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Your Mental Diet

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I have a friend who has been interested in celebrities for as long as I have known her. She reads gossip magazines and papers and is interested in things like whether or not her favorite celebrities tip when they go out to restaurants. On her FaceBook page, she posts pictures of herself at various conventions with actors who appeared in her favorite shows back in the 70’s. Her life and the topic of most of her conversations revolve around people who have no interest in her and who she knows only via gossip rags and popular entertainment.

My friend is a nice person, but she lives on a mental diet that is the equivalent of junk food. This in no way undermines the fact that she is a worthwhile and good-hearted person, but it does make it very hard to have conversations with her that go beyond how cool it is to see so-and-so from such-and-such show or how well-preserved someone is after all of these years. Frankly, I really don’t care about the habits of celebrities, their appearance, etc. I mainly have a passing interest in their “art” and whether or not it falls into the range of things I personally may want to consume.

While it may seem based on the type of writing that I do that I’m a studious sort who sits around studying books on psychology, the truth is that I do more than a little dabbling in my own mental junk food. I spent yesterday watching DVDs of “The Tick” live action series (all 9 episodes). I play RPGs with friends and family several times a week. I even play a stupid FaceBook game (not Farmville though). A little mental junk food is good for the psyche and the soul. The problem is that some people subsist on little else but such things.

While I don’t particularly care if there are people out there who want to sit around watching reality shows all night or worrying about whether or not Angelina Jolie is going to adopt another child or get another tattoo, I do have concerns about the way in which our mental diet affects our worldview through time. I realized when I closed down my old blog that talking about something or consuming information about it more and more allows it to dominate your world-view. It reaches the point where you have nothing more to learn and little more to gain by continuing to dwell on something, yet you go back to it out of force of habit or as a means of reaffirming your worldview. In essence, consuming mental junk food can be as comforting as eating actual junk food even when it’s destroying you in various ways.

When I say it is “destroying” people, I don’t mean that their brain’s pathways are rotting from disuse or that they are turning into dull couch potatoes, but rather that there is a psychological impact. If you spent enough hours reading about or watching awful people doing awful things, you start to see the world as an awful place. It doesn’t matter whether your real life experiences actually mirror the experiences you consume through various types of media, you will believe it whether it is true or not.

Personally, I have found that I have a tendency to paint the world whatever color I’m told it should be. If I read news about the fact that poverty rates in America are going up and that more people have no health care coverage (facts true as of this posting), my worldview gets a little darker. I immediately lose a little hope for the future, see humanity as selfish and short-sighted and feel bad that so many people are suffering. However, my experience is not one of diminishing quality of life, income, or health care. Without this information, my day and perspective would be a little brighter.

It may seem that I’m suggesting some sort of life of willful ignorance in order to find greater bliss. That’s not what I’m getting to at all. What I’m saying is that rebuilding my perspective based on one little bit of news doesn’t do anything for anyone, including me. Being depressed about it won’t help. I can either accept that this is a part of the fabric of life and feel blessed that it’s not in the particular weave I presently live in and move on or I can do something about it by helping out those people.

I realized a long time ago that human beings were never designed (by God or by evolution, pick your favorite) to be inundated with the type of information we are presented with about suffering on a world-wide scale. Our brains and our nervous systems are not meant to be handed all sorts of problems that we cannot do anything about and being told that people in Africa are killing each other in civil wars or that children go hungry in certain places in America is something that we need to learn to process in a specific manner. We are meant to worry about whether or not someone in our tribe or our family is hungry and then deal with it by finding a way to feed them, not have the stress of unnamed, unknown masses and their plight laid at our feet when the only response we can have is an indirect and often inconsequential one at best. The stress of this sort of information coming our way creates a warped sense of the world as well as enhances our sense that we are powerless to improve anything.

I’m not suggesting we close our eyes, but rather that the contents of the “mental diet” we have can often bear scrutiny. It isn’t a good idea to live with nothing but the sort of celebrity fluff my friend lives with (not to mention her steady diet of distorted news coverage from a particular outlet known for it’s painfully extreme bias), but rather that we should seek balance. There should be a little mental junk food, a little of what is hard to take but good for you, and a lot of what fulfills and fortifies you. I think often it is the final item which we get far too little of. For me, that means looking more to positive sources which offer a worldview that is, at worst, neutral, and at best, positive. This isn’t about trying to be a Pollyanna or ignore reality, but about realizing that my immediate reality as well as that of those who are suffering isn’t being served by a constant diet of gloom, doom, or vicarious living.

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Written by yesithinktoomuch

September 18, 2010 at 3:59 am

Posted in media, psychology, reality