Brain Candy

Brain Candy

The way we describe our consumption of media is often likened to our consumption of food. It’s embedded in our metaphors: “That’s food for thought”, “I’m binging on this new Netflix series”, “Let me chew on this (information) for a while”, or perhaps, “Once I have digested this, I’ll get back to you”. We all know that getting a variety of fresh, whole foods is the culturally touted path to health–eat your veggies, stay away from junk, and you’ll grow up big and strong, keeping your vitality. But do we heed the same advice when it comes to what we feed our brains?

What we eat and how we eat is a point of contention. In 1989, The “Slow Food” movement originated in Italy in response to the introduction of fast-food chains in Rome. The idea was to preserve the human elements involved in the consumption of food: friends and families around a table, the attention we paid to the food on our plates, locally farmed fruits and vegetables, and meals prepared in our own homes. The emphasis of “Slow Food” was to be intentional with food, understanding that there are strong connections between plate, planet, people, politics, and culture.[1]

In contrast, we appear to be less discerning with what we intellectually consume. In a cross-sectional study by Azizi et al. that studied the relationship between social networking addiction and academic performance in Iranian students of medical sciences, they concluded that “there was a negative and significant relationship between the overall use of social networks and academic performance of students.”[2] In other words, an increased usage of the internet and social media caused their marks to plummet. Since we live in a 24/7 news cycle now, with no shortage of bite-size apps to snack on–Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, Pinterest or Facebook to name a few–there are millions of ways to mindlessly consume this brain candy. The word “addiction” was used quite a lot in the study, as if somehow the students couldn’t help but consume sugary foods of the mind. Are we becoming intellectually hyperglycemic? Just as our blood sugar shoots up after eating chocolate, does binging on intellectual junk food cause intense reactions in our brains which put us into cognitive diabetic comas? What is clear is this: we should definitely be more careful of what we feed our minds.

As a “Brain Coach” (I shudder to use the term, but it does best encapsulate what I do for a living), I often see very quickly the depth to which people can process an idea, the limits of their working memory based on their previous exposure to ideas, and how much time they have spent “chewing” on these concepts. This theory is known as cognitive load and is easy to spot when a person is overwhelmed with information. What I’ve concluded is that a more varied exposure to information can help grow a more robust and healthy brain. The “bliss point” of food refers to the amount of an ingredient such as salt, sugar or fat which optimizes deliciousness. Companies spend a lot of money making sure that food has just the right amount of each flavour to stimulate our senses, encouraging our brains to seek out more. What if I told you there is a media bliss point too? Consider how sensational a piece of information or news is, and how compelling it is to share. When we learn something that has a shock factor, together with a revelation, it is damn near irresistible. Being mindful of what we eat is important, as it affects our tastes and our compulsions. In the same vein, being mindful of what media we consume is also equally important. Considering all of this, I recommend an examination of your brain diet and propose some recommendations.

HOW AND WHAT WE EAT

Mimicking the guidelines with food, the following will expose us to more gray matter vitamins and minerals:

Chew your food thoroughly –  Take your time to enjoy whatever media you are consuming. Be present. Think about it. Stop cramming more food in your mouth when you already are chewing.

Give thanks for your food –  Appreciate the journey your nourishment has taken you on.

Wait half an hour after eating before you swim – Take some time to digest what you have just consumed. If you want to integrate it, let it sit.

Eat the rainbow –  Make sure you are getting media from a variety of places on a variety of topics.

Eat a balanced diet of fresh, whole foods – The key word is balanced. Whole is in opposition to partial, meaning what we learn from one source is largely one part of the story and usually not the whole story. Consider many sources of the same topic as a way to round out your perception.

Avoid processed foods – If something is on major networks or pushed by every bookstore, be curious, but skeptical.  This doesn’t mean that mainstream offerings are particularly bad, just that certain elements are usually amplified or sensationalized in order to get more sales/ shares/ likes.

Vitamin C (Classics): Watch the classic movies, listen to classical music (explore songs of any genre or country), and read classic works of literature.

Vitamin N (New): Keep up with the trends of the day, such as the podcasts, movies, music, artists, etc. people are currently enjoying. You don’t have to like them, just give them a chance.

Vitamin O (Old): Old does not necessarily mean classic, but it does mean someone from a completely different world and generation has shared their creativity. You may discover an absolute treasure that has been passed over by others simply because they didn’t recognize the artist or creator.

Vitamin U (Unique): “If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.” – Haruki Murakami

Vitamin E (Emotion): Be sure that whatever you consume, it evokes thought and passion, with the ability to ground you in your humanity. Poetry and art are great examples.

Vitamin D (Disagree): Be sure to challenge your beliefs on a topic, by consuming a little of what others say that may not agree with you.

Vitamin M (Mechanics): Be sure to consume some things that require explanations (“How does this work?”, “Why is this like this?”, and “If we did this, what would happen?”).

When it comes to food, we enjoy occasional breaks from healthy diets. Taking the bulk of our focus away from social media, we can still dip into it, treating ourselves with the occasional piece of brain candy. The problems arise when we think we can get all of our nourishment from it–that’s when we risk our cognitive diabetes. Your job is to be selective and discerning when it comes to choosing what to consume, with the knowledge that these wonderful meals of media can either enhance or be detrimental to your health.

Photography by: Polina Tankilevitch

[1] “Slow Food: The History of an Idea,” Slow Food online, April 12, 2021, https://www.slowfood.com/about-us/our-history/.

[2] Azizi, S.M., Soroush, A. & Khatony, A. The relationship between social networking addiction and academic performance in Iranian students of medical sciences: a cross-sectional study. BMC Psychol 7, 28 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40359-019-0305-0

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Brain Candy

The way we describe our consumption of media is often likened to our consumption of food. It’s embedded in our metaphors: “That’s food for thought”, “I’m binging on this new Netflix series”, “Let me chew on this (information) for a while”, or perhaps, “Once I have digested this, I’ll get back to you”. We all know that getting a variety of fresh, whole foods is the culturally touted path to health–eat your veggies, stay away from junk, and you’ll grow up big and strong, keeping your vitality. But do we heed the same advice when it comes to what we feed our brains?

What we eat and how we eat is a point of contention. In 1989, The “Slow Food” movement originated in Italy in response to the introduction of fast-food chains in Rome. The idea was to preserve the human elements involved in the consumption of food: friends and families around a table, the attention we paid to the food on our plates, locally farmed fruits and vegetables, and meals prepared in our own homes. The emphasis of “Slow Food” was to be intentional with food, understanding that there are strong connections between plate, planet, people, politics, and culture.[1]

In contrast, we appear to be less discerning with what we intellectually consume. In a cross-sectional study by Azizi et al. that studied the relationship between social networking addiction and academic performance in Iranian students of medical sciences, they concluded that “there was a negative and significant relationship between the overall use of social networks and academic performance of students.”[2] In other words, an increased usage of the internet and social media caused their marks to plummet. Since we live in a 24/7 news cycle now, with no shortage of bite-size apps to snack on–Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, Pinterest or Facebook to name a few–there are millions of ways to mindlessly consume this brain candy. The word “addiction” was used quite a lot in the study, as if somehow the students couldn’t help but consume sugary foods of the mind. Are we becoming intellectually hyperglycemic? Just as our blood sugar shoots up after eating chocolate, does binging on intellectual junk food cause intense reactions in our brains which put us into cognitive diabetic comas? What is clear is this: we should definitely be more careful of what we feed our minds.

As a “Brain Coach” (I shudder to use the term, but it does best encapsulate what I do for a living), I often see very quickly the depth to which people can process an idea, the limits of their working memory based on their previous exposure to ideas, and how much time they have spent “chewing” on these concepts. This theory is known as cognitive load and is easy to spot when a person is overwhelmed with information. What I’ve concluded is that a more varied exposure to information can help grow a more robust and healthy brain. The “bliss point” of food refers to the amount of an ingredient such as salt, sugar or fat which optimizes deliciousness. Companies spend a lot of money making sure that food has just the right amount of each flavour to stimulate our senses, encouraging our brains to seek out more. What if I told you there is a media bliss point too? Consider how sensational a piece of information or news is, and how compelling it is to share. When we learn something that has a shock factor, together with a revelation, it is damn near irresistible. Being mindful of what we eat is important, as it affects our tastes and our compulsions. In the same vein, being mindful of what media we consume is also equally important. Considering all of this, I recommend an examination of your brain diet and propose some recommendations.

HOW AND WHAT WE EAT

Mimicking the guidelines with food, the following will expose us to more gray matter vitamins and minerals:

Chew your food thoroughly –  Take your time to enjoy whatever media you are consuming. Be present. Think about it. Stop cramming more food in your mouth when you already are chewing.

Give thanks for your food –  Appreciate the journey your nourishment has taken you on.

Wait half an hour after eating before you swim – Take some time to digest what you have just consumed. If you want to integrate it, let it sit.

Eat the rainbow –  Make sure you are getting media from a variety of places on a variety of topics.

Eat a balanced diet of fresh, whole foods – The key word is balanced. Whole is in opposition to partial, meaning what we learn from one source is largely one part of the story and usually not the whole story. Consider many sources of the same topic as a way to round out your perception.

Avoid processed foods – If something is on major networks or pushed by every bookstore, be curious, but skeptical.  This doesn’t mean that mainstream offerings are particularly bad, just that certain elements are usually amplified or sensationalized in order to get more sales/ shares/ likes.

Vitamin C (Classics): Watch the classic movies, listen to classical music (explore songs of any genre or country), and read classic works of literature.

Vitamin N (New): Keep up with the trends of the day, such as the podcasts, movies, music, artists, etc. people are currently enjoying. You don’t have to like them, just give them a chance.

Vitamin O (Old): Old does not necessarily mean classic, but it does mean someone from a completely different world and generation has shared their creativity. You may discover an absolute treasure that has been passed over by others simply because they didn’t recognize the artist or creator.

Vitamin U (Unique): “If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.” – Haruki Murakami

Vitamin E (Emotion): Be sure that whatever you consume, it evokes thought and passion, with the ability to ground you in your humanity. Poetry and art are great examples.

Vitamin D (Disagree): Be sure to challenge your beliefs on a topic, by consuming a little of what others say that may not agree with you.

Vitamin M (Mechanics): Be sure to consume some things that require explanations (“How does this work?”, “Why is this like this?”, and “If we did this, what would happen?”).

When it comes to food, we enjoy occasional breaks from healthy diets. Taking the bulk of our focus away from social media, we can still dip into it, treating ourselves with the occasional piece of brain candy. The problems arise when we think we can get all of our nourishment from it–that’s when we risk our cognitive diabetes. Your job is to be selective and discerning when it comes to choosing what to consume, with the knowledge that these wonderful meals of media can either enhance or be detrimental to your health.

Photography by: Polina Tankilevitch

[1] “Slow Food: The History of an Idea,” Slow Food online, April 12, 2021, https://www.slowfood.com/about-us/our-history/.

[2] Azizi, S.M., Soroush, A. & Khatony, A. The relationship between social networking addiction and academic performance in Iranian students of medical sciences: a cross-sectional study. BMC Psychol 7, 28 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1186/s40359-019-0305-0