Jack Lewis Is The Neurobiologist And Author Who Knows Why We Do The Things We Shouldn’t

In his new book, Jack Lewis reveals how the workings of the mind make us fall foul of the Seven Deadly Sins – but are they actually that bad, and if so how can we spot and combat their influence on our lives? Here’s what RSNG found out about how we’re wired to be proud to a fault, lazy to distraction, gluttons for food and greedy for loot – and what we can do about it…

Pride Comes Before A Fall THE PROBLEM: The thing about pride is that it’s an essential component of our personalities… Without it, as toddlers, we would never have the feedback loop to work out the difference between good and bad; never feel pride in doing the right thing, or shame in making the wrong choice. And we’d never succeed: ‘A proud person feels worthy of great things and so finds themselves motivated to achieve them,’ writes Jack Lewis in The Science Of Sin. So, what’s the problem? Well, pride gone wrong leads to narcissism, and as Lewis reports, US citizens tested with the Narcissistic Personality Inventory are showing that anti-social narcissism has been steadily rising since the test was invented.

High scores on the NPI predict a tendency to seek high-status partners but very little interest in forming intimate emotional connections; claiming other’s success for themselves and seizing any opportunity to bask in admiration. Social media and reality TV give narcissists exactly what they crave, with their emphasis on appearances, creating drama out of nothing, and the feedback loop of likes and upvotes.

The brain areas that light up when we feel physical pain also activate when we feel social pain

Despite being arrogant, narcissists are surprisingly vulnerable to social pressure. In a recent study, people were tested in front of two silent observers. ‘Narcissists – despite often seeming fairly thick skinned – actually released more of the stress hormone cortisol than their non-narcissistic counterparts.’ says Lewis. He also reveals that social embarrassment causes us more than red cheeks. ‘The same brain areas that light up when we feel physical pain also become activated when we feel social pain.’

THE SOLUTION: One way to combat rising narcissism – other than not taking yourself so seriously – is to limit your exposure to that which normalises it: ‘Reality TV producers and editors of tabloid newspapers… actively favour those whose sense of grandiosity, vanity, exhibitionism and tendency towards aggressive confrontation creates the most spectacular, and therefore most tabloid-worthy drama… Eventually, all this excessively narcissistic behaviour starts to seem normal.’

Another longer-term fix for someone who scores quite highly on the Narcissistic Personality Inventory and wants to reduce their experience of social pain, is to use mindfulness meditation, says Lewis: ‘Mindfulness meditation should (after weeks or months of daily practice) help them to develop brain pathways for better emotional management, to reduce rumination [AKA beating themselves up about things] and to become less reliant on positive feedback from others.’

Why We’re Hardwired To Overeat THE PROBLEM: The World Health Organisation officially classes one third of humanity as overweight or obese; it’s not even an epidemic anymore, it’s a pandemic. The problem is that evolution has not caught up with modern lifestyles where cheap, high-calorie food is instantly available. ‘It could reasonably be argued that our whole neurochemistry actually evolved to encourage binge eating… Throughout human prehistory, a paunch of fat could make the difference between life and death,’ says Lewis. The key issue is that our hunger hormones are loaded to fill our stomachs – when our stomachs rumble they dump the hormone ghrelin into our blood, sending it to the brain’s hypothalamus and quickly switching it into food-finding mode.

But when we have eaten a meal, the chemical counters to hunger are much slower acting. While the gut slowly releases cholecystokinin and fat cells give up leptin, which both suppress hunger, there is a delay of 20-30 minutes until they’re at effective levels in the brain. Add to this the effect of low blood sugar (later on in the day) on decision making and you have a perfect storm: ‘Low blood sugar actually incapacitates the very neural circuitry of the prefrontal cortex [of the brain] that helps us to rein in the temptation to eat foods we know we shouldn’t.’

THE SOLUTION: Lewis says the evidence is clear that having a healthy waistline starts at bedtime: ‘If you sleep poorly, you will make poor eating decisions the next day. If you often sleep poorly then this could be making you fat… to improve eating habits, taking immediate steps to improve ‘sleep hygiene’ is one of the best things you can do.’

Other solutions recommended by Lewis include hacking your blood sugar levels. ‘Eating slow-release carbohydrate snacks 20-30 minutes before going shopping, or choosing what we are going to eat at mealtimes can change all of this by… helping to top up blood glucose so the brain has adequate resources to fuel the areas that support disciplined food choices.’ Finally, avoid decision fatigue, which builds up during a long day – regardless of the complexity of the decisions you make – by deciding what you’re going to eat for dinner well in advance. ‘People tend to make better decisions towards the start of the day and worse ones later on.’

Sloth Can Rewire Your Habits THE PROBLEM: For Lewis, laziness these days is less about sitting around doing nothing, which eventually gets so boring you actually shift your lazy arse, and more about the lure of addictive, yet ultimately meaningless digital distractions like video games and binge watching TV. As he says elsewhere in the book, your habits change your brain: ‘Brain circuitry that is used regularly and intensively over long periods of time is strengthened and reinforced; this is the process of neuroplasticity.’ The problems occur not when you occasionally escape into your phone or TV, but when the impulse to do so becomes compulsive.

He gives the example of video gamers logging well in excess of eight hours of play per day, 24/7: ‘Just as those who over-consume internet pornography rewire their striatum in a manner that biases motivation towards the pursuit of erotica over and above all other things, the same thing can happen with those who plough this many hours per year into video gaming.’ And the same goes for obsessively scrolling through Instagram and other social media feeds.

THE SOLUTION: Lewis has two life hacks that can instantly help you to reclaim your brain from digital distractions, nip procrastination in the bud and spend your free time more rewardingly. Firstly, create distance between yourself and your smartphone: ‘If you can employ a strategy of keeping yourself physically separated from your smartphone for an hour at a time… you’ll have retrained your brain to be capable of sustained attention once more, having previously derailed these capacities through your incessant media multitasking.’ Not only will this make you more productive, it will also allow more opportunities for daydreaming, AKA staring into space: ‘The more people engage in daydreaming the more they unleash their inherent creativity,’ says Lewis.

The other life hack is to get a hobby. These differ from watching TV or fail videos on YouTube, both because they are often at least slightly more active than sitting on a couch, and because our brains are wired to feel more satisfaction from them – ever felt hollow at the end of a Netflix series? Here’s why: ‘Hobbies are intrinsically rewarding because they involve doing something in pursuit of a goal, but do not focus entirely on the end result. Television and films are carefully constructed to deliver a sequence of specifically designed moments of reward, but they do all of the work for us, robbing us of a huge source of potential satisfaction.’

Rather than being hardwired to be selfish we are naturally inclined to share the spoils fairly

Greed Isn’t Natural THE PROBLEM: You might think that ‘survival of the fittest’ would dictate that the most selfish humans would rise to the top and define our leanings, making us greedy by nature. Interestingly, the scientific evidence suggests the opposite: a 2012 study by David Rand at Harvard University found that when people were asked to make a decision to act selfishly or cooperatively, they were less likely to be selfish if asked to make a snap, instinctive decision. It proved that rather than being hardwired to be selfish and having to suppress this to work with other people, we are naturally inclined to share the spoils ‘fairly’ – being greedy requires extra mental effort.

This underpins our success as a species; we’re strong because we instinctively cooperate to achieve larger goals. Of course, we need to feel that we are getting our fair share of the loot for this social contract to work. If not we can soon decide to grab whatever we can and become ‘greedy’. This has the knock-on effect of those around us seeing our unfairness, so we all stop cooperating and in the end everyone losses out.

THE SOLUTION: It seems that greed lurks in all of us, closely allied to that other deadly sin, envy, but how can we avoid it when society at large is getting less and less equal; when the richest 1% own as much of Earth’s total wealth as the remaining 99%? It turns out that the power to do this rests within our own thoughts.

If you put someone in an MRI scanner, says Lewis, and get them to play an economic exchange game, then when they are on the wrong end of someone else’s greed their brain lights up with feelings of acute discomfort. But when this experiment was repeated with a Buddhist monk this just didn’t happen. ‘Their emotional pain networks stay remarkably quiet even when they are offered an extremely unfair share of the bounty.’

Further MRI scans have revealed that it isn’t that the monks’ thousands of hours of meditation have made them ‘totally zen’ about material possessions, it’s that the same meditation has actually rewired the areas of the brain that create the division between the ‘self’ and others, writes Lewis. So, practicing simple meditations can help you achieve the same peace of mind, and short-circuit selfish greed.

WHAT NEXT? Read more about the other Seven Deadly Sins in Jack Lewis’s The Science Of Sin and then watch him explain how the neuroscience of pride works at Speaker’s Corner in London’s Hyde Park…

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