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It’s Time for Parents to Fight America’s Serotonin Addiction

Dr. Robert Lustig explains the downsides of neuromarketing and the upside of family dinner.

Our children are growing up in a world choked by targeted advertising, and banner ads claiming that whatever product is being sold is precisely the product that they need to have. Consumerism has gone digital, making consumption increasingly intimate. And, as Robert H. Lustig points out in his new book The Hacking of the American Mind, this whole corporate ploy is driven by reverse-engineered neuroscience. Fatherly asked Dr. Lustig, a pediatric endocrinologist and author of the best-selling book on sugar consumption Fat Chance, about how modern advertisers are blending old marketing tricks with fresh neuroscience to make their products irresistible and how to avoid bringing up consumerist children in the age of constant consumption.

How are businesses “hacking” my mind?

There are a lot of answers to that question. The first answer is that they are marketing hedonic substances and products and behaviors as being completely benign, and using neuroscience to do something called neuromarketing. They have video cameras and facial recognition software that can read people’s facial expressions and alter their messages based on what they believe you’re thinking, based on your face. So they have methods of marketing to you, and only to you. It’s just another way neuroscientists are changing how we perceive our world and what we buy.

They’re also marketing things you want as things you need—playing on your brain’s reward system, so they are able to turn want into need. If they tell you that you need Cialis (“When the moment comes, will you be ready?”) they’re playing on your brain’s reward system and stress system. That’s an old trick, and it has been used for many years in marketing.

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Is that kind of marketing always a bad thing?

Not necessarily. The real question is, what’s the difference between marketing and propaganda? Marketing uses science to elaborate your point of view. Propaganda uses disinformation to elaborate your point of view. The big difference is the truth. If what they’re saying is truthful, it’s marketing. If what they’re saying is not truthful, it’s propaganda.

What are the basic components of a science-based marketing strategy?

As former Google employee Nir Eyal writes, rhere are four items that need to be satisfied. First, the trigger—an itch, in the vernacular, ideally a socially-acceptable itch, like an email waiting in your inbox. This leads to an unconscious scratch, answering your email. That needs to be linked to variable reward. It can’t be the same reward each time, because if it’s the same reward it never becomes habit. Your cell phone is like a slot machine in your pocket, buzzes and bells and good emails and bad emails, and stresses, all to make you want to look at it even more. The last item is investment, where you’re now going to put money down for a product that satisfies the first three components.

That’s how iPhones work, that’s how virtually everything that exists in terms of hedonic behaviors work. It’s how casinos work. From a substance standpoint, that’s also how sugar works. It ultimately captures us and doesn’t let go. 

The Three-Pronged Approach to Fighting Serotonin Addiction

  • Eat and cook together as a family (sans smartphones). Turn off all screens and dine at the same table, at the same time.
  • Increase your intake of Tryptophan, which you get in eggs and fish, Omega-3 fatty acids. Both increase Serotonin. Avoid sugar, which depletes it.
  • Learn how to say no. Kids experience happiness but they consume pleasure, and the goal is to provide the experiences rather than the consumption.

You discuss the difference between hedonism or pleasure and happiness a lot in your book…

Yes, there’s a list of seven difference between pleasure and happiness in the book. I’ll go through each of them with you. First of all, pleasure is short-lived, like an hour, happiness is long-lives, like a lifetime. Pleasure is visceral, you feel it inside you, and happiness is ethereal, you notice it above yourself. Pleasure is taking; happiness is giving—you can take from a casino or give to Habitat for Humanity, and the feeling you get from the two are very clearly different.

Pleasure is achievable with substances, whereas happiness is not. Pleasure is experienced alone, whereas happiness is usually achieved in social groups, in church, on the baseball field, a meal with your family. The extremes of pleasure all have addiction as their end point—you can be addicted to alcohol, sugar, nicotine, social media, video games, shopping, sex. All pleasure. All addiction. Whereas there’s no such thing as being addicted to too much happiness.

Finally, number seven is that pleasure is caused by dopamine and happiness caused is serotonin.

Fascinating! So there’s a neuroscientific basis to the distinction between pleasure and happiness? 

Sure. Dopamine is excitatory. Neurons want to get excited and that’s why they have receptors in the first place, but they don’t want to be bludgeoned, they want to be tickled. When you overstimulate, or bludgeon, a neuron it causes it to continuously fire, which uses up the energy in the neuron and causes it to die. Neurons don’t want to be bludgeoned, but we’re bludgeoning them. In order to protect against this, the neuron has a self-defense mechanism—down-regulation of the receptor so the next time the neuron sees that dopamine it won’t respond as severely because there are fewer receptors for it to bind. In human terms: you get a hit, you get a rush. Next time, you’re going to need a bigger hit to get the same rush. And the next time, you’re going to need a bigger hit and a bigger hit and a bigger hit and finally a huge hit…to get nothing. That’s called tolerance. When the neurons start to die, that’s called addiction.

Serotonin is inhibitory, not excitatory. You can’t overdose on too much happiness because serotonin doesn’t destroy neurons. But there’s one thing that down-regulates serotonin—dopamine. So the more pleasure you seek, the more unhappy you get. Then throw some stress on top. Stress disinhibits the dopamine even further, and cortisol (the stress hormone) down-regulates the serotonin receptor, making it even harder to generate happiness, and there’s depression.

How do daily stresses affect our pleasure, as opposed to our happiness?

By adding stress to the dopamine system you get addiction. By adding stress to the serotonin system you get depression. And we are all now chronically stressed. And it turns out technology, cell phones, media, drugs, fake news, sugar, sleep deprivation all up your dopamine and down your serotonin. Basically what we’re doing is, we’ve abdicated our pursuit of happiness for the pursuit of pleasure. And we’ve become most decidedly unhappy.

How can I use neuroscience to help my family make smarter decisions about consumption?

Learn how to say no. Kids experience happiness but they consume pleasure, and the goal is to provide the experiences rather than the consumption. So the kid who goes with his mother to the store and the kid nags the mom “can’t I have this” and she caves and gives it to him—that’s not parenting. It maximizes pleasure, but not happiness. 

What specific activities can I do with my kids to maximize Serotonin while minimizing Dopamine?

The single best thing is sitting down to have a meal together. By far and away, that’s the most important method for upping Serotonin and tamping down Dopamine—eating at the same table, without your cell phones. In our house, everyone eats at the same table no matter what time it is, no matter who has to go to soccer practice, the TV is off, phone are not at the table, and dinner time is family time. And we cook. I would say that is the single most valuable thing people can do with their families. Cooking is connecting, contributing, and coping—you have to be mindful as you are cooking because you have a recipe to follow, which is good in terms of stress reduction.

Any tips on what I should cook?

Actually, three items in food can increase Serotonin: Tryptophan, which you get in eggs and fish, Omega-3 fatty acids, which help stabilize neuronal membranes and improve Serotonin neuronal transmission, and then reduction in the amount of sugar because fructose depletes Serotonin. That’s real food. But there’s only one way to get it—to make it.