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How Mindful Content Consumption Feeds the Brain

Creative Brain

Content consumption was heavily monitored with I was growing up. 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

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, constant news cyclesnews 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 mediaSocial 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? 

Recently, I wrote how being more mindful with screen time impacted my day – which relates pretty strongly to this. 

Consume Healthy Content

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. This content could be 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. 

Showing 6 comments
  • Steve

    Thank you Theresa, very nice article. It’s hard not to get fixated and overwhelmed with, for example, the 24/7 news (I never got into social media and only got an iPhone this month). Each new channel has “BREAKING NEWS” that, except for once, came out hours ago or a day ago. Boy was I happier (I’m 64) when there were only the 3 network channels, a PBS channel and no TV recording machines (now I was younger of course).

    Steve

    • Theresa Potratz

      Thanks, Steve. I’m glad you liked it. Our modern culture really does make it easy to get overwhelmed with everything. Once I recognized the pattern that I was in I made sharp changes. Here’s hoping I can inspire others to practice mindful content consumption for more content lives.

  • Matt

    Hey Theresa,

    Great read, thanks for sharing! I don’t normally comment on blog posts, but I really enjoyed this one – and I myself am passionate about this topic.

    On the subject of the internet itself – The internet is an incredibly powerful tool when used correctly, but it becomes easy to go down a rabit hole of mindless consumption. But if used as a resource – it can help you explore your creative side and connect with amazing people. Not sure how to do something? GOOGLE IT – there’s so many amazing creative people out there sharing how to do the things they love, and it’s great inspiration.

    On the subject of mindfulness – I agree that we all definitely could benefit from being more mindful. Mindfulness is like a muscle – the more you use it, the better you get at it. When you find yourself falling into those bad habits (mindless media consumption, bad eating/drinking habits, or whatever it may be…), recognize what you’re doing, that’s the first step. Accept that you’ve gone astray… it happens to the best of us. Then re-center yourself by practicing some mindfulness – there’s many ways to do this! Once you’ve broken the cycle – remind yourself of what’s important to you, is it creative projects? Working out? Being with family? Being in nature? Whatever it is… take some action in line with your values. And here’s the kicker…. we’re all human, and thus flawed. Which means, we’ll continue to mess up… and continue to stray from our goals and values, but that’s okay! Each time you stray and find yourself in a mindless cycle. STOP. Break the cycle. It will get easier each and every time.

    Wow. That turned into a rant, but hopefully insightful to someone 🙂

    • Theresa Potratz

      It’s absolutely brilliant! I appreciate you sharing.

  • Marcel Claxton

    Solid insights and definitely applicable to all of us.
    There’s a little something in all of us that keeps track of when we become unbalanced in one way or another and need adjusting (our bodies are smarter than us in that way). Some call it intuition or gut feeling, others prescribe to a Muse, the Universe or Mother Nature. Whatever you call it does not matter but you recognize it when you feel it and when you feel it, it gives you guidance. Sometimes that means changing your ways. Feeling frustrated or knowing you need to change your behavior is not enough, it has to FEEL right. Other times that feeling wants time to seriously indulge, mope or wallow and not feel guilty about it (that’s our rational brain talking). You see, brain and this core-grounded feeling are often at odds with each other, and to know what to do and when to start doing things differently can be challenging. A good way to become more attuned is to ‘take time’. Meditate. Walk in the woods. Get some serious sleep. Be still. You might just discover that you ‘hear’ your inner needs better that way.
    And if you don’t? Ice-cream and your favorite TV show might prove the answer. I joke of course but with a hint of advice: allow yourself to relax and not take life too seriously from time to time. It helps with getting rid of stress. Be well!

    • Theresa Potratz

      Straight to my soul! Marcel – you’re so right about our attitude that determines how creative we are. I love seeing your tips to help shift perspective.

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