Sunday, March 7, 2021

JAMES COYNE'S COLUMN

Your Brain on Cortisol During COVID-19, Your Brain on #Neurononsense

Moralistic advice-gurus’ talk of hormones and brains shames us into thinking they know more about us than we do and that we have been bad during the pandemic.

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Herein you will get a mini-training on how to “Just say No!” to advice experts who come armed with pseudoscience and positive psychology.

Even if we have been fortunate enough to personally avoid the virus, none of us have been perfect in preserving the routines that we had in place to stay healthy before the pandemic and the lockdowns.

Things like eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, drinking moderately — if at all — and maintaining the social relationships that are important to us.

Keeping ourselves together, individually and collectively, is getting even harder as the pandemic wears on and the lockdowns get longer and stricter.

Only we can decide for ourselves if we are harmlessly indulging ourselves with a bit of eating and drinking or if we have gone too far and need to consider moderation or a plan for strengthening healthy behaviors.

Maybe we are dissatisfied with changes in how we are now looking or feeling. If so, we can take advantage of the disruption of routines of the pandemic to make changes we otherwise would not attempt in normal times.

Sure, we are not alone in all this thinking and deciding. We welcome, sometimes, but not always, friends and family members telling us what they think.

But what about complete stranger advice gurus who claim to know more about us than we do, without even having met us?

Freelance writers, some quite talented, have ample time on their hands and can craft stories to undermine our acceptance of ourselves as being less than perfect and our nobody’s-business-but-our-own sense of autonomy in making our decisions about how we live.

Underemployed writers may simply want to garner clicks on links to their articles to convince media to publish more of their stuff. Advice about how to live better always gets lots of clicks, especially of the cliched variety “Science says everything you think you know is wrong.”

Writers may even be participating in Amazon affiliate programs so they get a kickback for every book sold as a result of readers clicking on links embedded in their articles.

Maybe the writers have plans for their own self-help books. Sales will be boosted with lavish endorsements from the established self-help experts whom the writers have praised in their articles.

Judging from Amazon reviews, there really seems to be a mutual admiration society of advice gurus and self-help experts just loving each other’s work. All self-help merchandise have ratings way above average, and most of it, stupendously so.

Maybe our 2021 new year’s resolution can be to kick the self-help habit by which we buy books and tapes to which we never pay further attention. These products are undoubtedly filled with extravagant claims based on pseudoscience, anyway.

Photo by Malcolm Lightbody on UnsplashPhoto by Malcolm Lightbody on Unsplash

‘We may long ago have grown amused and indifferent to the sidewalk evangelists and prophets who insist we are doomed to burn in hell if we don’t worship their God in their way.

Yet, even educated people, especially educated people, remain susceptible to advice gurus talking about the science of hormones and brains, seemingly spouting knowledge that sounds familiar, but that is beyond their comprehension or ability to contradict.

Here is an article to which we can talk back in ways that prepare us not to be threatened by such articles the inevitable next time they pop up in our newsfeeds.

Your brain on cortisol: Why overstressed gray matter is leading us astray in lockdown

Why a stressful year has led us to drink, eat and shop. It’s our brains on cortisol. When it comes to vices during the pandemic, simply put, it’s been difficult to say “no.”

The title already conveys the presumption that readers are fallen sinners as a result of being led astray by their brains.

Just what does ‘gray matter leading us astray’ mean? Is it like our brain is in the car up ahead and we are driving in a car behind? If so, doesn’t it take a brain to follow our brain?

We had thought that cortisol” and “gray matter” in the title of the article “cortisol” and “gray matter” signaled that science was ahead, but already it seems we are getting lost in metaphysical speculation.

*This is getting deep, shove me into shallow waters.

The serious case against us starts in the first sentence of the article:

*When it comes to vices during the pandemic, simply put, it’s been difficult to say “no.”

Readers are accused of regularly drinking too much and “eating half a birthday cake,” which was okay back in March but is unforgivable now.

Next, it is suggested that readers have been lonely and so are chain-smoking a pack a day. The supreme devil of bad habits has taken ahold of our souls.

But nine months on, when experience has demonstrated that chain-smoking a pack of cigarettes doesn’t compensate for human interaction, why do bad habits continue to compel us?

We — despite many of us being nonsmokers — may be getting defensive, or we may reject this depiction of us as off the wall.

But then, the author summons expert witness “Dr. Robert Lustig, a professor emeritus of pediatric endocrinology at the University of California, San Francisco, and author of “Metabolical” to testify.

Lustig presumes he knows the readers well and accuses us of “illogical pleasure-seeking” caused by the “prolonged traumatic, or ‘chronic toxic,’ stress that prevented us from keeping our desires in check.

The good journalist translates this:

*In scientific terms: When brains are flooded with the stress hormone cortisol on a long-term basis, it inhibits the function of the prefrontal cortex, leading to excessive activation of the “reward center” of the brain — triggering the excessive baking, drinking, smoking and shopping that filled the idle hours of 2020.

So, brains can flood like basements? Now excessive baking and shopping are being added to the bad things with our idle hands. The good professor emeritus of pediatric endocrinology further flails us with his expertise:

Dopamine is the reward neurotransmitter. It is held in check by the prefrontal cortex. When that inhibition is released, the reward center looks for hedonic stimuli,” Lustig said. “Those can be chemical — cocaine, heroin, nicotine, alcohol, sugar — or behavioral — shopping, gambling, internet gaming, social media, pornography.”

So, now the truth is out: We can fess up. According to Lustig, we have been snorting cocaine, shooting heroin, gambling, and masturbating while viewing porno. Good thing that social distancing has reduced the possibility of anyone shaking our hands.

Now that we are whipped, humiliated, and bleeding, the good professor emeritus of pediatric endocrinology delivers his signature sermon on sugar addiction:

Take the beloved carbohydrate sugar. Early in the pandemic, a baking frenzy swept the country, offering both a relatively accessible quarantine hobby and a constant supply of carbs. Like hand sanitizer and toilet paper, flour and yeast went from lowly supermarket staples to hot-ticket items quickly nabbed from store shelves.

The preparation of baked goods in quarantine was clearly driven by more than just the joy of cooking, Lustig said.

Ha! We thought we had other good reasons for learning to bake. Some of us were being altruistic, like baking for our locked-down neighbors who have no fresh biscotti now that the bakery has closed for good.

Or maybe we were perfecting our sourdough. What the bakery offered was never that great. We can find meaning and purpose in learning to make a better sourdough in the long, otherwise empty afternoons of lockdown.

But no way.

This expert Lustig knows this is just our addiction talking, making excuses for us. We are really feeding our addiction and hooking our neighbors on sugar as well.

The good emeritus professor goes on in that vein, but then almost catches himself by acknowledging that:

The jump from sifting flour to full-blown addiction might sound extreme, but it raises the question of why exactly people turn to certain things for comfort even when they know the feeling is fleeting.

The author of the article dismisses Lusting from the stand.

She calls another expert witness for the prosecution, positive psychologist Laurie Santos, a professor of psychology at Yale University and host of “The Happiness Lab” podcast.

That’s the million-dollar question…We know neuroscientifically that there’s a disconnect between the kinds of things that we want and the kinds of things that we like. Wanting is a motivational process. Liking is how you’re going to feel when you get it.”

The flip side is that we don’t have ‘wanting’ for the things that are going to work. Things like taking time to experience social connection, doing nice things for others, taking time to experience gratitude. We just don’t have mechanisms to seek that stuff out. We don’t realize that that’s what’s missing,” Santos said.

Yup, damn us, we have deprivation and suffering all around us and we don’t want things that work and we do not realize what is missing. We are all unenlightened selfish assholes.

The author presents circumstantial evidence that we ordered too much booze online but ignores exculpatory evidence, such as we stopped ordering booze when the bars and restaurants temporarily reopened.

And consumers spent their pittance from the stimulus package to buy cigarettes and smoke at home. Reminds me of the old ‘welfare queens in Cadillacs’ myths of the Reagan era.

Then there were the atrocities of Cyber Monday:

Nov. 30, the first Monday after Thanksgiving, became the biggest online shopping day in U.S. history, with a grand total of $10.7 billion in purchases — a number as indicative of the collective brain’s search for gratification as any other. And one category that surged notably was self-care.

Buying new material possessions just simply doesn’t make us as happy as we think. In fact, we’d be better off spending money on other people.”

Sure, Dr. Santos, practice what you preach and give the money away from your self-help merchandising to less fortunate people.

Weirdly, the author next dismisses Dr. Santos as an expert witness and brings in some kind of sorcerous to condemn the greed and selfishness in her testimony.

Self-care is the ultimate form of expressing self-love,” said Colleen McCann, the author of “Crystal Rx” and founder of a fashion-meets-mysticism brand, Style Rituals. McCann’s services include energetic closet cleanings and self-affirming crystal and Tarot readings, after which clients receive a highly curated “me-time” kit and a mood board. Even as a high-end, niche offering, Style Rituals has been gaining business even though its services have moved fully online, McCann said.

I think I will leave McCann to her self-affirming crystals and consider the prosecution to have rested their case.

Henry Fuseli, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

*What sayest thou to this, poor sinner? Let me say it over again. There are but few to be saved, but very few. Let me add, but few professors– but few eminent professors. What sayest thou now, sinner? -John Bunyan 1686

Testifying in defense of hapless readers who are muddling through a pandemic for the first time

To paraphrase Eleanor Roosevelt, we’re doing the best we can. It’s just that in the pandemic we are not on our best days. Most of us, even those who are doing relatively well, have taken a few knocks on our chins. We made mistakes.

II keep my comments brief, narrowly addressing the competence of the expert witnesses who seem to claim to know more about our motives than we do.

If we use Google <Robert Lustig>, page upon page of search results consist of praise for his work on sugar addiction. We should not be swayed by the first results of Google searches of such celebrity figures, because they are often manipulated to control what we see, keeping out anything critical.

Nonetheless, in the world of pop psychology, Lustig is widely seen as having “proven” the reality of fructose (fruit sugar commonly added to sweeten soft drinks) as being more addictive than cocaine. However, if we look up his name on Google Scholar, we find that he is not held in high regard by peers, who consider having made much too much of some laboratory studies of rodents. He has drawn premature conclusions about the relevance to humans. Worse, Lusting makes wild claims in his popular books, exploiting the ignorance of lay readers.

Lustig presents a comicbook caricature of how hormones and the nervous system interact. If he said such things in a talk at UC, San Francisco Medical Center where he was faculty, he would be laughed out of the room. I am confident that he would risk being seen as foolish.

Some astute readers have expressed great disappointment with Lustig for making too much of some early observations of rodents and then deliberately fooling lay readers,

NPR to Robert Lustig: You Hurt, Not Help, Your Cause. We’ve written before about the grossly exaggerated accusations against sugars made by Robert Lustig in his…

From flawed studies purportedly linking sugar consumption to Type II diabetes, to outrageous declarations that obesity is “bigger than the bubonic plague,” Lustig has a penchant for baselessly inciting fear in consumers’ minds.

Hormones have multiple functions in a complex system that we only understand in parts. We know enough to say that actions of hormones get reactions from other hormones and the nervous in complex feedback loops.

It is plain silly to say that cortisol is THE stress hormone. Cortisol is not an established biomarker for psychological stress. We cannot say meaningfully say that an individual is too high or too low in cortisol. When we take multiple measurements of cortisol in the laboratory, we usually find that cortisol is only weakly related to differences in human behavior.

I want particularly to take issue with Lustig’s loose notions of toxic stress and of COVID-19 being traumatic. Lustig is guilty of the jingle-jangle fallacy in his lazy use of these terms.

Jingle-jangle fallacies refer to the erroneous assumptions that two different things are the same because they bear the same name (jingle fallacy) or that two identical or almost identical things are different because they are labeled differently (jangle fallacy).

Aspirin, licorice, and even water can make you sick or die in large quantities, but we do label them as toxic. Cholecalciferol (Vitamin D3) is effective as a rat poison.

By analogy, human experiences can be stressful, but the burden is on someone like Lustig to specify what he means by “toxic” and to which specific experiences he is referring.

Overall, the past year living under the threat of COVID has often been stressful but is presumptuous to claim that it has been chronic or toxic for most people most of the time.

Lustig claims the right to loosely apply his notions of toxic and chronic stress to our experience and then he claims he sees precise effects on our neurochemistry. He then condemns what he thinks we have been doing is very bad.

I will be briefer in my comments about Laurie Santos, but many of the same things I have said about Lustig. With great entitlement and presumption, she applies some cartoonish conceptions of how people function is related to observations of their brain functioning. I am irked that she treats her readers as so much more stupid than her Yale colleagues and believes readers can be told noble lies and fairy tales.

Here is a cogent critique of her kind of brain talk:

People these days love to talk about brains. In everyday conversation and mainstream media reports, the organ and its processes are casually invoked (“my synapses are firing”) where once more ordinary language might have sufficed (“I’m thinking”). For good or for bad, there seems to be an increasingly pervasive belief that pretty much everything important about being human can be best explained — and, if need be, fixed — by referring to the mysterious squishy matter inside our skulls.

Maybe we can pick up this conversation about stress and brains and hormones again. My readers can contribute by making comments on this article or even by using the valuable Medium function by which they can turn comments into your own articles. If readers don’t like what I write, they can take to social media and attack me or even try to cybermob out of social media as some positive psychologists have tried.

But for now, we have to live with COVID. Those of us who are lucky to survive will hopefully be able to tell those who did not face COVID how they coped. Live so you can truthfully tell others great stories. If you like, do creative outrageous things in your coping.

We live reminded by COVID of the threat of unplanned death. That gives an excuse for what we do, both good and bad. We hopefully will never have such opportunities again.

I don’t think we need the presumption or permission of advice experts.

If you think you need permission to eat half a cake, you can say Coyne said I could in a Medium article.

*John Bunyan, 1676. THE Strait Gate OR, Great Difficulty of Going to Heaven: Plainly proving, by the Scriptures, that not only the rude and profane, but many great professors, will come short of that kingdom: with directions how and why everyone should strive to enter in. 

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James Coynehttp://www.coyneoftherealm.com
James C. Coyne is Professor Emeritus of Psychology in Psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania where he was Director of Behavioral Oncology at the Abramson Family Cancer Center and Senior Fellow, Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics. He also was Professor of Health Psychology at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands, and has been on the faculties of University of Michigan School of Medicine and University of California, Berkeley. He received a BA in Psychology from Carnegie Mellon in 1969 and a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from Indiana University in 1975. Professor Coyne was the 2015 Carnegie Centenary Visiting Professor at the University of Stirling. He is the author of over 400 articles and chapters and has been designated one of the most influential psychologists of the second half of the twentieth century. His diverse interests have included clinical health psychology, mental health services research, and evaluation of depression screening and suicide prevention programs. As a blogger at Science-Based Medicine and Mind the Brain, Dr. Coyne is known for skeptical appraisals of advice gurus misleading consumers with hype and hokum. His activism with colleagues concerning undisclosed conflicts of interest has yielded dozens of corrections to published papers, a few retractions, and the Bill Silverman Prize from the Cochrane Collaboration.

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JAMES COYNE, PHD

James C. Coyne is Professor Emeritus of Psychology in Psychiatry at University of Pennsylvania where he was Director of Behavioral Oncology at the Abramson Family Cancer Center and Senior Fellow, Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics. He also was Professor of Health Psychology at University of Groningen, the Netherlands and has been on the faculties of University of Michigan School of Medicine and University of California, Berkeley. He received a BA in Psychology from Carnegie Mellon in 1969 and a PhD in Clinical Psychology from Indiana University in 1975.

Professor Coyne was the 2015 Carnegie Centenary Visiting Professor at the University of Stirling. He is the author of over 400 articles and chapters and has been designated one of the most influential psychologists of the second half of the twentieth century. His diverse interests have included clinical health psychology, mental health services research, and evaluation of depression screening and suicide prevention programs. As a blogger at Science-Based Medicine and Mind the Brain,

Dr. Coyne is known for skeptical appraisals of advice gurus misleading consumers with hype and hokum. His activism with colleagues concerning undisclosed conflicts of interest has yielded dozens of corrections to published papers, a few retractions, and the Bill Sliverman Prize from the Cochrane Collaboration.

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