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.

  1. Jae 13 years ago

    Very interesting review!

    I'm becoming increasingly interested in things that are sometimes unfairly dismissed as woo.

    For example, oil pulling is dismissed as pseudoscientific by many self-proclaimed skeptics. And rightly so, in that some of the reasoning offered by its proponents is clearly pseudoscientific in nature. However, oil pulling seems to confer genuine benefits by mechanisms that haven't been properly elucidated. (In my own case, at least, oil pulling with coconut oil radically diminished some prominent tooth stains within a few days, which start to come back if I fail to keep up the oil pulling. I can't speak for the other supposed benefits of oil puling.)

    I think acupuncture falls in the same boat, as I implied in the comments on Melissa's blog. The whole "meridians and Qi (as energy)" explanation pisses me off, but there are probably other, legitimate mechanisms at work, even if we don't understand fully what they are.

    Similarly, principles of Paleo eating have been attacked by people of varying scientific ability. So has Weston Price's work (most notably by QuackWatch).

  2. Angelo 13 years ago

    Woo or goo?

    [youtube XXi_ldNRNtM youtube]

  3. William Cloud 13 years ago

    "Reincarnation is a possibility to be taken seriously." Stephen Hawking

    I wonder why this man isn't saying consciousness is nothing but a manifestation of the physical brain? Could the accounts of those who have studied the mind first hand and have reported remarkably consistent observations over the past 2500 years be indications of concrete phenomena that can be accessed only through contemplation? Phenomena of the science of mind that physical sciences hasn't been able to measure yet but do exist? Only verified one intellect at a time? I am not a believer in reincarnation. But I am not much of a believer. I do see some of the phenomena reported by those who have achieved heightened levels of attentional stability far beyond our average human experience. There is something to the invitation to come see for yourself. Maybe Mr Hawking has discovered something available to most of us. And maybe it does take years of self study. It's not the same as believing when it is independently verifiable. And yes, not to be just believed.

    • Andrew 13 years ago

      First of all, did he really say that? Google pulls up 2 hits to one site that doesn't reference a source.

      Second, Hawking is some flavor of physicist, not a cognitive neuroscientist. That isn't to say that we should dismiss him, but the "Stephen Hawking says X" or "Einstein said Y" type arguments play on their perceived authority.

      Could these various claims be true? Well, yes. But we do have to admit that they are scientific claims, and as such, shouldn't be exempt from scientific inquiry. Lending them legitimacy without scientific support doesn't seem wise.

      I'm not asking this to be glib, but seriously… What is remarkable about heightened levels of attentional stability? There's nothing about that that necessitates reincarnation. Is a heightened level of attentional stability the best use of one's time, or is it simply another sport in which some people can achieve proficiency? Can the motivations be elucidated without invoking teleo-functional explanations?

  4. Lindsay 13 years ago

    I'll pick it up. As one who is further on the "woo" spectrum than many of y'all, though still fairly skeptical, I am fascinated by the concept of enlightenment and what exactly it is. I've never quite gotten a handle on "energy" but it does seem that meditation (and other, less studied practices) do have an effect on the brain.

    No sé. I'm going to get into meditation hard pretty soon on W&W.

    • Andrew 13 years ago

      Good call. I somehow neglected the meditation bit, but they talk extensively about it and even throw in some references that echo your point about its impact on the brain. Neuroplasticity is a fact, and meditation does seem to be a way to initiate it. Meditation is part of their protocol.

      As neuroplasticity tends to be driven by ecological inputs, intentionally (I realize I can’t really say that without violating Buddhist principles, but for the sake of conversation) putting oneself in a mental state of awareness seems like a tool worth exploring. This is basically where the ideas of the book and the study about the brain/politics relationship intersect (albeit implicitly). The authors of the study offer increased (perceived) fear motives as one of the potential explanations for larger amygdalas. Perlmutter and Villoldo use this same argument in their more psychological explanation of being stuck in an amygdala driven mode.

      Of course, their next step is the giant one of equating meditation with tapping into a universal energy/consciousness. And it’s in that step that they invoke a special knowledge requirement.

      It’s been a while, but Buddhism Without Beliefs was my first exposure to any of this. And while looking up that link, I discovered the author has a new book, Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist. Yoga, Buddhism, et cetera seem to be bundled up on a spectrum of from zero woo to Bubb Rubb style woo WOO! I’m not sure if that’s just the marketing orientation applied to the commercialization (or Westernization) of religion, or if science is helping attain some degree of clarification of the useful insights (into human nature) of people like the Buddha.

  5. _TC 13 years ago

    Argumentum ad verecundiam is insidious, all too commonly the sole supporting factor in some rather dodgy belief structures. I find that most folks base their beliefs in those of others, purportedly those in positions to be authoritative on whatever the subject may be. People simply do not question information and research viewpoints. Drat.

  6. Bennett 13 years ago

    It's interesting how folks will get onto the reincarnation train via Buddhism–though I think it's more Tibetanism in that case. One of authentic Buddhism's central tenets is that nothing lasts forever. We are, indeed, made up of teeny bits of energy, but what does that amount to? It's a useful thought-object to contemplate while meditating (and I often do, as sort of a way to visualize Yoda's whole 'luminous beings are we, not this crude matter'), but ultimately it boils down to just being a pattern of energy that has bound up in a form so complex that it actually realizes it exists. And ultimately, it'll scatter into component parts and reconstitute.

    When you hit Jedi Master status and realize your one-ness with the universe, you realize that it's a metaphor and the literal truth. Nothing about me is brand-new, my little cells and atoms were all built from bits of other cells and whatnot that I ate (or my parents ate, etc), all the energy constituting them has been around for… well, that's metaphysical, but we'll take a rough stab at 'forever as far as my spacetime perception goes, and they'll be around forever after that, too'). It's a delusion to think that we're eternal, or separate from the rest of the world on some very basic, pattern levels.

    That said, we're also all ultimately unique, and ultimately responsible for our own actions, own decisions, and own outcomes. There's a definite duality to it. Not getting so wrapped up in the idea of a 'self' that we fail to realize that by the time we've formed the thought "I'm alive" the self that had that thought is already dead. But also not getting boggled by that, bummed out by the inevitability of the lights turning off, or trapped in this paradigm that we're all interconnected so nothing is my fault and everything is deterministic.

    It's not like being 'enlightened' is such a great trip, or carries special knowledge. It's just the next step after waking up to reality (IE, that life is tough, and you're gonna die, and you've got to live accordingly or you'll go nuts and/or waste what time you've got). It's more just removing the blinders. Before enlightenment, chop wood and carry water, after enlightenment chop wood and carry water. People who figure it comes with a third eye or some special powers are just having a more entertaining dream than the rest of the sleepers.

    But hey, what would I know? I still swear at baseball games and work on my six-pack. So all that time in full-lotus contemplating love and kindness for all living things may not be turning me into a Holy One after all.

    …Or possibly, being a Holy One is a pretty bad racket, when you can just be an aware mammalian energy-being-thingy who likes dirty jokes and kung fu.

  7. Larry 13 years ago

    thumbs up bennett

    • Bennett 13 years ago

      Heh, thanks. I looked back and felt silly for rambling about things not so much related to diet, fitness, or reproduction here, so I'm glad *someone* liked it.

  8. J. Stanton 13 years ago

    I've definitely found that my thinking is sharper than ever since "going paleo".

    And I'm glad to see you maintaining a solid anti-woo stance, Andrew. It seems to me like teaching healing and nutrition through TCM is like teaching chemistry via the writings of Paracelsus: since Lavoisier figured out that whole periodic table thing, there's no reason to go back.


  9. Author
    Guest 13 years ago

    "As neuroplasticity tends to be driven by ecological inputs, intentionally (I realize I can't really say that without violating Buddhist principles, but for the sake of conversation) putting oneself in a mental state of awareness seems like a tool worth exploring. "

    What in that did you see as violating Buddhist principles?

  10. Bennett 13 years ago

    It's sort of the looking-through-a-window-at-a-window paradox. When you intend to do something, you aren't doing the thing–you're intending. Your action in that case is the intention itself. It's sort of like saying "I want to go outside" isn't the same as actually going outside without giving the inclination any undue reflection. Don't miss the moon for the finger pointing at it.

    Now granted, 'Right Intention' is a tenet of Buddhism, but in a more, ah, general sense. Like my general intention is to be a good person and not hurt anyone. If I accidentally stepped on a bug today, I didn't intend to, so it's not a karmically negative action, unlike stomping one that I deliberately meant to squish.

    It's a much hazier thing when it comes to states of mental wakefulness. If you're making a 'conscious effort' to be more aware, that's distraction from actually just being in the moment.

  11. Doug 13 years ago

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

    TCM is not as woo as you might think. The people who talk about it that way rarely are acupuncturist. There are a lot of new agers that enroll in TCM schools. Most are completely disillusioned and drop out when they realize that the Chinese professors make Spock look woo. The few that make it through almost never can cut it it clinical practice.

    TCM is based on syndrome diagnosis (commonly occurring patterns of signs and symptoms). The Chinese named these syndromes in a way that made sense to them at the time (well before the vocabulary of modern science, medicine, nutrition, etc). Syndrome diagnosis is also commonly used in modern medicine today, they just have different names: IBS is pretty much the same as spleen qi deficiency.

    It’s funny to me that anybody would even have a discussion about what qi or yin (or any TCM terminology) is. It’s not important in treatment and in most cases it’s probably not possible anyway.

    Nobody truly knows how it works in a terminology that we want it described in (although there are theories and shit-loads of studies that prove its effectiveness in a wide variety of illnesses). There is a way, however, to use TCM in an effective manner. As an acupuncturist and herbalist, I know how acupuncture points and herbs affect each syndrome.

    In regard to J. Stanton’s comment above, “since Lavoisier figured out that whole periodic table thing, there's no reason to go back.” If you fuck up your back skiing or falling off a rock or something, you might be surprised how long it takes to heal if you do nothing but continue to eat a paleo diet. You might also be bummed out if you when you realize the NSAIDS and Cortizone shot (chemistry!) aren't doing anything to fix the problem either. If, however, you want to get rid of your pain quick and get back on the mountain in a couple of weeks, give me a call.

    Hopefully this explaination will make TCM a little more "tolerable" to some of you. I'm always happy to discuss further if anybody would like.

    • J. Stanton 13 years ago


      Perhaps I should clarify. I’m not saying that TCM hasn’t come up with quite a bit of useful knowledge, just as Paracelsus and all the other alchemists/pre-Lavoisier chemists managed to get a lot done.

      However, as you said, “It’s funny to me that anybody would even have a discussion about what qi or yin (or any TCM terminology) is. It’s not important in treatment and in most cases it’s probably not possible anyway.”

      Why would we voluntarily continue to learn, use, and fit knowledge into a framework that has no empirical or factual basis? It seems like TCM is just handicapping its own understanding by not working to explain its empirical knowledge in terms of biochemistry.

      Furthermore, since these TCM concepts and diagnoses have no empirical basis, they’re not testable. Do I really suffer from “Spleen qi vacuity”, or is my practitioner just yanking my chain? At least if I’m diagnosed with (just to choose a random example) hypocortisolism, that term has a specific meaning, and there are tests to determine whether I am, indeed, having adrenal troubles.

      Note that my experience leaves me with little faith in Western medical professionals to properly diagnose me for anything but obvious injuries (there are exceptions), and I know that NSAIDS and cortisone shots simply mask symptoms and inhibit the healing process. However, that doesn’t invalidate the scientific method — and when I want to figure out what’s going on, my current understanding leads me to search Google Scholar before going to someone whose diagnoses are (as far as I can tell) impossible to verify.

      I’m open to explanations, but this is where I am based on my current understanding.


      PS: Since you brought it up, what do you recommend for someone recovering from injuries? Let’s say my friend bailed off his bicycle into a ditch. He’s got a cracked rib, some strains and sprains, and a bunch of random contusions. What should he be doing beyond eating well, exercising as best he can, applying heat, and not re-injuring himself?

      • Bennett 13 years ago

        Tai Chi, obviously. That'll get his chakras aligned, for maximum holistic wellness. And any competent reflexologist can accelerate his healing process by getting those darn foot toxins out. Also helps with the aforementioned chakras. Oh, and seeing a chiropractor would help, heaven knows all those strains and sprains are going to cause subluxations–if one didn't cause the accident already! Then maybe a homeopath can get him some water that 'remembers' the impression of a nice pain-relieving cocktail–and, again, more help with the chakras. After that he could check out a naturopath. I don't even know what the hell they do, but if it involves chakras, I wouldn't blink.

        Also, maybe some tylenol for the pain and inflammation, assuming he's aware of the little side effects and finds it a worthwhile tradeoff. Oh, and remember, ice for the first couple days, theeeeen heat.

      • Doug 13 years ago

        Chinese medicine has a very methodical framework. The reason I say it’s not important to understand those terms in a biomedical way is because it wont help a practitioner diagnosis and treat with-in the framework of Chinese Medicine. As I mentioned, TCM uses syndrome diagnosis.

        So if you came in to see me, I would begin a whole series of questions much like the “review of systems” in western medicine. Let’s say from my questions and your complaints we determine that these are the predominant symptoms you are experiencing: fatigue, gas, bloating, loose watery stools, mild headache, poor appetite, abdominal discomfort that is better when pressure is applied, and general weakness.

        Let’s say I also notice you have a pale complexion, and upon examining your tongue I notice it’s pale, puffy, and has slightly scalloped or swollen edges. After feeling your radial pulse, I determine that it has a “weak quality.”

        My diagnosis would be spleen qi deficiency (would the paleo diganosis be vegetarian?). And I think almost any TCM practitioner would agree with me, as these are the classic symptoms for this syndrome. There is a common Chinese herbal formula used for this syndrome Si Jun Zi Tang (Four-Gentlemen Decoction). I can go on at length how the four different herbs in this formula both individually and synergistically affect this syndrome. In addition to herbs, I would do a series of acupuncture points that are commonly used for this syndrome.

        I guess the only way you would know or not if the practitioner is “yanking your chain” is if you know what the symptoms of spleen qi deficiency are and how to treat it. The other way to know is if the treatment(s) were effective to cure your condition.

        There are hundreds of syndromes and almost always a combination of a few at a time. On top of this, there are at least 500 commonly used herbs, thousands of formulas, and endless combinations depending on depending on the mix of syndromes. Same goes with the acupuncture points.

        Maybe you can see why I think it’s “probably not possible anyway” to define the terms biomedically.

        “It seems like TCM is just handicapping its own understanding by not working to explain its empirical knowledge in terms of biochemistry.”

        Actually TCM is trying to explain it’s empirical knowledge in terms of biochemistry, but I personally hardly see the point. There are hundreds (if not thousands) of studies on how acupuncture works (some the interesting ones to me are with the use of Functional MRIs).

        I think most of the herbs have had a quite a bit of research done on them also. Here is some research on one of the herbs in the above mentioned formula. Bai Zhu / Atractylodis Macrocephalae “(animals) when given by gastiric lavage in doses of 1-3 g/kg there was a two – to sixfold increase in urinary output that was sustained for six to seven hours.” “In many animal experiments, (bai zhu) increased the assimilation of glucose and lowered plasma glucose levels.”

        I guess it is important that these studies are going on, maybe in the future it will help further the medicine? But, if I only knew the results of those studies, I would have never known to give that to you for your messed up digestive system.

        Sorry for the long-ass answer. I hope I'm addressing what you were asking about. I’m tired, so I’ll get back to you tomorrow about your buddy that took a digger in the ditch.

    • Andrew 13 years ago

      If the question is "is TCM necessarily woo?", then I'm inclined to agree that the answer is no. However, there also seems to be a tendency among woo-inclined westerners to gravitate to "eastern philosophies" from a motivation that looks more like a craving for mystery, reactionary self-loathing, or "the grass is always greener on the other side of the hill" effect. Other underlying tendencies also tend to map rather well to most psychology of religion theories. Because of that (even if only perceived by me), my skeptic shields will remain in full-force.

  12. Doug 13 years ago

    While I agree with you about the "woo-inclined" westerners gravitating to eastern philosphies, etc; the interesting thing is that they very rarely actually come in for treament.

    Most patients come from one of two shools: the "I've tried everything and nothing has worked, so I'll give this shit a try" camp or from word-of-mouth camp.

    The new agers already tend to "know it all" anyway and are already eating their goji berries (or whatever).

    Sorry this strayed so far from the book review, I'll give it a look.

    @J. Stanton – Is your question hypothetical about your friend? If it is not and your truely interested, shoot me an email at [email protected] – I'll be happy to answer it.

  13. Bennett 13 years ago

    Actually, given some other factors that I'm considering, I wondered one other thing about acupuncture (many others, really, but this being the most germane)–how well does it work for vets (IE, on animal patients, not service members)?

  14. Doug 13 years ago

    Works really well with animals and pets. In fact, horse acupuncture is big business – most race horses receive regular treatments.

    @Andrew, good to see the site up and running again!

  15. Bennett 13 years ago

    Well, saying it's "big business" would suggest to me that it works well on horse owners, but… the data I've been looking at tends to suggest that the animals aren't as keen on it.

  16. Mike 13 years ago

    When I first found Paleo (also by accident), someone commented that once you start unravelling the ‘truth’ behind food, the whole world can unravel (hysterical reactions to fluoridation, vaccination, and in a lot of cases, all Western medicine). It didn’t at all. If anything, it showed me that every industry has it’s blind spots, and current medicine is no different. John S – as you say, paleo doesn’t invalidate the scientific method. Unfortunately though, the hostile reaction from scientists/nutritionists against those who self-diagnose problems with gluten push potential science advocates the way of the woo, rather than towards a greater understanding of diet and disease.

  17. Mat for Yoga 12 years ago

    Very interesting site and articles. Really thankful for sharing.Will surely recommend this site to some friends! Regards

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