Manic Nation: Dr. Peter Whybrow Says We’re Addicted to Stress

“The computer is electronic cocaine for many people,” says UCLA’s Peter Whybrow. “Our brains are wired for finding immediate reward.” Which is why we can’t stop.

Dr. Peter Whybrow is lunching at a sushi bar near his office at the University of California, Los Angeles, but his attention is on the other diners. Even while talking to their tablemates, they are constantly distracted. They text, and repeatedly glance up at the wall-mounted TV screens. Common habits, sure. But to Whybrow, director of UCLA’sInstitute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior, those jittery behaviors are prime examples of how modern American culture has outrun the biology of our brains.

A British-born endocrinologist and psychiatrist, Whybrow has been fascinated with applying behavioral neuroscience to social issues since he took over the institute in 1998. At the time, with the dot-com bubble swelling and the Internet expanding, he saw a dangerously rising tide of growing psychosocial stress and shrinking physiological balance.

“Many of the usual constraints that prevented people from doing things 24 hours a day—like distance and darkness—were falling away,” says Whybrow. Our fast new lives reminded him of the symptoms of clinical mania: excitement over acquiring new things, high productivity, fast speech—followed by sleep loss, irritability, and depression.

Whybrow believes the physiological consequences of this modern mania are dramatic, contributing to epidemic rates of obesity, anxiety, and depression. In his forthcoming book, tentatively titled The Intuitive Mind: Common Sense for the Common Good, Whybrow explores how to repair the damage. “Why is it that we’ve been railroaded down this path of continuous stimulation and can’t seem to control ourselves?” he wonders. “Why can’t we just stop?”

“The good news,” he goes on, “is that we are now beginning to understand it from the perspective of brain science.”

“The computer is electronic cocaine for many people,” says Whybrow. “Our brains are wired for finding immediate reward. With technology, novelty is the reward. You essentially become addicted to novelty.”

We can’t stop because the brain has no built-in braking system. With most natural constraints gone, all we’ve got left is our own intelligence and the internal regulatory system in the frontal cortex, the most recent evolutionary addition to the brain. This “executive brain” regulates impulse control and reasoning. But, Whybrow notes, “despite our superior intelligence, we remain driven by our ancient desires.”

The most primitive part of our brain—the medulla and cerebellum—developed millennia ago when dinner tended to run or fly away. It cradles the roots of the ancient dopamine reward pathways. When an action has a good result, like snatching food before it escapes, or finding something new, dopamine neurotransmitters release chemicals that make us feel pleasure. And the more we get, the more we want. When these reward circuits are overloaded with near-continuous spikes in dopamine, our craving for reward—be it drugs, sex, food, or incoming texts—“becomes a hunger that has no bounds,” says Whybrow.

While our brains’ reward centers are in overdrive, so are their threat-warning systems. The brain’s hard-wired fight-or-flight response, buoyed by a rush of adrenaline, evolved as a response to acute emergencies, like fending off a charging lion. Since the primitive “reptilian” brain can’t distinguish between a real or potential threat, it responds to any psychosocial challenge, be it rush-hour traffic, overdue mortgage payments, or repeated deadlines, by triggering some measure of the fight/flight response. “In the past, you either fought and won or you died, but either way the stress disappeared,” explains Whybrow. “Now the alarm bells go off much of the time as we encounter one prolonged threat.”

When the “threat” is ongoing, stress disrupts the communication network between the brain and immune system and accelerates the production of molecules called cytokines, the overproduction of which can result in inflammation and disease. Prolonged stress also prompts the brain’s hypothalamus region to release cortisol, a hormone that raises blood sugar and blood pressure. “When the stress response is continuously in play,” explains Whybrow, “it causes us to become aggressive, hypervigilant, overreactive.

Small wonder then that, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, anxiety is now the nation’s most common psychiatric complaint, affecting some 40 million people. And the connection between mental stress and obesity has been well documented.

So how does Whybrow himself cope, given the demands of running a huge institution with 400 faculty, a fast-approaching book deadline, and constant speaking engagements?

In his office, during an hour-long interview, there was not a single interruption. No email or text pings. No ringing phones. His computer was closed. His cell phone was turned off, as it usually is. He sometimes works until 9 at night, but he doesn’t work at home. On weekends, he checks his email just once a day.

“The idea is not that you don’t work hard,” Whybrow explains. “You do. But you have to be able to switch it off and create space. I’ve made a conscious decision to live a life that is not driven by someone else’s priority.” No matter how good that dopamine feels.