Yuva - India

Understanding our Mental Health

The word ‘healthy’ has a slightly different connotation in India and the West. One may come across this word quite frequently in describing a person’s physique. In India, a slightly protruding belly and a rounded shape translates into characterizing a person as healthy (which comes from our colonial past when the rampant famine and drought conditions caused death due to starvation) which is quite contrary to the European or US definition of healthy which is used for a toned body and perfect BMI. While we are moving from scarcity to prosperity and the west moving towards optimization from abundance, the word ‘healthy’ takes meaning as per one’s perspective.

But why are we talking about this suddenly? Because there is a corollary to be drawn between the way we consume food and the way we absorb information (news). Excess of both of them is bad. A well curated information to mind is what a balanced diet is to the body. In the words of Roman Philosopher, Marcus Cicero, ‘Cultivation to mind is important as food to the body’. We are living in an era of abundance of information but are unable to draw meaningful conclusions. Oversupply of information and that too at the tip of our fingers have made us a fragile and uninformed lot. 24/7 news outlets showing every fresh information as breaking news and trending topics on social media capturing the mood of the nation, there is less incentive to dive deeper into any news item. We have come to a level where we know nothing beyond the headlines for most of the topics and a lot about a select few topics (topic here refers to the news bytes and not a topic of specialization as is used in studies and jobs)

Back in the old days, we have seen people devoting time each day in reading the newspaper and creating their own opinion. This was often complimented with traditional news on television (Doordarshan) which reported only facts devoid of any emotion or opinion. We longed to see some traces of agony and resentment in the DD news reporter whenever India lost a cricket match or some celebratory or joyous tone at the time of victory. The reporting was as neutral as it could be. And people were free to form their own opinion.

Then came the cable network and the need to make news channels entertaining to garner the ad revenue. From News in the evening to news 24/7, we have come a long way in our quest for information. Today we consume news in our social media feed. Opinion is formed by ‘likes’ and ‘trends’ and emotional connection is as fleeting as the next buzz. It is a common sight to see people checking their smart phones every now and then for latest updates but nothing beyond the headlines. Alternatively, our attention span has also dropped to a level that it is difficult to read a long article without losing interest in the interim.

We need to stress on the need of delving deeper into a topic or at least to an extent that we know things beyond headlines. But before that, let us understand how this selective scanning of literature around us is impacting us.

Our brains are made up of neurons. It is said that with every new piece of information, the neurons connect and as we know more and more about any subject, the bonding between the neurons becomes stronger which is also called Long term memory. The interconnected neurons represent a chain of short memories bonded together to provide a meaningful summary of our existence.   So, whenever we learn something new, we have a corresponding neuron storing this new piece of information. And with further learning on the same topic, these neurons create a web link. This helps us see patterns in things and has been the basis of our current education system where a relatively small piece of information is ingrained in our brain in each class and then incremental piece is added each year. Here it must be noted that freedom of choice is not provided to the children and knowledge is imparted across discipline with the assumption that a holistic growth requires a fair bit of knowledge of history, geography, literature, science etc.

However, when we consume information in 160 characters (headlines) and the same is imprinted on our neurons, there exists two paths from there. The information is new and has piqued our interest. Under that circumstance, we delve deeper and try to garner more information. However, if the news is stale or unrelated to our area of interest, we just skim the headlines. Our neurons which had stored this information, due to lack of further information, let it vanish (to preserve energy). This is also called short term memory.

And the catch phrase here is ‘area of interest’ because often we tend to accumulate on a particular topic (religion, politics, finance etc.). We follow a particular set of people, groups and ideas in all our social media platforms and news networks. Result is increased polarization in our world view, a phenomenon which is being seen widely across countries. Various studies have shown that our youth is suffering from an increased level of depression and anxiety. This is also a side effect of the way we consume information. Because at a very sublime level, given a choice, we follow, watch and hear what we worship (word taken in literal sense for a blind following beyond reason). Worship power and we end feeling weak and vulnerable because we always need more power over others to numb our fear. Worship money and other material things and we end up being deprived. Worship beauty to realize how ugly we look in a beautiful world. With the freedom of choice, we keep upfronting our desires in body, brain and surrounding. And the insidious thing about these worships is not that they are evil or sinful but that it presents a very selective view of the world thereby giving a very limited space to accommodate any other worldview.

Is there a solution? Sadly, no. Because we are living in a world of mass customization in a buyer’s market. World’s best brains are working towards creating a unique experience for each consumer. There are enough avenues available to provide impetus to any idea, thought and desire. Even a simple google search would start showing similar results in all our future searches. The phrase ‘Spoilt by choices’ has literally come alive to render its true meaning.

But unlike a physical deformation in shape due to excessive eating, a mental deformation, due to asymmetrical and selective news adsorption, is hard to grasp. We may come across whimsical, radicalized, and mercurial people but the circumstances leading up to that may or may not be information only. However, the subliminal programming of our mind that we do with our selective coverage does make us irrational over the long term. It is more so for the fragile and uncorrupted mind of the kids and teenagers, a weakness which is often exploited by terrorist organizations to radicalize youth.

However, the knowledge that our mind is being programmed at a subconscious level through our news and social media feeds is the stepping-stone towards taking a corrective step. Once we realize the ill effects of the stuff that we feed to our brain, we can reverse engineer the programming by feeding a balanced perspective on any news items (DD news is a great source for it). Additionally, we may look at diversifying our social media feeds to accommodate differing views and opinions. A balanced perspective to our brain is akin to a balanced diet to our body. Both keep us in sound mental and physical health and it’s a high time we understood that.

(Views expressed are personal)

 

Author: Satya Prakash

Satya, is an IIT/IIM graduate who currently works with a major bank in the country. He is a voracious reader with interest in finance, technology and history.  When not working, he likes to travel and see new places

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