When actor Charlie Sheen, currently America's favorite over-aged celebrity delinquent, decided to share his manic thoughts with the world, over 1,000,000 people joined his Twitter flock in a few days - a world record.
When Britney Spears climbed out of a limousine in Manhattan, having apparently misplaced her underpants, the view of her primary asset became one of the most often downloaded images in Internet history.
Sports Illustrated, for many years an uninspiring men's magazine, saw declining readership and profits for years. When the editors introduced the "annual swimsuit issue" (swimming is a recognized sport, don't you know), it raked in more profit than the rest of the year's issues combined.
Our Two Diets
Americans now spend as much money - and time - on "mental junk food" as on junk food for their bodies. And the long term effects on the culture might turn out to be even greater.
Healthcare researchers report that over half of Americans are now significantly overweight, with at least thirty percent of them qualifying as obese. Statisticians are beginning to suggest that life expectancy of coming generations might actually be lower than for their parents.
We don't seem to have a similar measurement for assessing general mental health. Our mental health model seems to be polarized around "crazy" and "sane," with no scale in between. If we had such a scale, most people would surely rate as "unsane" - sort of normally maladjusted.
Sound Mind in a Sound Body?
If "we are what we eat," then certainly "we are what we think." Just as dietary junk food makes us unwell and overweight, does mental junk food make us ...?
Many scientists date the onset of America's declining physical health with the arrival of television as a passive, mass entertainment medium. It also seems plausible to associate TV with the onset of the progressive "dumbing" of the popular culture, which has become an all-enclosing, nearly inescapable message environment. Americans seem to have become mentally, as well as physically, sedentary.
Only a hundred years ago, we were basically a print-only information culture. If you wanted to learn something or find out something, you'd have to voluntarily choose and seek out what you paid attention to.
In the now all-pervasive media environment, most of the images and messages we're marinating in have been chosen for us. Just as dietary junk food is more popular than natural food, mental junk food is more popular than the more nutritious fare. But in both cases, we're the ones who've made it that way by voting with our money and our attention.
The Environment We Created Now Creates Us
Question: in which case are you smarter - being uninformed about a particular subject, or being grotesquely misinformed?
Surveys repeatedly show that about 27 percent of Americans believe that Barack Obama was not born in America. Among people who call themselves Republicans, some 41 percent believe he is not a born American. Of that same population, about 41 percent believe he is a Muslim.
Wait - it gets better. About 29 percent of Americans typically report that they do not accept the concept of evolution as an explanation of species variability. The US ranked 19th - after Turkey - in a comparative survey of scientific knowledge.
Want more? Nearly 70 percent of Americans typically report that they believe - literally - in angels.
American teenagers are often praised as "tech-savvy," sophisticated users and consumers of electronic media. Yet in typical studies, about 40 percent of them can't locate a country such as France on a map.
Could a steady diet of media junk food be making us dumber? Are we accumulating misinformation, distortions, and lies into our mental databases without knowing it? Are our beliefs and opinions really our own, or are they embedded in the social and political narratives we ingest and come to accept? Ironically, could we get smarter by restricting our media diets - or at least stop getting dumber?
Jenny Craig, Where Are You?
We're now at the point where we need to manage our mental food intake just as conscientiously as we manage our dietary intake. Unfortunately, we don't seem to have a modern equivalent of Weight Watchers to help us. No Jack LaLanne, no Jenny Craig. We'll have to figure it out for ourselves.
If you've recently made a commitment to improve your diet, you know the process: get conscious of what you've been eating; start throwing out the stuff that doesn't deserve to be there; and start adding in the stuff that does.
The same strategy applies for improving your mental health diet.
Try spending a whole day just noticing how many of other peoples' images and messages are coming at you - without your permission - and you might be surprised how much of it there is. You might also notice how much of it is affirming the behavior and values of commercialism, consumption, hedonism, narcissism, pessimism, cynicism, voyeurism, intolerance, and anxiety.
The second step in improving your mental health diet is to start switching off more and more sources. This might turn out to be a lot more challenging than you think. Are you a cell phone addict? An email addict? A Twitter or texting addict? A Facebook addict? A game addict? A television addict? How much time do you spend on the Internet? Do you have the radio playing when you drive? Do you read "rag" literature, such as tabloids, celebrity magazines, and exposes?
Consider going on a "media fast," or at least a news fast. Could you spend an entire day - a full twenty-four hours - "unplugged?" No radios, no TVs, no DVDs, no cell phones, no computer, no Internet, no email, no iPods, no iPads, no MP3 music, no electronic games.
What would you do with your time and attention if you could? Read good books? Reflect on life? Share time with friends? Re-connect with the natural environment? Exercise? Build something?
Many people would be a nervous wreck by the end of such an ordeal. That's media addiction. It doesn't make people homeless, but it can make a lot of them extremely anxious.
A word of caution: before you attempt a media fast, it might be a good idea to consult your doctor or a mental health professional. I accept no responsibility if you wig out while attempting to break the habit.
I'll just refer you to a website you can visit if you can't get through it. Go to:
Karl Albrecht is a management consultant and author of more than 20 books on professional achievement, organizational performance, and business strategy. He studies cognitive styles and the development of advanced thinking skills. He is the author of many books including Social Intelligence: The New Science of Success, Practical Intelligence: the Art and Science of Common Sense, and Mindex Thinking Style Profile. The Mensa society honored him with its lifetime achievement award, for significant contributions by a member to the understanding of intelligence. Originally a physicist, and having served as a military intelligence officer and business executive, he now consults, lectures, and writes about whatever he thinks would be fun.