The Neuroscience of Enlightenment: a Paleo Woo Book Review




This is a review of Power Up Your Brain: the Neuroscience of Enlightenment by David Perlmutter, MD and Alberto Villoldo, PhD. Briefly, I consider this book is both annoying and a must-read.

As Emily Deans, MD has shown us, healthy brain chemistry and diet are impossible to disentangle. While I think intentional evolutionarily informed (EI) thinking is the best way to view all things biological, I have a special interest in what I call “accidental paleo.” When folks arrive at the same conclusions that paleo, evolutionary psychology, or other EI disciplines arrive at through other paths, it lends a different flavor of creedence. The authors here briefly touch on evolutionary explanations, but not in a comprehensive or satisfying way. So while the book seeks to be evolutionarily compatible, I wouldn’t call it evolutionarily informed.

I’ve been meaning to get around to reviewing this book for months. Now that Don Matesz and his new wife appear keen to integrate diet and woo (exampe 1, example 2), I’m somehow glad I waited. Like Melissa, “I’m a little dismayed that Chinese medicine has somehow crept in and become tolerated.”

One reason I’m disinclined to tolerate woo (in its various forms) is the incessant reliance on variants of the fallacious argumentum ad verecundiam. To paraphrase, “I am privy to things you do not (and possibly cannot) understand because you haven’t experienced what I have experienced.” Invariably, these ‘experiences’ seek refuge from scientific inquiry by way of Stephen Jay Gould‘s hacky concept of non-overlapping_magisteria. Where Eastern traditions are involved, these ‘experiences’ tend to be X amount of time spent meditating (usually measured in years, thereby precluding substantive discussion until you’ve also spent years meditating), X amount of time hanging out in Asia, and/or contact with gurus X, Y, and Z. The sentiment is similar to the Christian concept that non-believers simply can’t understand because their minds are not opened by the influence of the “Holy Spirit”.

For some reasons, I tend to run into manifestations of pop-woo in coffee shops. The starry-eyed explanations tend to go something like: “At the smallest level, all matter consists of nothing more than energy. We know from physics that matter and energy are ultimately indestructible. All energy in the universe is connected. Humans and human consciousness are nothing more than energy. Therefore, human consciousness is indestructible and connected to all other energy.” The faulty logic and distorted use of physics is rampant in this argumentation. Rather than parse it, I’ll offer an example to ponder…

Humans continuously utilize approximately 100W. The brain consumes about 20W. The lightbulb in the lamp to my right is 60W, and the laptop I’m currently using draws 65 W. If the source of power to the outlet they’re both plugged into is interrupted, a level of power of 1.25 humans or 6.25 human brains will cease. This “energy” will shortly dissipate into surrounding matter. However, very few of us are motivated or otherwise inclined to ponder the cosmic connected consciousness of such energy dissipation whenever we flip a light-switch. No, we’re only tempted to invoke such explanations via anthropomorphism. From the perspective of physics, the energy used to sustain our consciousness is no different from the energy sustaining the incandescent bulb and Google Chrome. It is not good enough for proponents of woo to invoke energy; they must either instantiate distinct categories of energy for consciousness and light bulbs, or get a lot more metaphysically philosophical about pressing the power buttons on their iPods.

The three videos in my post showing the exchange between Sam Harris, Deepak Chopra, and Leanord Mlodinov are (again) appropriate.

Sam Harris puts in aptly, “”…these are completely different language games, and you have just merged them together in a very unprincipled way…”

Cons (of the book, that’s not another reference to Deepak Chopra)

The authors of “Power Up Your Brain” invoke similar mystical assumptions. They:

  • spend ample time describing the special knowledge they’re privy to because of years of contact with various shamanic traditions
  • equate the energy underlying the shamanic traditions of South American tribes with those of Eastern traditions
  • regularly play on mystical authority; not least of which by always referring to some guy — purporting to be the spiritual leader of the entire Tibetan ethnic group — as “His Holiness”
  • suggest beginning a fast on the full moon so that your energy may sync with (and thereby benefit from) the energies of all other Power Up Your Brain readers

Why I still think the book is a “Must-Read”

The authors’ main thesis is that attainment of “enlightenment” is only possible to those whose brains are functioning with biochemical optimality. We can play definitional games with “enlightenment”, but let’s just all agree for a moment that we’re speaking of the peak of human experience. In other words, conscious, emotional and/or intellectual optimality all require biochemical optimality. We may disagree on what exactly this optimality means, but optimal means optimal in any case.

Though the book is chock-full of gag-inducing woo terminology, it could have made nearly all of the same points and made all of the same prescriptions without the woo. The “power up your brain” concept is valid, and applying neuroscience to the goal of enlightenment is wise (definitions of ‘enlightenment’ notwithstanding).

Somehow, the authors arrive at what is essentially a paleo prescription. They do add some supplements purporting to prevent deficiencies in requisite neurotransmitters (and seem to lean vegetarian-ish), but otherwise (and only implicitly) recommend a paleo compatible diet. I say ‘compatible’ in part because they also lean toward a low-carb approach, which isn’t paleo per se.

Some of their specific recommendations to yield optimal brain function by avoiding toxins and providing necessary nutrients:

  • Organics. To prevent ingestion of chemicals that may interfere with optimal brain function.
  • Allergens. Avoid things like grains, particularly those containing gluten.
  • Fasting.

Some specific supplement recommendations:

  • DHA Omega-3. They basically recommend the same vegetarian algae source as Mat Lalonde, PhD.
  • Alpha-lipoic acid.
  • Coconut Oil.
  • Circumin.
  • Pterostilbene.

Much of the “paleo” credit I am giving them falls under the heading “avoiding allergens”. Though they explicitly recognize gluten and similar compounds, I don’t think they have a complete grasp of lectins or other anti-nutrients. Their protocol is also too quick to reintroduce potential allergens. I think they recommend abstaining for something like a week, then reintroducing if there are no perceived problems. Worse, they recommend testing for allergies — to things like gluten — and explicitly relying on such tests. Allergen testing may be effective for acute allergies, but achieving their goal of brain optimality requires long-term avoidance of low-grade “allergens” as well. A test or a one-week trial is not going to provide reliable enough data to meet this challenge.

Recognition of Amygdala Dominance

I read the book about the same time as the release of a study demonstrating that Political Views Are Reflected in Brain Structure. The authors of that study and this book highlight the connection between emotional (read: fear-based) thinking and amygdala dominance. Perlmutter and Villoldo discuss it in a way that sounds something like the triune-brain theory which attempts to explain our brains as having distinct reptilian, paleomammalian, and neomammalian sections than can be thought of as layers. The theory isn’t scientifically correct, but it may provide some value in thinking about brain evolution. In any case, the Power Up Your Brain protocol is designed to put all sections of the brain in harmony. Whether their protocol ultimately succeeds in this area is somewhat of an open question. However, I think they’re headed in the right direction on many fronts.