Friday, July 22, 2016

Visual Diet

Today people are generally aware of the relationship between what they eat and their physical health. This opens the territory to consider how what we see and take into ourselves visually may affect our mental health. Our bodies are always responding to the state of things around us. Danger is something we feel in our bodies before it’s translated mentally into fear. Inviting threatening imagery into our psyche could be as bad for our minds as salt or sugar for our bodies. Humans have always used images to express inner life from the ancient mythologies to modern film. Stories from the news or movies are scenarios that evolve and change. What we choose to watch is our visual diet. Brain science tells us that what we experience creates the brain, actually building circuits in relevant areas for new experiences and reinforcing circuits for patterns of behavior we’ve already established. Being aware of how we shape our circuitry by what we see might leading to greater selectivity in what we consume through our eyes.

Through our mirror neuron systems, we feel and experience what we watch on screens as though we are doing it ourselves, it’s how we understand what’s happening. If we could resist being drawn into sensational and violent programming like we resist unhealthy foods, it’s possible we might feel better emotionally. Commercial television offers ridicule and mockery as entertainment so it follows that people would feel anxious about being mocked and ridiculed. Crime is everywhere and the distinctions between news and fictional stories can get blurred. Why wouldn’t people feel a low-grade fear as part of day-to-day living? Whether it’s fiction or not, whatever the brain is given is what it records, its circuits structured by the patterns in the unfolding visual environment. The evidence that it may be affecting brains for the worse is clear in the amount of people supporting Donald Trump who unquestionably appeals to the worst in people. He embodies the practice of putting others down to build himself up, by his own ugly behavior sanctioning ugliness in others. Because of his outrageousness Trump gets all the attention from the press reinforcing repeated negative patterns. Those who watch and admire his flagrant discourtesy build circuits that make it easier to be offensive themselves. Just like I feel improved when watching a great tennis player operating at their peak and want to go out and do my best, I feel degraded if I leave Trump on the screen as long as the station would have me look at him. It can’t be good for my circuitry to see people cheering for the bullying unpleasantness they don’t tolerate in children. We don’t have to let the media manipulate us into mental ugliness. If that dominates what we see it will start to dominate the circuits of our mind. Taking responsibility for the visual diet is just as important as the food we eat. It all goes in and becomes part of us, shaping thoughts and values, and who can say how much it contributes to the prevalence of depression. Modern life programs people to be cut off from each other while maintaining an illusion of connectedness.

   Studies have shown that time with nature is good for the brain. Even if you just look up at the clouds or into the face of a person or animal, you’re seeing nature at its best. Whatever is complex and mysterious will tune us to the presence of mystery, of just how much we don’t understand. Find art that resonates to strengthen intuition. When online, follow up on things that stir interest to increase dopamine and build new circuits. Curiosity creates connection. Building connections is being alive in the world and builds a brain that reflects it.

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