Healthy Brain Intake: Modify Your News Habits to Ease Your Mind

Too much information (TMI) is internet speak for the notion that this information is more than I need, or care to know. I admit, I am a news junkie these days, but I’m claiming TMI.

Wandering through the Amherst College art museum recently, I came across a series of three photographs entitled, “Burning News,” by T.S. Parchikov. These admittedly photo-shopped pieces depict people earnestly reading Russian newspapers that are nearly consumed by fire.

The photos imply that voluminous, overheated news intake could pose problems for us. I understand the feeling.

As a psychiatrist, I fear that a constant, deafening drumbeat of news might have negative mental health consequences. Too much of a good thing is overwhelming. The real danger of all this information is eventually we will tune it out, become numb to it all.

With the proliferation of rapid cycling, and the rise of suspect news outlets; separating rumor from fact is not always easy. Public rumors and statements made with the semblance of truth often masquerade as factual news. Rumors allay anxieties, provide deception, but only facts have the objectivity to truly advance our collective well-being.

Confirmation bias explains our heuristic tendency to selectively seek out information which support our beliefs. We are capable of tuning out confounding data, leaving unexamined our cherished beliefs.

When faced with ambiguity, often we take the lazy path of least resistance. Responsible news consumption takes time, and energy. Effective news illuminates our hearts, but if it is haphazard or obsessive, it can consume our minds.

Americans are more likely than ever to consume news on social media sites, a recent Pew Research Center report shows, with 26 percent of all adults gathering news from two or more social media sites, up from 18 percent last year. The list includes Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.

A total of 67 percent of all Americans get at least some news on social media, according to the report, which is based on data collected in August. And nearly half — 43 percent of Americans — often get their news online, a figure that has been creeping closer in recent years to the number one source that consumers report using often to get news — television.

The ability of our conscious minds, which are designed to hold only a few pieces of information at a time, to weather this information onslaught is finite. To greatly simplify, what we are conscious of, at any given moment is limited by what Bernard Baars, affiliated fellow in theoretical neurobiology at The Neurosciences Institute in La Jolla, CA., calls the mind’s “global workspace.” This is the integrated conscious awareness of our mind at work, the constantly changing conscious awareness as we might verbally report it to others.

Daniel Dennett, the philosopher and cognitive scientist, calls this conscious spotlight “fame in the brain.” Consciousness, in this sense, is much like the onset of a football stadium wave; it can start anywhere, with several false starts, but really consummates when it achieves a certain threshold of crowd effort.

Most of the underlying brain mechanisms, or the “how-the-sausage- is-made” processes, are unconscious. They support conscious awareness with information processing units, or “zombie units,” as Christof Koch, president of the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, euphemistically refers to them.

For example, there are processing centers for vision, language, emotions and abstract thinking. These zombie units determine what eventually enters our awareness, but we are not privy to their marionette strings in real-time.

The wonderment of conscious awareness happens because of broadband, complex communications among the frontal parts of the brain — the top-down deciders of what is important or salient: values, goals, meaningful memories — and the back of the brain, home of bottom-up information centers that are constantly receiving sensory information from inside and outside of our bodies.

The frontal area contains the cognitive modeling biases we all have. The posterior areas selectively filter sensory information from our environment. Both the wrong assumption from the frontal brain or a sensory overload from the back can seal our fate. Other parts of our brains, the anterior cingulate, ventral lateral areas, for example, help us choose among the occasionally opposing data that seek our conscious attention.

And these top down/bottom up processes are in constant dynamic interplay with each other. Nelson Cowan, Professor of Psychology at the University of Missouri, explains that our working memory, our capacity to hold information for a cognitive task, is limited to only four chunks of information at a time. Too much information can put undue stress on the workings of conscious awareness and working memory.

There is no doubt that conscious awareness has limits which can lead to dysfunction if overloaded. In fact, bombardment with digital technology from an early age has resulted in a generation of people who are easily bored.

Overstimulation from videos games, for example, can lead to symptoms looking much like an addiction, where there is diminution of pleasure derived from the gaming behavior, concurring with a loss of enjoyment from normally pleasurable activities. Gary Small, UCLA Professor of Psychiatry, has even argued that mobile technology: mobile phones, often with video, text, photos, and audio playing all at once, has changed how  brains are wired.

Attention Deficit Disorder and increased social isolation could be extreme complications. However, as the formal research on tech gadgets and our brain is in its infancy, we do have a huge natural experiment going in the general population.

I notice students’ difficulty with sustained concentrated attention in the classroom too. What’s happened to the verbal lecture? Is this a problem of my dated pedagogy or has deep learning, the active search for meaning, had its day?  Does the incandescent glow from computer screens when I’m lecturing students really mean students are listening/taking notes or, are they on Instagram, Twitter, or Snapchat? I could best hope they are looking at news reports.

These days, as more pedestrians walk while checking their phones, running into each other on the street has taken on a whole new meaning. Perhaps this is why mindfulness training is now a team sport and is an exploding cottage industry to boot. For some, mindfulness is a desperate antidote to information overload.

I’m not arguing for an empty mind. A healthy conscious mind needs external stimulation to function properly. This was evident by results from past physical and social sensory deprivation experiments. A 2015 study by University College London researchers Christina Daniel and Oliver J. Mason associated zero sound and light conditions with psychotic-like symptoms, whether subjects were prone to the condition or not. My elderly, in-hospital, delirious patients surely achieve better orientation to time, place, person, and situation when they have external environmental cues to help them.

Similarly, one needs facts, interpretations and expert opinions to successfully fulfil our responsibilities as citizens. Nobody wants to go back to the pre-Gutenberg printing press era. Print media helped spur on the Renaissance. Described in Danielle Allen’s book, Our Declaration, the founding fathers, authors of the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution, often field-tested their ideas by distributing early versions in pamphlets in the public square. Twitter and Facebook similarly played a key role in launching the Arab Spring.

Today, while traditional ink-on-paper circulation for newspapers continues to fall, more than 38 million people still read the Sunday newspaper in this country each week, according to Pew.

Digital subscriptions to news media are more difficult to assess but are increasing, Pew reports, with some outlets adding up to 500,000 digital subscriptions in 2016.

I too read a lot of daily top stories, opinion pieces, and the Sunday sections online. However, I do relish the tactile pleasure of my Sunday New York Times. I watch CNN and MSNBC religiously. I listen to NPR whenever I can and link many other local and national news outlets.

Despite contemporary rhetoric to the contrary, our democracy fundamentally rests on a free press. Ideally, engaged citizens should arm themselves with knowledge, not guns. I need to know what’s going down on my block and across the globe. Yes, it is a small world after all. In the end, Goldilocks is my hero: I want not too cold, certainly not too burning hot, but just right news. I want news efficiently delivered, nuanced, thoughtful, and factual. Our obsession with news alerts should not crowd out other magnets to our moral compass: literature, history, music, philosophy, and excellent non-fiction. Deep contemplation has benefits, screaming headlines often don’t.

For myself, I feel that consuming too much news, political discourse and commentary is setting my mind ablaze. I feel compelled to know what is going on in the world, but I have my limit. I strive to be a smarter media consumer but I acknowledge that the operators of big data may already have my number, dictating my consumptive behavior.

Recently I was in Seville Spain, in the old Jewish Barros Santa Cruz section, a byzantine area of small winding streets with no markers. In my haste, I ventured out my hotel without my smartphone, without my international data coverage and trusty Google map.

Earlier, I had lost my wallet in a restaurant, to which my only cue to the restaurant’s location was the view from my seat there, I don’t speak Spanish and the locals, friendly as they were, didn’t speak English. I was truly lost and desperately wanted my phone. Not knowing what to do, I sat down and just let my mind go, let it wander, I guess it kicked my default mode brain network into full gear.

After sitting there for about an hour, mindlessly, I got up, turned up a street and the restaurant was right there! Manoush Zomorodi, in her book, Bored and Brilliant: How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Productive and Creative Self, challenges us to turn off our cell phones for yes, meaningful, periods of time and reclaim our ability for wonderment, observation and creativity. Maybe we will aid our sanity too.

I strongly suggest that we set our brains literally at ease and limit the consumption of media outlets, and spend some time getting out into our communities; maybe something positive with happen. Maybe we will find our way again. Our brains need the rest.