It is a well-established fact that sex sells. When it comes to the news, however, sex is joined by violence, sickness, political unrest, and lawsuits. Anyone who watches or reads the news is aware that the information that is fed to us is overwhelmingly negative. It is so much so that that some news shows have specifically set aside time in their programming to focus on a positive story. However, even those positive stories are framed by negativity, as it usually involves someone rising above unfortunate circumstances such as violence, sickness, or unjust social circumstances.
There are many reasons for this attraction to negativity. We can’t just blame the media organizations, since they only feed us what we want to eat. We may be more drawn to negativity because our primitive threat detecting system in the limbic portion of the brain is wired to be on the lookout for threats at all times. As I often say to my clients, if we are living in the jungle and forget to stop and smell the roses, the consequences are much less severe than if we forget which snakes are poisonous. We are wired to be wary.
However, in our day and age of global information overload, we have the unprecedented opportunty to be hyperaware of threats, many of which have no bearing or impact on our own personal survivability. I read somewhere recently that there is more information available in one day’s edition of the New York Times than a person living in America 100 years ago would have been exposed to in their entire lifetime. That’s one day’s worth of a newspaper. When compared with the consumption and production of information generated through sites such as YouTube or Facebook, not to mention Twitter, it’s a drop in the bucket. As such, we have the opportunity to be better informed than at any other time in human history. However, is this a good thing?
Our brains are very easily tricked. Dreams seem real; even daydreams can cause your body to jolt or twitch as you act out your imaginary scenarios when you’re supposed to be hard at work. The mere mention of some disgusting food or smell can cause your stomach to turn inside out. There are some benefits from this ability to relate to other people’s experience, such as the possibility to learn from others’ mistakes, but there are also some drawbacks. When your brain observes someone else’s experience, it can easily be tricked into thinking that it is your own experience. For example, many people’s moods rise and fall, following the ebb and flow of drama on their favourite TV show. In a very real sense, they are living the experiences of the characters. Objectively, they are only doing so vicariously but in the neurophysiological sense, it is happening literally. In other words, the brain cannot easily tell your imagined reality from your actual reality.
Watching news of school shootings, plague epidemics, violent protests, or political unrest from the comfort of your living room can leave your brain feeling as if those experiences all belong to you personally. I’m not speaking metaphorically, but literally. The same neurons that allow us to learn from the experience of others make us susceptible to vicarious traumatization, something that is well known in the counselling field. Hearing the stories of people’s pain all day every day can take it’s toll on the therapist. I have to work hard to help my brain remember that those experiences are not my own. As we are exposed to trauma in the lives of others, we are forming memories of trauma that influence our expectations of the likelihood of trauma in our own lives, increasing anxiety and hypervigilance.
So, the next time you turn on the news or see what’s trending on Twitter or Facebook, ask yourself if it’s something you really need to know and if it isn’t, take a pass and watch some funny cat videos instead.