Saturday, April 20, 2013

Why News Is Like Sugar For Your Brain

This is a rather interesting story about how bad chronic consumption of modern television driven, internet delivered electronic news can be for your mind and even health.

It's as bad as sugar is for your body.

And I'll admit: I have a hard time not reaching for this limitless supply of "brain sugar." News. Opinion articles. Politics. World affairs. And of course, sports news. News, news, news.

I often chide my own father, and father-in-law for watching cable and network news shows way too much.

My dad DVR's all 3 network newscasts each night, then proceeds to watch each one in succession, alternately yelling at the screen about their horrible and obvious liberal bias (no debate there) and fending off my mother's yelling at him about how they all "have the same damn stories!" (she's right too!).

My father-in-law when he visits, parks himself in front of Fox News and CNN for hours and hours at a time. I sometimes have to gently chide him to turn it off, because all cable news does is "anger up the blood" as the great Satchel Paige once said about fried meats.

Here's a few of the reasons why this author says we'd all be better off severely cutting back on our "news" consumption..

In the past few decades, the fortunate among us have recognised the hazards of living with an overabundance of food (obesity, diabetes) and have started to change our diets. But most of us do not yet understand that news is to the mind what sugar is to the body. News is easy to digest. The media feeds us small bites of trivial matter, tidbits that don't really concern our lives and don't require thinking. That's why we experience almost no saturation. Unlike reading books and long magazine articles (which require thinking), we can swallow limitless quantities of news flashes, which are bright-coloured candies for the mind. Today, we have reached the same point in relation to information that we faced 20 years ago in regard to food. We are beginning to recognise how toxic news can be.

News is irrelevant. Out of the approximately 10,000 news stories you have read in the last 12 months, name one that – because you consumed it – allowed you to make a better decision about a serious matter affecting your life, your career or your business. The point is: the consumption of news is irrelevant to you. But people find it very difficult to recognise what's relevant. It's much easier to recognise what's new. The relevant versus the new is the fundamental battle of the current age. Media organisations want you to believe that news offers you some sort of a competitive advantage. Many fall for that. We get anxious when we're cut off from the flow of news. In reality, news consumption is a competitive disadvantage. The less news you consume, the bigger the advantage you have.

News works like a drug. As stories develop, we want to know how they continue. With hundreds of arbitrary storylines in our heads, this craving is increasingly compelling and hard to ignore. Scientists used to think that the dense connections formed among the 100 billion neurons inside our skulls were largely fixed by the time we reached adulthood. Today we know that this is not the case. Nerve cells routinely break old connections and form new ones. The more news we consume, the more we exercise the neural circuits devoted to skimming and multitasking while ignoring those used for reading deeply and thinking with profound focus. Most news consumers – even if they used to be avid book readers – have lost the ability to absorb lengthy articles or books. After four, five pages they get tired, their concentration vanishes, they become restless. It's not because they got older or their schedules became more onerous. It's because the physical structure of their brains has changed.

News wastes time. If you read the newspaper for 15 minutes each morning, then check the news for 15 minutes during lunch and 15 minutes before you go to bed, then add five minutes here and there when you're at work, then count distraction and refocusing time, you will lose at least half a day every week. Information is no longer a scarce commodity. But attention is. You are not that irresponsible with your money, reputation or health. Why give away your mind?

News makes us passive. News stories are overwhelmingly about things you cannot influence. The daily repetition of news about things we can't act upon makes us passive. It grinds us down until we adopt a worldview that is pessimistic, desensitised, sarcastic and fatalistic. The scientific term is "learned helplessness". It's a bit of a stretch, but I would not be surprised if news consumption, at least partially contributes to the widespread disease of depression.

The recent Boston Marathon bombing has been a godsend for the cable networks, even though they would sanctimoniously deny it if pressed. It has given them hours and hours of sensational footage already, and with the capture of that one dummy alive, will provide weeks and months of additional "programming" 

And there's nothing "wrong" per se about keeping up with what happens to him now, and what we might learn as to his terrorist connections.

But will it affect your life in any meaningful way? Will it deepen your knowledge of something in life that will be useful or give you happiness going forward?

No. Not a chance.

I am going to try to resist getting suckered in as best I can, because I know it's easy to do and I'm  far from perfect. Even replacing the news with silly, staged shows like Duck Dynasty is a far better choice. At least Phil saying "happy-happy-happy" makes me smile and relaxes me.

Something Wolf Blitzer has never done.


  1. I've told my buddy tom that he could probably cut back on his (heart) meds if changed the "News" channel to something else.

  2. I wonder what blog consumption does to the mind.

  3. Czabe you are PX90 for the brain.

  4. I realized this about 15 years ago. I have rarely watched TV news since (barring the occasional, real disaster), and couldn't be happier. I literally have never heard Obama give a speech. I really doubt that I've missed anything. I recommend this approach to will quickly become smarter that all of the people who think they are smart by having someone tell them what to think.