A healthy news diet: how and what we read changes our brain

One of the responses to political polarization and toxic community could — and should — be paying greater attention to our information diets

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

Anyone who has been following me for more than a few years might have noticed a significant withdrawal from online life over the past six weeks or so. The two or three months in the run up to the summer were unusually busy for me, with a lot of traveling, and I entered the summer exhausted and more than a little burnt out.

That doesn't mean that I've withdrawn from digital (although I am looking down the barrel of over a thousand unread e-mails…), but it does mean that I've been more reflective, more considered — and have put some effort into getting more organised.

I've been working on a new workflow for both capturing and, more importantly, actually reading some of the most important stuff to cross my radar around my work and research.

It's close to an over-discussed subject, but I'm become deeply concious that just reading the articles that come to me via social media tend to trap me in a treadmill of the now, and stop me diving deep into the research and thinking about subjects I care about. I need to realign how I spend my reading time.

Managing Online Reading

In this context, I found this post by MG Siegler interesting:

As people may know, I try to capture nearly everything I want to read in Pocket. I rarely read anything in real time, and even when I do, I often still save it to Pocket, just so I have a record of it. But it’s not that simple. Given just how much I read, I’ve found I need a few different tangential services to capture everything and to create an ideal workflow for my reading.
To that end, I actually also use Instapaper. I know this sounds silly or superfluous given that it’s the same type of “read it later” service. But I use it for a different purpose: I send things there that I feel like I must read.

I do something very similar. I use Pocket for general reading, and Instapaper for reading that's directly around my work. The longer I've been self-employed, the more I've felt the need to create lines of demarcation, allowing me to switch off when needed.

(One of the downsides of traveling a fair amount is that I never really "switch off". I always feel that if I'm away from home and family, it's beholden on me to make the most of that time for work. That probably contributed to my burnout a couple of months ago.)

One of the gratifying things I'm seeing is a slow resurgence in things like RSS readers (I'll have more to say on that in the next few days) and in-depth reading. As the horror stories around the impact content consumption solely mediated by social media grow, more people seem to be starting to take responsibility for their own information diet again.

And that's a good thing.

A balanced information diet

Now, I realise that this might be perilously close to heresy amongst some of you, but, as author Ryan Holiday pointed out on Medium, stepping back from the news can be positive:

Perhaps it’s time we realize that consuming more news about the world around us is not the way to improve it (or ourselves), personally or politically. Two thousand years ago, Marcus Aurelius wrote in his Meditations, “Are you distracted by breaking news? Then take some leisure time to learn something good, and stop bouncing around.”

And there are some practical solutions to this.

While research has shown that visually shocking and upsetting news can contribute to anxiety, sleeping trouble, raise cortisol levels and even trigger PTSD symptoms, a University of Sussex study found that just six minutes reading a book can reduce stress levels up to 68%.

The idea of a balanced information diet is probably a good metaphor to apply here. Just as we need a mix of food types for digestive and bodily health, we probably need a mix of information types and sources for good intellectual health. And just reading breaking news and hot takes from Twitter is probably not giving your brain the substance it needs.

How we read is as important as what we read

The Guardian published an interesting piece on the problem with an emerging culture of skim reading. I have some problems with it - it keeps veering into the "print good, digital bad" territory that has been well-covered buy others, and the author pulls back from that - almost as if she wanted to make that point, but couldn't quite back it up. However, there is some interesting research that explored the way some people are tending to read:

Ziming Liu from San Jose State University has conducted a series of studies which indicate that the “new norm” in reading is skimming, with word-spotting and browsing through the text. Many readers now use an F or Z pattern when reading in which they sample the first line and then word-spot through the rest of the text. When the reading brain skims like this, it reduces time allocated to deep reading processes. In other words, we don’t have time to grasp complexity, to understand another’s feelings, to perceive beauty, and to create thoughts of the reader’s own.

That… sounds familiar, doesn't it? People skim reading articles from social media, and then jumping into hostile conversations about them before they have the time to reflect or consider. The mechanism for sharing, consumption and reaction is all too closely connected to allow people time for reflection.

And now we start to see that the problems with polarisation and toxic community might be more sophisticated in their roots than just "social media is bad".

The possibility that critical analysis, empathy and other deep reading processes could become the unintended “collateral damage” of our digital culture is not a simple binary issue about print vs digital reading. It is about how we all have begun to read on any medium and how that changes not only what we read, but also the purposes for why we read. Nor is it only about the young. The subtle atrophy of critical analysis and empathy affects us all. It affects our ability to navigate a constant bombardment of information. It incentivizes a retreat to the most familiar silos of unchecked information, which require and receive no analysis, leaving us susceptible to false information and demagoguery.

And that sounds like a perfect summation of today's politics.

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Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.