Drs. David and Austin Perlmutter explain how we can rewire our brains to develop healthier habits.
In Brain Wash: Detox Your Mind for Clearer Thinking, Deeper Relationships, and Lasting Happiness, Dr. David Perlmutter and his son, Dr. Austin Perlmutter, explore how to find genuine joy and wellness in a toxic culture of instant gratification.
The book approaches America’s growing epidemics of chronic illness from a simple premise: We know what we need to do for better health and happiness, but our ability to make good decisions has been hijacked by unhealthy digital media usage, processed food, lack of sleep, chronic stress, and other aspects of modern life—and our physical and mental health is suffering.
Brain Wash may provide the bridge between information and action, and help to rewire our brains to enable us to put into play those decisions that can help us think more clearly, strengthen our bonds with others, and develop healthier habits.
S&H: What was your collaboration process like while writing the book? Had the two of you ever worked together in this way before?
David and Austin Perlmutter: Working on Brain Wash together was an incredible bonding experience. Our process included meditation and coffee in the morning, followed by several hours of researching. In the afternoons, we came together to talk about the concepts we learned and discuss new ideas and frameworks. Though we’ve always been close, we’ve never before worked on anything of this scale and significance together.
In a nutshell, can you explain why the amygdala is so important and why it plays such a crucial role in our overall health?
The amygdala is a group of neurons located deep in the brain that is critically involved in emotional responses, memory, and decision-making. One of its key roles is reacting to threats in our environment by triggering the stress response. But while the amygdala plays an important role in optimal health, it can become overactivated by a wide array of influences that characterize our modern world, and when this happens, we start to make bad decisions, become more emotionally reactive, and are more likely to experience high levels of stress and anxiety.
You write that “the idea that what we eat threatens our ability to access the prefrontal cortex should be a game-changer in itself.” What advice would you give someone who is otherwise a very healthy eater, but can never say no to a chocolate chip cookie?
It’s unlikely that eating a chocolate chip cookie every now and then is going to cause you major issues. The real question is: Why are you eating the cookie? Do you really enjoy it, or are you just responding to a craving?
We need to question why we make the choices we do, and whether they are in fact the choices we want to be making. It could be that you only want that cookie because you’re stressed or because you’re tired. Our goal in Brain Wash is to enable you to make good decisions more of the time. If eating the cookie is a good decision for you, then great! But if this is not in line with your life goals, you can use the book to help you stay on track.
The studies you site on the health benefits of experiencing a sense of awe are some of the most interesting in the book. Were you surprised that such work had been done on this topic? Do you think we can we hope to see more research of this kind?
The data on awe-inducing experiences is certainly remarkable.
As it relates to the studies we cite, we specifically looked at the role of nature in creating the feeling of awe, and how that changes people’s perception of the world around them. Awe increased people’s prosocial behavior and seemed to bring people into the present moment. In a world where we are so caught up in the past and the future and stuck on repetitive loops of self-talk, this is exactly what we need. Though the research is currently limited, we are definitely hoping that this field expands.
You write that “according to researchers at Tufts University, “prescribing” fruits and vegetable would save $100 billion in medical costs in the United States alone. What is standing in the way of doctors actually doing this? We seem to be a long way away from the Scottish doctors who are “prescribing time outdoors.”
One important idea to consider here is the way American health care is structured. The primary driver of medical care in terms of visits, deaths, and costs in the U.S. is chronic diseases. So, our standard treatment plans and provider education models focus primarily on how to manage chronic disease, instead of prevention.
More important though, is that most recommendations to patients are not carried out. Doctors are recommending that patients eat healthier and exercise, but patients are unable to make those changes. So, one critical aspect of this process that needs to change is that we need to focus on why patients aren’t able to actually implement recommendations instead of simply blaming them for being “non-compliant.” As such, Brain Wash provides the bridge between information and action.
In the book, you mention that before the year 2000, PubMed listed fewer than ten studies a year on mindfulness but that by 2019 that number had skyrocketed to more than six thousand. Have you seen a similarly dramatic increase in research work in the other areas you touch upon, such as the importance of nature, diet, and technology on human health? What do you think is behind the scientific interest in mindfulness?
As you mention, the recent interest in research on mindfulness has been astounding. There’s certainly been an additional push recently to better understand the impact of modern technology on human health, and the research on nature exposure is ramping up as well. But as it relates to mindfulness, one major reason we feel people are investing time and energy in research is that as a country we are desperately in need of methods to reduce chronic stress.
Chronic stress is disabling to the body and to the brain, and it turns out that mindfulness is one of the easiest ways we can start lowering stress.
Read more: “Is Brain Training Worth the Time?”