Food for Covid thoughts
Since the beginning of the pandemic we have all been consuming A LOT more than usual. That’s normal because many of our usual activities have been taken away and nature hates a vacuum so we filled it with that consumption. Plus, it’s been a stressful year and in times of stress our natural instinct is to ingest more.
Of course some of what we consumed was important, essential even, but if we are honest with ourselves we’ll admit that a lot of it was just garbage, harmful even. In fact, more often than not we tend to swallow stuff without reflecting on who produced it and how (more on that later).
With the Nth wave and its attending set of lockdowns and restrictions, or lifting thereof, that gluttony is bound to be repeated, so let’s talk about some concepts that we’d do well to bear in mind when we consume information.
Oh, sorry, you thought we were talking about eating food? Nono, we already dealt with that topic when we learned about the benefits of not being controlled by our hunger. Today we’re talking about a very similar concept but we’ll be looking at the other half of our being: the mind.
The only constant in life is change — Heraclitus
First of all, we need to understand this: we are what we eat.
Every single minute of our lives, billions of cells all throughout our organism are dying off. Luckily, our body is constantly taking the components of whatever we feed it and using them to build brand new cells and rebuild itself. The vast majority of the cells that make up our body today will have been replaced in less than a year.
Think of it as travelling on a sailboat where different parts keep breaking down and having to be replaced; one day it’s a plank, next day the rudder, another day a sail, etc. Since, if the boat sinks we’ll go down with it, would we use cheap, low-quality materials? Of course not! Because when we put crap in, we get crap out.
Corpore sano et mens sana
The mind is its own place and, in itself, can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven — John Milton
Food nourishes one part of our being. But we must remember that humans are a gestalt of body and mind, so it’s equally important to manage what we put into one as into the other.
Just like just our body is always rebuilding itself with the materials we give it, the same is true of our brain. The thoughts that it produces and the beliefs that it holds are shaped and informed by the elements that we absorb from the surrounding culture, learn through interesting interpersonal interactions and, importantly, consume voluntarily through any form of media, such as TV, films, podcasts, social networks and (some of us weirdos) even books.
The key lesson to remember is that our thoughts and beliefs are NOT objective reality, but subjective constructs. Just because everyone around us follows certain behaviours, it doesn’t mean that life absolutely HAS to be that way. In fact, it’s extremely likely that there are human beings living happy lives doing the complete opposite.
Here are two quick examples to show that practically any mental model (and thus the behaviours it produces) will seem ridiculous, even insane, when taken out of context:
- Thoughts. Our thoughts are an internal dialogue of the brain with itself and dialogue requires language. Without words we cannot describe any complex concept or idea. And since every language has a different structure and uses different words, the language we speak literally determines the ideas we are able to form and thus the way we think. It follows that each culture will give more importance to certain concepts than others. For example, some cultures don’t have words for numbers, so those people cannot express specific quantities, they just say “one” or “many.” Thus, it is totally impossible for them to even conceive the idea of accumulating wealth or wasting time, arguably the two notions that cause the most stress for 99% of the world’s population.
- Beliefs. Every single culture in the world protects certain animals (adorable pets, endangered heritage or even sacred embodiments of the gods), while exterminating other animals (disgusting pests, filthy creatures or harmful vermin), and also using other animals (as food, resource producers, slave labour and even entertainment). But the fascinating thing is that the creatures in each category change completely from one culture to another, depending on the beliefs that those cultures’ brains were raised on. So, since they determine what we do and don’t eat, our beliefs literally determine our body’s composition.
Therefore, since our mental constructs have such an influence on what and how we think, one could argue that they are literally what makes us US because, ultimately, what is a person but a collection of their thoughts? (There’s some food for thought)
Adversity is the first path to truth — Lord Byron
OK, so far we’ve established that we are a mix of body and mind, and that our mind is built and maintained through thoughts, so we can extend the concept we saw earlier into: We are what we consume.
Now let’s see why we should care about this.
The main problem is that most people get their information, i.e. the thoughts that their brain feeds on and is built with, from media outlets. But we must realise that those content providers (newspapers, TV, radio, social networks, websites, phone apps) are NOT a public service and their goal is NOT to inform us of the objective truth. If it were, they would occasionally say things like “Yesterday was just another boring Tuesday and there was nothing worth mentioning. Go dedicate some time to important things. See you tomorrow.”
We will never see that because those companies are commercial enterprises with one single purpose: maximising profits.
Tragically, because of the way our modern world is set up the economy rewards businesses that produce the same negative effects on our mental being as on our physical one, namely getting us addicted to stuff that makes us obese and sick (and to make matters worse, unlike food products, that content is not subject to regulation).
Addiction = Thought Manipulation
The victim of mind manipulation does not know that he is a victim. To him the walls of his prison are invisible, and he believes himself to be free — Aldous Huxley
Our mind is made up of ideas, so we should make sure that we are feeding our brain with the kind of thoughts that we want to be thinking about. Otherwise it will get fed with what others want us to be thinking about. This is manipulation and, although everyone inwardly believes they cannot be easily manipulated, hopefully this article will manage to replace that erroneous belief with a more accurate one.
The main reason why it’s relatively simple to manipulate a human brain (even from the outside) is because that brain is the very same organ that is in charge of detecting any tampering. Therefore, a very effective way to influence humans is by exploiting the natural weak points in their brains: emotions.
Out of all the emotions, the ones related to survival, like anger and fear and arousal, are the most intense and effective at avoiding detection by the brain and taking it over. The more a thought enrages or scares or excites us, the more likely we are to lap it right up and keep it spinning around inside our skull.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, after all there is a reason why we evolved such emotions; to make us take action in situations of real danger and perpetuate our genes.
The problem comes when that alarm bell gets activated by agents seeking to control what we pay attention to, like the media trying to scare us so we’ll keep consuming their content, factions in sports/politics trying to make us angry with the opposition so we’ll keep supporting them and marketers trying to make us feel inadequate so we’ll seek to fill the hole in our soul with their garbage.
What we must understand is that none of those agents make money from presenting things accurately or with a sense of proportion, but from distorting reality to engage our attention, so they literally feed off our emotions, just like the Dementors in Harry Potter, the Monsters from Monsters Inc, the Polymorph in Red Dwarf and Caliban in the Marvel universe.
Of course, since the trick works so well, EVERYONE uses it and we end up getting the next negative effect.
Obesity = Cognitive Overload
Like our stomachs, our minds are hurt more often by overeating than by hunger — Petrarch
Modern humans consume way too much information.
Like we said at the beginning, the pandemic has been stressful and during times of stress the human organism is programmed to consume more. This is true of both our bodies and minds. Of course some of the information we consumed was important, like learning about the disease, advice on how to protect ourselves, tips for working from home, what was and wasn’t allowed in lockdown, etc. But a lot of it was just useless garbage, like constantly checking the Johns Hopkins Covid tracking page to see figures of infections/deaths or refreshing news sites every five minutes hoping to get a new morsel.
Homo Sapiens’ superpower is that we are able to accumulate and remember information, not only the one we learn through our own experience, but also that acquired from others who tell us about their experiences. However, what we are NOT made for is to get ALL that information at once.
Humans are supposed to acquire new information slowly, over an extended period and with plenty of opportunity to test and contrast things each step of the way. We just have to look at children playing with brand new toys or trying to solve a problem.
It wouldn’t be that so terrible if this were only a temporary situation caused by the pandemic, but let’s be honest, even before Covid we all spent a ridiculous amount of our precious time consuming waaay too much information that served no real purpose in our lives.
I know I certainly did. And the reason I know is because I installed a program to track my computer and phone use and when I saw the number of times I opened several apps and websites and the amount of time I spent on them, despite expecting it to be high, I was completely shocked. You’ll probably will be too if you do it.
The latest news, sports scores and rumours, binging on Netflix, TV, endless doomscrolling on [insert social network of choice]… it’s all just worthless FOMO and it’s a pretty safe bet that we have all done at least one of these today.
But this is the mental equivalent of snacking all day long.
Nowadays we live in a world of information overload, we’ve got near-infinite information available at any moment but that is not the way we evolved.
As we all know, humans who consume far too much end up ruining their health. And that effect is multiplied when the stuff they are overconsuming is unhealthy, which takes us to the last point.
Sickness = Mental Health
Man is not worried by real problems so much as by his imagined anxieties about real problems — Epictetus
We have just seen that the best way to manipulate a human brain is by triggering intense emotions and that we are being constantly bombarded with such triggers.
The thing is, fear and anger are stressful emotions and, while the stress response can be very useful to deal with a specific event, being under chronic stress is extremely unhealthy since, at a physical level, it negatively affects almost every system in the organism, increases the risk of heart problems and speeds up aging. In addition, at the psychological level, this is also the reason why the rates of mental health issues associated with stress, like anxiety, depression and even suicide, are skyrocketing all over the world.
And even worse, we are not just seeing a rise in those conditions with clear clinical definitions which affect individual humans, but nowadays entire human communities are also feeling the impact of this constant emotional manipulation. This is the logical progression of the same phenomenon we saw at the beginning of the piece, taken up to the next level up of complexity: just like cells made of poor-quality building blocks produce an unhealthy organism, stressed individuals produce stressed societies. So it’s hardly surprising that the levels of extremism and division we notice in our society are so high.
The danger here is that when tensions are high and keep building up, any relatively small incident can kick off a massive and catastrophic reaction beyond what anybody could have anticipated. The typical example is that of Gavrilo, a hot-headed 19-year-old who was manipulated/brainwashed with nationalist ideas to the point that he shot an aristocrat and triggered the First World War.
If you define the problem correctly, you almost have the solution — Steve Jobs
After explaining the problems we face, now comes the key part, what can we do about them?
Well, since we have already established the parallels between the body and mind, we can look at the solutions proposed for one and perhaps adapt them to the other.
In his excellent book Food Rules: an eater’s manual, Michael Pollan condenses a bushel of research into three simple rules that address the triad of addiction, obesity and sickness: 1 Eat real food (not junk), 2 Not too much, 3 Mostly plants.
If we apply those concepts to brain food, in order to combat thought manipulation, cognitive overload and protect mental health, the rules could be: 1 Consume real ideas (not emotions), 2 Not too many, 3 Mostly books.
Let’s see what this might look like in real life:
1 Consume real ideas (not emotions)
Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people — Eleanor Roosevelt
If we want to maintain a healthy brain we have to be deliberate with the thoughts that we feed it. We should make sure that they are useful ideas instead of unhealthy emotions.
A simple way to do this is changing how we consume information. If we get our content through a “pull” (making the active effort to obtain something) as opposed to a “push” (being the passive recipient of whatever they send us) we will be more likely to obtain results based on our interests.
Practical advice: Try to favour doing things actively (pull) over consuming things passively (pull), e.g. hobbies rather than screens. If you do consume, try to favour learning over vegetating, e.g. Coursera rather than Netflix. If you do vegetate, try to favour content with some information over pure entertainment, e.g. documentaries rather than series.
In addition, turn off all notifications on your smartphone, tablet, browser, etc (bonus points if you delete them and replace them with time tracking or blocking ones). Decide what you’re going to watch before you turn on the TV and never keep it on by default. Unsubscribe from all print media.
If you don’t put crap in your body, don’t put it in your brain.
2 Not too many
Enough is as good as a feast — Sir Thomas Malory
We shouldn’t eat if we are not hungry and food shouldn’t be used as entertainment. Likewise, most of the information we consume each day is totally pointless.
It’s absurd to keep up with all the news, social media, TV shows, sports, gossip, etc, every day. All that information doesn’t any real effect on our day-to-day. It is completely irrelevant to the decisions we make in our lives and it certainly don’t make us any wiser or happier.
Practical advice: develop the habit of, before consuming information, asking yourself “Do I really need this information? Will anything in my life change because of it?” If something isn’t benefitting you, then get rid of it.
If you feel that this is too radical and you will miss relevant events, try getting your information by asking someone if there were any interesting news that day and you’ll see how often they can’t even remember what they read.
Trust me, if something really important happens you will hear about it.
3 Mostly books
I find television very educational. Every time someone turns it on, I go in the other room and read a book — Groucho Marx
Not all content is created equal.
The excess of information has created an environment where only the latest or most extreme content stands out. But that type of content is precisely the kind that focuses less on imparting information and wisdom and more on trying to grab our attention.
On the other hand, great content stands the test of time when it is valuable and such content has been preserved in the form of books, it’s the Internet made of trees. Old books that are still well known and read are like products with five stars from millions of reviews.
Books are the best way to consume information because we can’t really do anything else while we’re reading and we can’t be done with them in a few minutes, so each time we pick up a book we are forced to consider whether it is the best possible use of our limited time.
Plus, reading a book necessitates some effort to obtain it, even getting an eBook requires a few clicks, and that extra friction gives us a chance to think if that information we are about to invest our money and time consuming will really benefit us.
Practical advice: Always default to reading books to obtain your information. Or even leisure, if the alternative is a screen. And the older, the better.
I can imagine what you’re thinking and yes, I’m painfully aware of the irony of using a blog to recommend reading less stuff and especially on the Internet. That’s why I’ve tried to justify the valuable time you have dedicated to reading this article (thank you!) by making it as useful as possible and included the practical advice.
As we said before, in times of stress, like for example during a global pandemic, our natural instinct is to consume more. But in our modern environment not only is that response no longer useful, but it is now being exploited by businesses to the point that it is actually harmful for us.
Each of us is ultimately responsible for what we put into our organisms, because we will bear the consequences of our decisions, so we would do well to exercise judgement and control over our consumption.
In the last post we recommended fasting, or at the very least trying it, not so much for the health benefits of the fast itself, but as a way to challenge our preconceptions and reset our priorities.
Today we suggest considering the same experience for the mind. Trying a media fast, not consuming any content, at least for a while. Maybe you can start with one day, then a weekend, then a week. Or maybe restrict only digital devices. Or maybe just the smartphone.
If that seems unthinkable, try reframing it as a choice between body and mind. No food or no media for a day, which one can’t you imagine giving up? What does that tell you about yourself? And how about doing both at the same time!?
 These are some I’ve used, but I’m sure you can find plenty more:
Originally published at http://pandemicponderings.wordpress.com on May 9, 2021.