The Outpost

How Mindful Content Consumption Feeds the Brain
By testing Potratz
Published April 20, 2020
Creative Brain

When I was growing up my content consumption was heavily monitored. Our TV was parked on The Discovery Channel where I’d binge “Beyond 2000.” We had seemingly only two exceptions to this. There was the 30-minute window where’d I’d watch “Sailor Moon” and Wednesday nights the entire family would watch “World Poker Tournaments” while eating pizza and we referred to this as quality family time. When the Animal Planet channel launched we were thrilled that our viewing options dramatically increased. 

Despite my meager viewing options, I’m proud of the results of these restrictions. It caused me to really chase knowledge. I am constantly wondering about connections (like how to all of these unconnected ancient cultures create pyramids?). 

While my experience inspired me to always ask questions, how does modern media consumption affect us? Technology gives the world the ability to learn nearly anything, instantly. But what does this connectivity to the world’s information do to our mental health? On the whole, are we better plugged in and glued to screens? What does all of this content do to our creativity? 

If we are struggling with feeling alone and down what can we do to turn things around or are we decidedly bound to be more isolated and less creative than the previous generations? 

Before really diving in, know that I am going to discuss broad issues that affect most of us. As a member of the Orange Nebula flight crew, I firmly believe, “I am the master of my fate /I am the captain of my soul” to borrow words from William Ernest Henley in “Invictus.” Before we are truly able to channel the content we consume to feed our passions and creativity, we need to analyze the largest contributors to our days and study whether or not we have given too much real estate to joy thieves. 

News Cycles’ Impact

 content consumption

Now that I am an adult, I have complete control of the information I allow in my head and this greatly impacts me. I’m not alone. Now, news cycles run 24 hours. It’s not the hour and a half of local news, an hour of national news in the evenings and what we glean from the paper. Now we are inundated with media dumping on us, nonstop. An article from Time says, “More than half of Americans say the news causes them stress, and many report feeling anxiety, fatigue or sleep loss as a result.” Despite this negative impact, 20% of Americans admit to constantly track the news whether outright looking for it or seeing headlines while on social media.

This study states 1 out of every 5 Americans is constantly tuned in to the news. Neuroscience tells us our brains are programmed to latch on to negative news. Throughout the history of man, knowing all the awful things happening allowed us to avoid these things and survive.

There are major problems with this bombardment of constantly taking in news. We compulsively track a story that has our attention only to have the story fizzle out and get replaced with another equally compelling segment. Or worse, we become numb to the heartbreaking events. At this point, many are deadened to the human costs of the news story and only choose to react emotionally if the events hit *this* level of unfathomable. 

Both are on opposite ends of a spectrum that all of us are on. 

Social Media’s Impact

content consumption of social media

Social media eats more of our bandwidth – even if we manage to avoid news headlines. The is a strong correlation between social media consumption and depression. Forbes reports that comparing ourselves against people causes us to feel worse – this isn’t limited to seeing people we view are more successful, attractive, or happier than we are. It even affects us if we think we are superior in some way. 

Both of these sources of negativity cause our bodies to release stress hormones like cortisol. Aside from causing our bodies to retain fat, this hormone is linked to inflammation, heart disease, and more

We spend hours staring at our phones consuming all this content that steals our joy and robs us of the energy we could harness to create things that would improve us and the world around us. Why? 

Healthy Content Consumption

At the risk of parroting my grandmother and chanting, “garbage in, garbage out,” I am not going to tell you to only pay attention to Shark Week, but there are lots of ways we can practice mindfulness as we consume content. 

Much like I tracked how screen time interfered with my productivity and ability to be present with family and co-workers, acknowledge when you feel the same twinge of emotions crop up. If your mental health is taking a hit from stress in your daily life, mitigate the damage by focusing on adding positive aspects of life. 

Did you read an article about a new plague disproportionately targeting board gamers? Log off and go spend time face-to-face with friends, go pet your dog, or practice some meditation. There’s a solid list of things we can do to ensure we are protecting our mental health by taking care of our bodies

Interrupting Negative Feedback Loops 

The toughest part of what I am proposing is 1) acknowledging the emotions we feel in the moment and 2) immediately doing something with those emotions. A couple of years ago, I attended an emotional first aid seminar put on by the amazing local chapter of the Trauma Intervention Program.

The instructor told us how our brains process negative information and it stuck with me. She recalled being at a firehouse after the crew came back from a call. One firefighter was particularly distraught and told her he wished she had been there the day before when they witnessed something pretty traumatic. He relayed the entire event and stopped to stare at the ground. 

female fire fighter - content consumption

“Then what happened?” she pressed. 

“We came back to the firehouse.” 

“Then what happened?” 

“We got cleaned up and made dinner.” He continued. 

“And then what happened?” she repeated. She continued asking the same question until one annoyed firefighter got to the part where he remembered going to sleep. Once he got to that point in the story, she asked him to do that same exercise every time his brain starts to dwell on that story. 

Having worked in trauma for her entire career she sees the need to remind the brain that one event is not the entire story. That stressful time is part of a larger story. We need to gently nudge our brains to tell us the whole story to avoid us getting caught in the ruts of awful narratives. 

So pulling this back to developing bad repeating loops in our own daily life, we need to flag those, break that train of thought and give our minds better content. Our content consumption could include a puppy video in a pinch, but we might be better served to connect with a person and remind ourselves our world is more than the content we get from a screen.  

Online Communities 

Now I know started this by railing against screens like the Luddite I am, but not all social media is equal. There is a distinct difference between looking at everyone’s photos of their vacation in Hawaii and engaging in community building. 

A study has found social media gives people the ability to stay connected with friends and family. I would be interested in seeing additional studies looking at the links to how the types of actions taken on social media affect our mental health. Are we lurking — occasionally clicking a meme or liking a witty thought of a friend? Or are we really building something? There are a couple of communities that I am apart of that really build me up, The Outpost, is one of them. I enjoy sharing fun creative facts with people and seeing what strange things they have sourced from all over the internet. 

I would hazard a guess that if we all mindfully restricted our time online to get a rough idea of what is happening in the world and filled the rest of our time figuring out how to really connect with others and build meaningful friendships our brains would be better for it. And what if, if we found extra time if we poured that into learning about things that excite us? 

Final Thoughts

We all get the same number of hours every single day. How we spend that time impacts our brains, families, and lives. Sure, we could get distracted and accidentally binge an entire season of “Cold Case Files” while playing solitaire on our phones or we can recognize how spending our time impacts our thoughts and take control. 

Have you always loved watching shuttles launch? Great, let’s build backyard rockets and see what that leads to. Are bear-proof food storage containers… well maybe not involve wildlife that could kill you, but I hope you get the point. 

Ultimately, this level of attention to what we’re doing and the content we’re consuming will feed our minds and give us greater mental health. Hopefully, you’ll be able to take this knowledge and share it with others and enrich your world. 

Other Posts You Might Enjoy

The Cost of Connectivity: Our smartphones are assassinating more than our ability to take stock of our surroundings, they’re robbing our joy and creativity. 

Create the World You Want: Hedy Lamarr chose to channel her discomfort and knowledge into the same area. She looked at what triggered her and allowed it to feed her creativity.