News merely nose candy for the mind

Letters to the Editor (The Guardian)
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Most current affairs can be bad for your mental, physical health

News is the communication of selected information on current events.  Has it ever occurred to you that most news stories concern wars, natural disasters, crime and corruption, man’s inhumanity to their fellow man and other terribly depressing subjects? Why is that? I have come to the conclusion, belatedly, that the news can be bad for your mental and physical health.

Rolf Dobelli, author of The Art of Thinking Clearly, hypothesized such in the Guardian (UK) and suggested that ignoring it may make you happier. I agree with many of his points and I think you will too. I will try to summarize his most salient arguments. The news is to the mind what sugar is to the body. Both are easily digested, initially appealing but will eventually make you fat and lazy. News consumption is rarely satisfying. We can inhale endless quantities of news flashes, but they’re merely nose-candy for the mind.

News misleads. News leads us to walk around with a completely wrong risk map in our heads. Terrorism is over-hyped. Chronic stress is ignored.  Ebola, with 900 deaths this year, is over-hyped. Malaria, which kills nearly 650,000 people a year, is disregarded. The collapse of Lehman Brothers is over-hyped. Fiscal irresponsibility and accountability are minimized. Astronauts are over-rated. Nurses are under-rated.

News is irrelevant. Of the approximately 10,000 news stories you have experienced 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. People find it very difficult to recognize what’s relevant but have no difficulty recognizing what’s new. The average life cycle of a news story is less than two weeks. How many times have you asked: “whatever happened to ….?”

News has no explanatory power. News items are bubbles popping on the surface of a deeper world. The really important stories are non-stories: slow, powerful movements that usually develop below journalists’ radar but are transformational. The more “news factoids” you digest, the less of the big picture you will understand.

News is toxic. It constantly provokes the limbic system. Panicky stories which exaggerate your personal risk trigger a cascade of stress hormones, which cause impaired digestion, impede growth, and result in anxiety and depression, susceptibility to infection, and situational desensitization. Stressed folk live shorter and unhappier lives.

News increases cognitive errors. Warren Buffett said “What the human being is best at doing is interpreting new information so that their prior conclusions remain intact.” News exacerbates this confirmation bias. It also exacerbates another cognitive error, the story bias. Our brains crave stories that “make sense,” even if they don’t correspond to reality. The first thing we ask when hearing about another mass murder is “why did they do it?” We will eagerly accept the first explanation which supports our foregone conclusion.

News inhibits thinking. Thinking requires concentration and comprehension requires thinking. Concentration requires uninterrupted focus. News pieces are specifically engineered to interrupt you. News makes us shallow thinkers and severely affects memory. Because news disrupts concentration, it weakens comprehension. News is an intentional interruption system.

News works like a drug. As stories develop, we want to know how they continue. The more news we consume, the more we exercise the neural circuits devoted to skimming and multi-tasking, while ignoring those for concentrating deeply and focused thinking. Most news junkies have lost the ability to absorb lengthy articles or books.

News wastes time. The average news consumer wastes about half a day a week feeding their habit. Information is no longer a scarce commodity; focused concentration is.

News makes us passive. News stories are overwhelmingly about things we don’t control. The continuous repetition of news stories about things we cannot change makes us passive. It grinds us down until we adopt a world view that is pessimistic, desensitized, sarcastic and fatalistic. The scientific term is “learned helplessness.”

News kills creativity. Things we already know limit our creativity. I don’t know a single creative person who is a news junkie. On the other hand, I know a bunch of spectacularly uncreative people who consume news like drugs. If you want to come up with old solutions, read news. If you are looking for new solutions, don’t.

Society needs journalism, but in a different way. Investigative journalism is always relevant. We need reporting that polices our institutions and uncovers truth. Important findings don’t have to arrive only in the form of news. In-depth journal articles, involved discussions and books are good, too.

By Des Colohan (guest opinion)

Desmond Colohan is a P.E.I. physician with a growing concern about the way news stories are presented.

Organizations: Lehman Brothers

Geographic location: UK, P.E.I.

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