In the book Brain Wash: Detox Your Mind and Improve Your Life, father-and-son doctor duo, David and Austin Perlmutter, explain the science behind how the modern world influences how we make decisions that won’t make us feel our best and ways we can avoid those pitfalls to be happier and healthier.
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How modern culture impacts our happiness and health
Instant gratification is a normal part of everyday life in our culture today. Technology has made our lives more convenient than ever, and you’d think it would make us happier. Unfortunately, the mental health crisis has only escalated in recent years, with suicide rates rising in nearly every state and the prescription of anti-depressants increasing by more than 400 percent since the 1990s.
Doctors David and Austin Perlmutter note that the culture we exist in is great for getting those quick and short-term hits of satisfaction. They provide our brains with rewards they’ve been wired to crave for millions of years – rewards like social acceptance and energy-rich food. But businesses capitalize on those needs in ways that don’t contribute to our long-term health and happiness. Grocery stores push unhealthy and nutrient-lacking foods instead of the healthiest options because they’re easy to sell. Social media companies keep us scrolling and valuing likes or comments because it satisfies our need for acceptance and increases their revenue potential.
It’s a culture that drives our need for instant gratification but not necessarily for our good. So, while there’s more immediately available to us than ever before, it’s a contributing factor to what the authors define as disconnection syndrome and health issues like obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.
Protecting our brains from overstimulation
The authors write about the vast differences of survival instincts and needs separating us from our ancestors. Thousands of years ago, there were no TVs, smartphones, even ice cream. Our bodies and minds evolved in that environment, which the authors say makes us ill-equipped to handle the sensory overload of the world we live in today. In other words, our brains’ risk and reward structures are overstimulated, impacting our overall well-being.
A common culprit of overstimulation is social media. The way platforms are designed, your brain gets flooded with dopamine, triggering your brain’s pleasure and memory center. It’s a process that trains your brain to recognize what provides a boost of joy and remember to do it again. It’s an internal reward system.
With regular use of social media providing constant dopamine hits, it’s easy to become addicted. That does more than just contribute to disconnection syndrome; it’s a process that’s also linked to physical changes to the brain. Studies found that many people with internet addictions have weakened anterior cingulates, a section of the brain that moderates impulse control.
Limiting time on social media and devices is a choice that can significantly affect overall well-being. A study from the University of Pennsylvania asked over 100 students to cut back on their digital media use. At the end of the university study, students who successfully limited their use to ten minutes a day for three weeks reported feeling less lonely and scored lower on tests of depression.
How to combat disconnection syndrome
Disconnection syndrome is that pattern of valuing instant gratification over long-term happiness. It directly impacts our ability to connect with others and drives those feelings of being disconnected from the world and people around us.
Something the authors mention in terms of combatting that syndrome is fostering empathy. We’re inherently social creatures, but the quick hits from an increasingly digital world may be corroding our ability to work together and empathize. In fact, the book notes that narcissism, which is in direct contrast to empathy, is concerningly on the rise.
The increasing rate of narcissistic behavior could be connected to the ways the world has rewired our brains. The overload of our reward system and overuse of social media can weaken the links in our brain that control the ability to empathize. But empathy directly correlates with our ability to form deep and meaningful relationships and is one of the ways to fight disconnection syndrome.
You also can’t discredit the most natural and simple solution, which is taking time to reconnect with the outside world. While the conveniences of today are valuable, research has consistently shown nature is vital to our overall health and well-being. Getting outdoors can boost your mood almost immediately and reduce the level of cortisol in your brain, which is a stress hormone.
What helps our brains function effectively
There are few things anyone can implement to improve brain health. One, look at what you’re eating. Most foods today are modified to include high amounts of sugar, which can have devastating long-term effects on the brain. High blood sugar levels are associated with degenerative conditions like dementia and Alzheimer’s. A 2018 study even found a link between excessive sugar consumption and depression. Eating healthy is a great step to take for brain health.
Sleep is also vital for brain health. A study revealed that a third of American adults don’t get the full recommended seven hours of sleep at night. Sleep deficits have significant impacts on our brain, with decades of research showing that regularly missing out on sleep can increase the risk of Alzheimer’s, weaken our memory, and contribute to an overall decline in cognitive functioning. Getting a good night’s sleep can do wonders for healing our brain and its functions.
Exercise is another crucial factor in improving brain health. Physical activity boosts the part of our brain that handles problem-solving and planning, and several studies show a connection between an active lifestyle and overall happiness. One report tracked the habits and moods of 40,000 adults for over a decade. It concluded that even one hour of physical activity a week could significantly reduce the risk of depression. Exercise boosts our mood and cognitive function in the short term and has clear benefits for the long-term outlook on our lives.
The 10-day Brain Wash program
The authors offer a 10-day Brain Wash program for people to follow who are ready to make those long-term changes. They stress there’s no quick fix for disconnection syndrome, but sticking to these fundamentals can help you reclaim your health.
- Day one, they recommend starting with a digital detox. So, cut out unessential technology and block any apps that are mainly time wasters.
- Day two is about practicing empathy and gratitude. The authors recommend reflecting on what’s positive in your life and writing down five things you’re thankful for.
- Day three, they recommend reconnecting with nature by taking a short walk, having a picnic, or spending an afternoon gardening.
- Day four focuses on detoxing your diet. Eliminate processed foods and cook meals that incorporate fresh, healthy ingredients.
- On day five, work on improving your sleep schedule. Set an earlier bedtime and stick to it. Remove devices from the bedroom and don’t drink caffeine after 2:00 pm. Day six, incorporate exercise into your routine. It could be a quick walk or a trip to the gym.
- On day seven, find at least 12 minutes to try meditating.
- To fight disconnection syndrome, day eight encourages you to connect with someone. It could be dinner with a friend, calling a family member, or volunteering at a local organization.
- Day nine is about looking back and evaluating what worked well and what didn’t.
- Finally, day ten is about making a plan to move forward and sticking with it.
The key takeaway from this book is that the modern world and technological advances have impacted the overall health of our brains. While we can’t change the world around us, there are ways we can combat those adverse effects through behavioral and lifestyle changes.