Is News Junk Food For The Mind?

news montageThis is one of the most valuable articles I’ve read in a while:
News Is Bad For You – And Giving Up Reading It Will Make You Happier, The Guardian, April 2013

The article is a Guardian-edited extract from an essay published by the author, Rolf Dobelli, on his site. Here’s the full essay: Avoid News: Towards A Healthy News Diet, 2010.

Dobelli gives 15 arguments for how avoiding news can improve your health – mental and physical.  From his Prologue:

[This article] is long, and you probably won’t be able to skim it. Thanks to heavy news consumption, many people have lost the reading habit and struggle to absorb more than four pages straight.

He elaborates on that “four pages” claim in argument No. 7, which I feel is one of his strongest. I like No. 6 too. Below are some excerpts.

Intro: 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-colored 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 recognize how toxic news can be.

I like that analogy … news flashes are bright-colored candies for the mind. News outlets flash “Breaking News” in red across their site almost every day, sometimes several times a day, sometimes blinking or scrolling. It revs you up; it’s like a drug.

No. 1 News misleads. News does not represent our real worlds. It opts for the sensational …

Our brains are wired to pay attention to visible, large, scandalous, sensational, shocking, people-related, story-formatted, fast-changing, loud, graphic onslaughts of stimuli. Our brains have limited attention to spend on more subtle pieces of intelligence that are small, abstract, ambivalent, complex, slow to develop, and quiet, much less silent. News organizations systematically exploit this bias.

As a result of news, we walk around with the complete wrong risk map in our heads:

  • Terrorism is overrated. Chronic stress is underrated.
  • The collapse of Lehman Brothers is overrated. Fiscal irresponsibility is underrated.
  • Astronauts are overrated. Nurses are underrated.
  • Airplane crashes are overrated. Resistance to antibiotics is underrated.

No. 2 News is irrelevant, because it often addresses topics outside our sphere of control…

The point is: the consumption of news is irrelevant to you. But people find it very difficult to recognize what’s relevant. It’s much easier to recognize what’s new. The relevant versus the new is the fundamental battle of the current age. Media organizations 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.

No. 3 News limits understanding.

Precariously few news organizations manage to explain causation because the underlying processes that govern significant social, political and environmental movements are mostly invisible. They are complex, non-linear and hard for our (and the journalists’) brains to digest. Why do news organizations go for the light fluff, the anecdotes, scandals, people-stories and pictures? The answer is simple: because they are cheap to produce.

No. 4 News is toxic to your body.

News constantly triggers the limbic system. Panicky stories spur the release of cascades of glucocorticoid (cortisol). … High glucocorticoid levels cause impaired digestion, lack of growth (cell, hair, bone), nervousness and susceptibility to infections.

No. 5 News increases cognitive errors.

News feeds the mother of all cognitive errors: confirmation bias. We automatically, systematically filter out evidence that contradicts our preconceptions in favor of evidence that confirms our beliefs.

[News also] exacerbates another cognitive error: the story bias. Our brains crave stories that “make sense” – even if they don’t correspond to reality. … Instead of just reporting that the stock market declined (or increased) by 2%, TV news anchors proclaim, “The market declined by 2% because of X.” [In reality] we don’t know why the stock market moves as it moves. To a large degree, news reports consist of nothing but stories and anecdotes that end up substituting for coherent analysis.

No. 6 News inhibits thinking.

Thinking requires concentration. Concentration requires uninterrupted time. News pieces are specifically engineered to interrupt you.

News makes us shallow thinkers. But it’s worse than that. News severely affects memory. There are two types of memory. Long-range memory’s capacity is nearly infinite, but working memory is limited to a certain amount of slippery data. The path from short-term to long-term memory is a choke-point in the brain, but anything you want to understand must pass through it. If this passageway is disrupted, nothing passes through. Because news disrupts concentration, it weakens comprehension.

In a 2001 study two scholars in Canada showed that comprehension declines as the number of hyperlinks in a document increases. Why? Because whenever a link appears, your brain has to at least make the choice not to click, which in itself is distracting.

No. 7 News changes the structure of your brain.

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.

The human brain is highly plastic. 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.

No. 8 News is costly. News wastes time.

First, count the time you actually waste reading, listening to or watching the news. Second, tally up the refocusing time. Third, news stories and images may pop into your mind hours, sometimes days later, constantly interrupting your train of thought.

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. Why give it away so easily?

No. 9 News sunders the relationship between reputation and achievement.

With the advent of mass-produced news, the strange concept of “fame” entered our society. The media grants fame to movie stars and news anchors for scant reason. The tragedy is that pop notoriety crowds out the achievements of those who make more substantive contributions.

No. 10 News is produced by journalists.

Good professional journalists take time with their stories, authenticate their facts and try to think things through. You might not be able to tell the difference between a polished professional report and a rushed, glib, paid-by-the-piece article by a writer with an ax to grind. It all looks like news.

No. 11 Reported facts are sometimes wrong, forecasts always.

Many news stories include predictions, but accurately predicting anything in a complex world is impossible. Overwhelming evidence indicates that forecasts by journalists and by experts in finance, social development, global conflicts and technology are almost always completely wrong.

No. 12 News is manipulative.

Stories are selected or slanted to please advertisers (advertising bias) or the owners of the media (corporate bias), and each media outlet has a tendency to report what everyone else is reporting, and to avoid stories that will offend anyone (mainstream bias).

Do we really want news reporters to set the public agenda?

No. 13 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 saps our energy. It grinds us down until we adopt a worldview that is pessimistic, desensitized, 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.

No. 14 News gives us the illusion of caring.

We may want to believe that we are still connected, as our eyes drift from a news anchor announcing the latest atrocity to the NBA scores and stock market quotes streaming across the bottom of the screen. But the ceaseless bombardment of image and verbiage makes us impervious to caring.

No. 15 News kills creativity.

Things we already know limit our creativity. This is one reason that mathematicians, novelists, composers and entrepreneurs often produce their most creative works at a young age. Their brains enjoy a wide, uninhabited space that emboldens them to come up with and pursue novel ideas.

The creativity-killing effect of news might also be due to something simpler we’ve discussed before: distraction.

_______
Here’s a screen grab of CNN from just this moment. I didn’t pick it. It epitimizes arguments No. 1, 3, 8, 10, 12, and 14. At least those. One of the most painful things about this image is how it overlays a case of domestic violence with a breaking story about a new phone. Talk about desensitizing…

CNNBreakingNews

I first heard of limiting news consumption from Dr. Weil. He advises taking “news fasts,” which I thought was crazy at the time, but I’m warming to it. I’m not prepared to give it up entirely, as this author recommends, but I may treat it more as a condiment instead of my main reading fare.

Remember Hy Goldman? The man who just celebrated his 101st Birthday? I blogged about him here. One thing he said that stayed with me is that in order to live a long, healthy life you need to care for 3 things … your body, your mind, and your heart. The internet, and all the devices we use to tap into it, has changed our lives drastically. Mostly, I think, for the better. In some ways, not so much.

Where do you get most of your news? I’m going to limit this poll to one answer because I’m stingy like that. I get mine mostly from the internet. I used to get a big chunk from television but I’ve already begun my experiment and stopped watching TV about 3 weeks ago. I don’t miss the commercials.

[yop_poll id=”4″]

13 thoughts on “Is News Junk Food For The Mind?

  1. David D

    Great article. I mostly rely on my wife to tell me what is happening in the world. I often go several days before I hear about major events. I’m okay not knowing. I have noticed that I am not desensitized as much as I used to be.

    Reply
    1. Bix Post author

      I read a bit of this before I posted. I’m in no position to judge. I recall reading in Dobelli’s essay: “My good friend Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan, was one of the first people to recognize news consumption as a serious problem. I owe many of the following insights to him. [referring to his 15 arguments].” And it appears that Taleb even endorsed the book after publication. (http://www.dobelli.com/book-corrections/taleb)

      Apart from the character of these men, I’m still quite swayed by these arguments.

      Reply
    1. Bix Post author

      An essential argument in this article was that reading news does not provide “the basics of what’s going on.” It only appears to, and it often fails. Argument No. 3 addresses this specifically. “[News] fails to explain causation because the underlying processes that govern significant social, political and environmental movements are … complex, non-linear and hard for our brains to digest.”

      The alternative, as recommended, was to “read magazines and books which explain the world … that represent its complexity.”

      I see this in the field of nutrition. There’s a disconnect between a study, and the reporting of the study in the news. With recent admonishments to “eat butter,” journalists and other writers-of-news show they did not investigate, and so fail to communicate, the complexities of the studies they were reporting. For example, when everyone in a study is consuming a nutrient within a range that contributes to disease, it will appear that the nutrient does not affect disease development. Why don’t they say that?

      Reply
    1. Bix Post author

      That was a great blog post … The Low Information Diet. He does say a lot of what Dobelli (or Taleb) say here. I notice they both mention that The Economist is a valuable read.

      Reply
  2. Melinda

    This is a thought-provoking post, Bix. I totally agree with you that if one *only* watched, say, the evening news or *only* read the local paper, one’s sense of what’s happening would be so shallow as to be practically non-existent. But looking further on one’s own, researching news analyses of “stories” is absolutely necessary–I’m often shocked at the difference b/tw the way “stories” are presented on the evening news and the actual complexities of the same issues as presented in more depth in other sources.. And yes, I agree that the Economist is a valuable read. I just think of people like my former students, for whom even watching the news is a stretch, and shake my head, shuddering to think how ill-informed they are. I guess I just don’t agree w/ a number of the conclusions Dobelli reached (or plagiarized, a possibility you note Bix). They’re interesting, but he’s creating sensationalist “news” like any other reporter. For instance, on the issue of “fame”, that actually entered Western European culture with the rise of Renaissance thinking and tended to attach itself to figures in the liberal arts–Giotto, Dante, Michelangelo, etc. Such a concept really didn’t exist in the mediaeval period.

    Reply
    1. Bix Post author

      No, that’s not what I’m saying, that watching the news or reading the paper isn’t enough. I’m saying, actually I’m not saying it, these authors are saying it but I agree with it, that consuming news is unhealthy. You say here that not watching the news makes someone ill-informed. This article says it’s the other way around, that watching it makes someone ill-informed.

      Interesting that you disagree with their argument about fame. I agree with it. I do think that the media grant fame to people undeservedly, and at the expense of people or happenings with more relevant or valuable contributions. A recent example is the Internet Archive, “one of the richest and most diverse museums of imagery in the world” which didn’t even rate a mention on CNN. Why isn’t its brainchild, Kalev Leetaru, more famous? Why is Kim Kardashian famous?

      Reply
  3. anrosh

    OK. I don’t read the news. it has been some time . i read the economist ! but it is another piece of news literature. ? All the same.
    So I dont know who is Kardashin and I looked dumb when I said that I didn’t know – it really happened to me. i came home and googled. And when i asked them they thought i didnt know. So what ? but now the links are forced on you by google ads. And I am not ashamed looking dumb because i didnt consume the news. . Unlearning my past has been a good usage of my time

    Reply
    1. Bix Post author

      Anrosh, you’re indispensable around here. I hear and agree with all you said. I like this … “the links are forced on you by google ads” … It’s true! Advertising is everywhere, and exists even in cloaked, insidious ways. People will deny that they are being sold products if they just watch a program on television and don’t watch the commercials. It’s not true. The program sells us products, it sells a lifestyle, with all the consumables that sponsors want to get in our head. And it’s done on purpose, it’s not just a coincidental byproduct of the program.

      Reply
  4. Bix Post author

    It’s been about 6 weeks since I’ve watched any television. My only exposure has been my husband’s faithful watching of Judge Judy. I do get wrapped up in those cases. (The number of commercials on that program… It’s unforgivable.)

    Reply
  5. Виктор

    We all need to ask ourselves what is going into our minds is it what would be junk food for our minds or health food with healthy motivational thoughts.

    Reply

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