You are one person, and your brain can’t handle the whole world.

February 2, 2017 Featured, In The News Comments (1) 984

As the resistance to President Trump approaches its third week, one of the most frequent comments I hear from protesters, in person and online, is how overwhelming this feels.

Every day there’s some new horrible thing — no, scratch that. Every day there are ten new horrible things to worry about and oppose, and the harder we fight on one front, the more likely it seems that something else will slip through the cracks.

It’s a lot. More, I think, than any human is really designed to handle. So even as you keep up the good fight, you need to be kind to yourself and know your limits.

Fieldstone Cottage

Doesn’t this look cozy and relaxing??

Humans are incredibly social animals. Our brains are pretty much entirely dedicated to social interaction, and for most of us the entire world exists in the social interactions with our peers and neighbors. Most of the incredible infrastructure and technology we’ve developed ultimately serves to further our social interactions, and there is no other animal, as far as I know, that will end its life because another of its species rejected it.

It’s important to recognize the power that has over us — and also to bear in mind that we are not evolved to have all the world’s problems delivered to us in real time, the way modern media makes possible. We’re evolved to have relatively small lives, focus on a finite number of family members and friends, and handle the occasional threat or crisis.

Think about humans a hundred and fifty years ago; most had no idea what was happening in the rest of the world. Even their newspaper was likely focused on local happenings, with a few stories of national interest. They hadn’t a clue what was happening in Mexico, let alone China or Pakistan or the Sudan.

Even just a couple of decades ago, most Americans got everything they knew about the world from the morning newspaper and the evening news. Yes, they knew more about the world, but it wasn’t a constant bombardment of push notifications and tweets and breaking news alerts.

Sure, we’re capable of more than that, but to care for yourself and protect your mental health, it helps to compartmentalize, and give your brain what it’s evolved for.

Find your little world, and focus on that.

Imagine for a moment that all your electronics vanished. Who and what would be left in the world around you? That’s the world your brain evolved for.

Take time, periodically, to focus on your family and friends. Get away from TV and Internet, set your smartphone aside. Play a board game, or a video game. Talk, face to face. Hug one another, take in sights and smells. Make memories.

For me, it helps to remember that even in the worst crises the world has ever known, people have found solace in their closest relationships: their family and friends. Don’t lose sight of that.

If you can, get out into the wilderness. A nature walk in your neighborhood is great, and very soothing. Even better is to get out into a remote part of the mountains or the forest, so far from civilization that you don’t even get phone signal. Camp out if you can. There’s a certain primal instinct that activates when you feel like it’s just you and the natural world. To me it’s almost like pressing the reset button on my brain. Nothing puts my life in perspective like a weekend deep in the woods.

Spend time with animals. If you don’t have pets, go to the zoo, or a farm. The crazy thing about animals is they have no idea all the big dramatic problems humans are stressing about. I worked at a zoo in 2001, and I very clearly remember taking a walk around the grounds on September 11 and realizing none of the animals had the slightest clue about the crushing shared trauma I felt. There was a certain peace in that.

My theory: Don’t get your news from a person on screen.

I don’t get any of my news from the television (or any video medium) and I recommend you follow that example. I have a theory that watching and hearing an actual human on screen tricks your brain into feeling like you have a relationship. You unconsciously pick up the emotions of the speaker, and that adds to your stress — it makes your world too big.

I don’t think the same thing happens when you read or listen to the radio or a podcast. Those things certainly stimulate emotional response, but I don’t think it triggers the same degree of social stimulation that TV does.

Mind you, I have no scientific research to back this up. It’s just my own pet theory.

I’m not saying don’t watch video — just don’t get your news that way. Video can be great for escapism, and when times get really stressful I like fun, frivolous entertainment. When I’m feeling stressed, I’m particularly fond of watching Hannah Hart’s My Drunk Kitchen on YouTube. Hannah’s fun and funny with just the right does of insight and perspective. She makes you feel like you’re friends — in a very good way, unlike your TV friends Rachel Maddow and Bill O’Reilly, who are constantly freaking you out.

When I was in college, and dealing with crushing (undiagnosed) anxiety disorder, I found a TV show called “Acorn the Nature Nut” on Animal Planet. On each episode, an Edmontonian named John Acorn would explore the wildlife in his back yard, and talk about animals like slugs and tiger beatles. It was incredibly soothing — I can’t find any full episodes on YouTube, but you can watch the intro song if you’d like:

For you, maybe it’s episodes of Mister Rogers (another personal favorite) or Bob Ross, or a sporting event. Maybe it’s home movies.

The point is, as important as this fight is (and as much as you may feel like the world is burning down while your back is turned) it’s critically important that you focus on the small, immediate world in which you exist.

That’s what your brain is designed for. And you aren’t going to get very far without your brain.


Images from Wikimedia Commons

One Response to :
You are one person, and your brain can’t handle the whole world.

  1. Jamir says:

    One last comment. Your posts are beyond awesome and so absolutely accurate. I come from a medical science background and study medicine, and my research was in neurodegenerative diseases, when I was trying to build chemical tools to help clinical diagnosis of those diseases. But one thing research has shown is that in patients with mild cognitive impairment (manifest in the early stages of dementia), being aware of current affairs can be positive in terms of the effects it has on memory, BUT the deleterious effects can outweigh the positive ones, if patients gather news that makes them anxious or depressed. Anything that causes anxiety and depression, in these patients, should be absolutely avoided.
    Online news, and online video particularly reduces peoples focus and attention, and exaggerates fear, anxiety and depression. There’s not much good about it, frankly. Dr. Park Dietz has some good writing on this, particularly related to the shootings and mass murders (and the need for infamy that a proportion of these perpetrators desire as I was talking about in my comment on your excellent alt-right piece).
    Local news has been shown to be both more helpful, useful and informative than other forms, regardless of the medium. but the best medium is off-line since we tend to skim when reading online.
    Your advice as to soothing programming is well taken and I swear by my own favourites as a way of lifting depression: in fact, when I am very down, I can only absorb certain types of information, and I limit myself to Antiques Roadshow, Bargain Hunt, and especially, Tintin comics. There are some others. The documentary Man on Wire, I recall, was incredibly uplifting and I still have fond memories of viewing it, when it gave me 90minutes or so of solace after I had spent days and days in an awful period of deep sadness and panic. I also read a book I have that is a collection of all Lincoln’s letters and speeches. Whenever I need wisdom and sage advice, he is willing to offer it, regardless of the page I turn to. (Orwell’s Penguin Essays, too often overlooked next to his fiction but far superior in my view, are similar in their wisdom but less optimistic in tone. His non fiction books are also powerful, but again, perhaps don’t possess that same combination of sagacity and motivation that Lincoln’s letters have. Lincoln’s letters, many of quite unknown to most people, are deeply honest and deeply empathic, often less political than personal, and I’ve not found that same combination of qualities anywhere else, in any other writing.)
    I must say, though, that I admire your writing very much and have been so glad to find it this morning. It is just incredibly rare to find writing that so closely reflects one’s own thoughts. I flatter myself to think that, if I could write as well as you, your pieces are what I would write.
    Thank you for this website. Thank you for your writing. Please keep sharing your work, it is important, and in a world that seems so often saturated with fearful, mad appeals to base instincts, you’ve shown that there are still smart, calm, rational, reasonable people who can just as effectively appeal to the better angels of our nature (to borrow a phrase from Lincoln). Your website is the antithesis to InfoWars or any of the Alex Jones clones, these cynical, duplicitous opportunists who seem to be spreading their toxic senselessness from one end of the Internet to the other. This place is wonderful – and frankly, it is soothing as well.
    I hope you’ll forgive the spelling issues I’m sure have crept in.
    All the best,
    J

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