Junk Food For The Mind: The Dangers of Media Overdose

We consume too much news. Too much of it is junk.

Posted Aug 08, 2020

The coronavirus pandemic is affecting our lives across the board. In my clinical practice, I see the many ways clients are dealing with pandemic-related stress, uncertainty, anxiety, and loss. The stories vary, but a commonly reoccurring theme has to do with consuming the news. Many people are spending much time searching for and absorbing virus-related media stories. Their motivation is usually self-protective. They wish to be well informed in order to be well prepared. Yet quite consistently, my clients report that the effects of their intense news consumption are paradoxical: The more they consume, the more anxious they become. 

Why would that be? Part of the answer relates to what is known in medicine as a dose-response effect. Consider your medicine cabinet. Most of the substances in there are helpful, but only if dosed correctly. Too little will provide no relief. Too much will cause harm. The news is to the mind what medicine is to the body. Too little leaves us vulnerable due to ignorance. Too much may overwhelm us into paralysis, anxiety, and confusion.

Source: Pixabay

But, you may ask, how can too much news harm us? After all, if news is knowledge, and if knowledge is power, then how can too much news be disempowering? To understand why over-dosing on the news is harmful, we must first understand signal detection theory, which concerns our ability to detect signals in a less-than-perfect "noisy" (that is, real-world) environment. The attempt to discern signal from noise (i.e., truth from untruth) in such an environment is vulnerable to two types of errors: a false alarm (we detect something that isn’t there) or a miss (something is there that we fail to detect).

By definition, a detection system that favors avoiding misses will incur many false alarms, and vice versa. In the dangerous environs of our ancestors, missing a threat was much costlier than a false alarm. Natural selection, therefore, shaped our sensory system toward avoiding misses. Thus, our brain is attracted to trouble—the so-called negativity bias.

Second, we must recognize that the news in America is by and large a for-profit business. It generates profits by getting eyeballs on the news product. In other words, it needs to attract consumers’ attention. And you already know what attracts our attention: that’s right—mayhem. The news, therefore, will prioritize mayhem, exploiting our brain’s innate tendencies. If it bleeds, it leads. Airplane crashes will always make the news. Airplanes landing safely will not. Consuming the news, hence, is not merely acquiring knowledge. It is acquiring a certain type of knowledge, heavily tilted towards brokenness.

Consuming this type of knowledge further skews our worldview by triggering a fundamental cognitive bias called the availability heuristic—our tendency to assume that things we hear a lot about are common. Hearing a lot about negative events leads us to believe that negative events are common, even when they are not. This means that when we overdose on coronavirus news, what we’re getting is not further education on coronavirus, but rather a sort of coronavirus propaganda, according to which the virus is poised to destroy us all, inevitably, imminently, thoroughly, and permanently. That terrifying picture compels our attention further, and the vicious cycle is created. Thus over-consumed, the news, which is supposed to help our understanding and our coping, in effect undermines both.

In this way, our current news environment resembles greatly (and unfortunately) our current food environment. To clarify why, let's look at food first. Food is supposed to nourish us, yet currently in the U.S., we are in effect harming ourselves with our food. This is because a) we eat too much and b) much of what we eat is junk.

Why are we eating too much? Well, in a nutshell, for most of our species’ history, we had to work hard for food; in fact, we often had to chase it. Our digestive system has evolved under conditions of food scarcity and unpredictability. Overeating and storing fat were therefore the winning, adaptive strategies, and henceforth coded in our genes.

Recently, however, we have become sedentary; our food now comes to us, and our food supply is reliable, abundant, and accessible. Our ancient system is therefore misaligned with our current environment. We continue to overeat and store fat. Only now we’re doing it all the time, which leads to our excessive weight gain and its attendant adverse health consequences.

Why do we eat mostly junk? Well, in a nutshell, our system has evolved to seek and crave certain flavors (for example, sweet) because they signaled foods with high nutritional value (for example, ripe fruit and vegetables). Things tasted good that were good for us. Recently, however, our food scientists have figured out how to take those good flavors, separate them from their original nutritional sources, and attach them to cheap non-nutritive food products, thus hacking our evolved system by making things that are bad for us taste good.

The American news environment has undergone similar processes, to a similar effect. Just as with food, we consume too much news, and too much of the news we consume is junk.

Why do we consume too much news? Well, in a nutshell, our attentional system has evolved in a time when threats were real, local, and often unpredictable. In such a system, tending to any potential threat is adaptive. Yet our current media technology brings threatening events into our lives from everywhere, nonstop. Our ancient system is misaligned with this new environment. Just as the omnipresence of food compels us into overeating, so the ubiquity of news compels us toward over-consumption. And just as with food, the overconsumption has adverse effects, Consuming too much news has the same effects on the mind as consuming too much food has on the body—immediate gratification followed by discomfort, deterioration, and dis-ease.

Why is much of the news we consume junk? Well, in a nutshell, this is because our technology has allowed us to take the natural danger cues that our brain has evolved to address, separate them from their original source, and attach them to benign or insignificant events or situations. For example, loud noises in nature usually signal a dangerous, meaningful event or object. Thus we are wired to attend to loud noises. But technology allows us to attach loud noises to anything, however meaningless, thus hacking our evolved system and compelling our attentions constantly. Asinine drivel oozes continuously from our TV screens, but so long as it is shouted, we are bound to watch.

In sum, given the current media environment, protecting our mental health during the pandemic entails managing our news intake carefully and intentionally. As with food, good habits are essential: Be mindful about what you put in your system. Check your sources. Check the facts. Take your time. And take a break.