this feeling at the highest rate are adults between the ages of eighteen and twenty-two.10 In addition, only around half of Americans report having meaningful in-person social interactions.11 Aristotle was right when he wrote “Man is by nature a social animal,” but we need to get back to the way in which Aristotle socialized. We bet he didn’t suffer from disconnection syndrome.
To understand the reasons for these modern problems—and the way to solve them—we must turn to the most powerful tool we have. The brain has been shaped by the mightiest force on earth: evolution. It has adapted to changing pressures over the course of several million years so that it can thrive under a variety of conditions. The more we know about its resiliency and plasticity, the more incredible it seems. But we need to understand that the brain, for all its brilliance, still runs programs written long ago that can be commandeered or “hacked” by modern technologies, much the way a computer virus can infect software and change its functionality. Our primal desire for sweet foods and our need for social acceptance, for example, made a lot of sense in millennia gone by, when we had to worry about the scarcity of food resources during winter or the possibility of exile from the tribe. What were once valuable adaptations that helped us survive have now become entry points for exploitation. These core survival systems have long been part of our brain’s hardwiring, but they are now the targets of corporate efforts to manipulate your decision-making processes and capture your money, attention, and loyalty. Most important, we’re losing our grasp of our sense of self and self-worth—our identities are under assault from the constant stream of messages telling us what we’re supposed to look like, feel like, and strive for. We are left feeling inadequate. It’s time to reconnect to our brains’ higher levels of thinking and functioning.
The human brain is an incredible gift of seemingly endless complexity and ability. One thing that makes humans special is our brains’ disproportionately large prefrontal cortex, sitting just inside the front of our skulls and constituting nearly one-third of the neocortex—the most recently evolved part of the brain, which consists of gray matter surrounding the deeper white matter of the cerebrum. It is the prefrontal cortex that is credited with higher-order brain functions such as our ability to plan for the future, express empathy, see things from the point of view of another, make thoughtful decisions, and engage in positive social behavior—basically all the things that make us human. (By contrast, a chimpanzee’s prefrontal cortex makes up just 17 percent of its neocortex, and a dog’s comprises 13 percent.) The prefrontal cortex orchestrates thoughts and actions that help us achieve our goals, from simple objectives such as cooking a meal to complex tasks such as writing a book. The term for the activity carried out by the prefrontal cortex is executive function. Executive function includes the ability to differentiate among conflicting thoughts; determine good and bad, better and best, same and different; understand future consequences of current activities; work toward a defined goal; predict outcomes of actions based on past experience; and have social “control” (i.e., the ability to suppress urges that, if not contained, could lead to socially unacceptable outcomes). Scientific research on executive function is currently exploding and shows that, indeed, many environmental factors within our control can affect the health and functionality of the prefrontal cortex and ultimately our behavior and well-being.
Unfortunately, much of modern life conspires to keep our brains from taking full advantage of the prefrontal cortex. Instead, we find our actions driven by impulsivity, fear, and a need for instant gratification, which are triggered by overactivation of the amygdala (an emotional center of the brain) as well as by the constant stimulation of the brain’s reward circuits (more on this shortly).
There is a way out of this mess. We’ll reveal how improving your diet, sleep hygiene, exposure to nature, exercise habits, conscious consumption, mindful practices, and interpersonal interactions can affect your relationship with your own mind and help you reconnect to your prefrontal cortex, literally building a better brain, which leads to better decisions and, in the end, a better you. Here’s a visual representation of what we’ll be covering:
- "Brain Wash provides the tools for each of us to live a happier, more contented life. Drs. David and Austin Perlmutter engage our most current understanding of neuroscience to reveal how the brain can be functionally reconfigured to distance ourselves from pervasive negativity and welcome empathy and compassion back into our lives. The choices we make each day in terms of what we eat, how well we sleep, and even how we interact with our digital world all contribute to our worldview. And central to the Brain Wash mission is maximizing these and other choices towards seeing and creating a better world."—Dr. Rudolph Tanzi, Professor of Neurology, Harvard Medical School, and author of The Healing Self
- "We all know what it's like to feel distracted and overwhelmed. Brain Wash is an invaluable guide that's crammed with solutions for helping us to restore our focus, energize our bodies, and refresh our minds."—Gretchen Rubin, author of The Four Tendencies and The Happiness Project
- "Brain Wash shows us how our ability to make the best decisions is literally being hijacked every day. But more importantly, Drs. David and Austin Perlmutter empower the reader with the tools to regain control over our decision-making and implement strategies to allow health, empathy and happiness to manifest. Brain Wash brings a healthy dose of compassion to the world."—Dr. Josh Axe, bestselling author of Keto Diet
- "Inflammation, enhanced by so many influences of our modern world, dramatically reduces our ability to make good decisions and feel content. Brain Wash not only explores how this is happening, on a global scale, but also shows what we can do right now to take back control. From spending time in nature to choosing to consume one plant-based meal a day, Brain Wash provides the tools the reclaim and rebuild your brain's ability to make better choices and allow health and happiness to flourish."—Mark Hyman, MD, #1 New York Times-bestselling author of Food and director of the Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine
- "What if there was nothing wrong with you, and so much wrong with the ways in which our dominant culture hijacks your decision-making? You'd want to know how to reclaim your mind, your biology, and your sense of balance. Brain Wash feels, at once, like a sympathetic recognition of our modern day struggle with tech and a science-paved path back home to ourselves. This is one of the most important topics of our time, and Drs. David and Austin Perlmutter have compassionately, intelligently, and creatively opened a vital dialogue."—Kelly Brogan, MD, author of Own Your Self
"This book was a total surprise. A father and son representing entirely different generations arrive at the same conclusion: that wellness fosters connection and this creates a meaningful life. Beautifully scripted and a bit like an adventure story, I kept wanting to get to the 'final message' of how being well makes us more loving and lovable. This is the endpoint where well-being takes us, and this is especially critical in our disconnected digital age with its constant distractions. Do yourself a favor and get this book"
—John Ratey, MD, Harvard Medical School, author of Spark
- "In a world where most of us are feeling rushed, tired, and burned out, Brain Wash reveals how even small changes in your lifestyle choices can dramatically improve your day, your mood, and even your life."—Melissa Hartwig Urban, Whole30 Co-Founder and CEO
"Brain Wash presents a road map for the relationship between how we think, feel, and behave and our lifestyle and environment. It is an artful and compelling manifesto on how to improve our mood, mind, and memory."
—Jeffrey Bland, PhD, founder of the Institute for Functional Medicine and president and founder of Personalized Lifestyle Medicine Institute
- "The message of Brain Wash couldn't be more urgent or timely. If everyone followed its advice, the world would be a happier and healthier place."—Catherine Price, author of How to Break Up with Your Phone and founder of Screen/Life Balance (screenlifebalance.com)
- "Brain Wash is an important book that tackles a colossal modern challenge: the quest to reclaim our health and happiness from a world that encourages us to overspend, overindulge, and underthink. David and Austin Perlmutter are consummate guides who share a multitude of approachable, concrete, and down-to-earth solutions. Highly recommended."—Adam Alter, author of Irresistible and Drunk Tank Pink
- "By showing us how to consciously rewire our brains for connection, compassion, and better decisions, Brain Wash provides a framework for reclaiming joy and health in the modern world."—Deepak Chopra, author of Metahuman
- "Brain Wash reveals how our day-to-day decisions are deeply influenced and actively manipulated by the modern world. But more importantly, it is a powerful manual that allows each of us to reclaim control of our choices and make better decisions that will pave the way for health and happiness. While we generally know what's best for ourselves, acting on this knowledge is a constant struggle. Brain Wash allows us to turn this knowledge into action. I highly recommend this innovative book."—Daniel G. Amen, MD, founder, Amen Clinics and author of The End of Mental Illness
- On Sale
- Jan 14, 2020
- Page Count
- 400 pages
- Little Brown Spark