Some time ago I stopped reading and watching the news. No newspapers, no news programs and no internet snippets of world drama. I stopped because I didn’t feel it had any positive effect on my life and I suspected it might even have a harmful effect. Sometimes when watching or reading the news I felt myself anticipating for another big event in the world, something to shake the very core of my being. Other times I checked my smart-phone every hour to get my news-fix. Was I truly in need to know what comes through the filters of the media or was I just a news-junky?
I was expecting the latter. When I looked into the mechanism of addiction I found stunning clues as to what was happening. Our brain is wired to notice new things and ignore what we already know. We aren’t evolved to constantly admire the same things over and over but to seek novelty in what has remained unexplored. And this novelty seeking, is quite addicting. When you are reading a new news article, or this article now, your brain releases a neurotransmitter called dopamine. Dopamine doesn’t produce the feel good people normally associate with it, but it causes the craving for the feel good. This craving can even continue when the pleasurable effects of a stimulus are non-existent.
It is no wonder that almost every addiction we know of is in some way linked to the dopamine system. An internet addiction is very similar, dopamine wise, to food, sex or a drugs addiction. The effect of reading small sensationalist stories that bear little relevance to our daily lives and don’t require any critical thinking is threefold.
- Over time you will crave more and intense stimulation and tend to neglect other things to get your fix. A war abroad is more talked about than the direct problems you face in your own community.
- The phenomenon that, in certain contexts, you become hyper-sensitive because you associate surroundings with a dopamine release. You are much more likely to crave for a moment to check your e-mail if you spot a phone – over time you are more likely to check your phone than to engage in conversation.
- Both desensitization and sensitization causes atrophy of the frontal cortex, whereby the activity of the frontal lobes of the brain decreases – in turn making it harder to control your cravings. Going to the bathroom solely to check your Facebook.
News is a series of apparently absurd stories that all end up looking the same, endless parades of poverty-stricken countries, sequences of events that, having appeared with no explanation, will disappear with no solution – Zaire today, Bosnia yesterday, the Congo tomorrow.
While these effects on the brain are quite serious, I didn’t start to avoid the news because I felt I was addicted. It was something much more fundamental than that.
I felt the news stories distorting my very reality. News should be information that people need to manage their affairs in their community. You need information to know what the opportunities are and what the problems are. Yet, news does the opposite of that. Most news stories are fundamentally opposed to what we actually experience on a day-to-day basis. Our perspective on the world is being skewed unconsciously and we make bad interpretations because of it. News only shows the exception to the rule, never the rule itself.
- We never hear how many people love their spouses, yet we get bombarded with how many are murdered or raped.
- We only hear about war, never about peace.
- Almost all of us never experienced a terrorist attack, yet we find it normal to give up all my privacy at the airport and on the internet in the name of preventing one.
- We overrate terrorism and airplane crashes, we underrate noise pollution and chronic stress.
- And because the media never shows their self-reflexive activity, it never writes about itself, we overrate their importance and underrate their negative effect on the collective consciousness of our world.
Almost all news is irrelevant. It is mere entertainment under the motto “if you don’t benefit from it, you are the product being sold”. What I mean by this is that there is a hidden motivation behind by our normal conception of the news. It is not just there to inform you, it is also there to conform you. It is loaded with government propaganda and corporation’s marketing. They profit more from sensationalism, sex, crime and sport than they do from truth.
The test to see whether or not a particular story is worth reading is to ask yourself the following question; “what relevance does this information bear to my day-to-day functioning?” You’d be amazed by how often you need to answer “absolutely none”. And if it doesn’t help, it hinders. Most of the time it is nothing but a distraction under the guise of usefulness.
Take the modern century phenomenon of fame. While it is very important to have social structures in place that keep a collective memory of a person’s reputation alive, we want a trustworthy and ethical mayor and we want to hold a corrupt government accountable, we don’t need to know about every single fart of Justin Bieber. It has no personal relevance for us, whatsoever. They are empty calories for our mind.
Everybody is the other, and no one is himself.
Whenever the White House proposes an increase in military spending, press discussion is limited to how much more spending is needed… are we doing enough or need we do still more? No media exposure is given to those who hotly contest the already gargantuan arms budget in its totality.
The primary function of the press is to check on government and to expose any abuse of power. If nobody would report on it they would be able to get away with anything. But now media functions like any other corporation – selling their information channels to the highest bidder. They are owned by a handful of people and mainly exist to keep the same power structures in place. Good journalism is rare and with the recent crackdown on journalists who report on governmental misconduct it will soon be an extinct species.
News station or jamming station? Let me know what you think in the comments below.
Original artwork by Juho Länsiharju.