What does cable news do to your brain? A neurosurgeon explains.

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The availability of up to the minute information, presented 24/7/365, could assist a democratic society in making the best choices in determining its future. That was the promise of cable news. Unfortunately, cable news has fallen short of its potential and has led to the further polarization of America. More than that, it has changed the way your brain works. Not for the better!

The various cable news channels each have a clearly defined partisan agenda. Each network tailors its presentation of facts to promote the worldview that they seek to promulgate. A person who is looking for either a conservative or liberal point of view knows exactly where to find it. A relatively neutral person who politically leaned in one direction or another might have started out with an open mind. But the networks present information with such homogeneity of thought that they create an echo chamber. This reinforces the viewer’s bias to a pathological level. Ultimately, those with different political and cultural thought are not viewed as neighbors or friends who hold different beliefs, but are dehumanized as evil. Attempts at civilized discussion are shouted down and sometimes met with violence. Many learn that it is safer to remain silent than risk being ostracized. 

Why do you seek echo chambers that confirm your own opinions?  

This preference seems hard-wired into our brains. Scientists at University College London, in collaboration with colleagues at Aarhus University in Denmark, reported, in 2010, that the “reward” area of the brain is activated when we encounter people who agree with our opinions. The researchers instructed 28 volunteers to make a list of 20 songs that they liked and rate each song on a scale from 1 to 10.  The researchers then played a highly rated song from the list and informed the participant that experts either agreed or disagreed with their assessment of the music. The participants’ brain activity was monitored using fMRI scans. When the volunteer opinion coincided with a single expert, the ventral striatum (an area of the brain considered a primary component of the reward system) lit up with activity. With increased validation (the volunteer opinion coincided with multiple experts), the activity in the ventral striatum increased further.

Does cable news change how your brain works?

The disparity in worldview between political conservatives and liberals seems an unbridgeable chasm that only widens with each passing election.  Although this is sad for many reasons, it provides neuroscientists an opportunity to determine whether there are differences in brain anatomy between the two groups.

Two sets of experiments from British Scientists sought to address this question. One group, working at the University of Exeter, reported their results in 2013.  The other team at University College, London, published their data in 2011. The methods of scientists differed slightly. They based the designation of political affiliation on either self-reported political views or voter registration data.  They investigated the neuroanatomy with either standard or fMRI scans. Both groups reported that politically conservative individuals had enhanced activity or brain volume in the right-sided amygdala (area of the brain involved in emotions and memories).  One group reported that the liberals demonstrated significantly greater activity in the left insular cortex (an area that controls empathetic emotional responses), while the other group correlated greater liberalism with increased gray matter volume in the anterior cingulate cortex (an area involved with emotion, learning, and memory).  These results suggest that liberals and conservatives engage different cognitive processes and that political attitudes reflect differences in human brain structure. 

However, these findings beg the ‘chicken and egg’ question. The data do not determine whether these regions play a causal role in the formation of political attitudes, or whether the brain structures are altered by the different modes of thought. It is possible that reinforced thinking in a partisan manner actually causes the differences observed in the brains of conservatives and liberals.

Even if cable news changes your brain wiring, is it for the worse?

The brain science answer is, “Yes.”  

A  multi-institutional study that sought to determine the cerebral source of creativity was recently published.  The researchers evaluated 163 volunteers for their ability to generate creative and original ideas. The participants were engaged in a classic divergent thinking task (divergent thinking ability is a proven predictor of real-world creative achievement in the arts and sciences).  They were presented with a common object and instructed to imagine an unusual and creative use. All of the 163 volunteers’ creations were then judged by four raters. The participants underwent fMRI, which was used to evaluate the anatomy of different brain regions as well as their connections.  The investigators determined that those individuals judged to be most creative, simultaneously engaged large scale brain networks. They reported that the essential underlying commonality in the generation of creative ideas was that different cortical hubs were richly connected and working in unison. 

We are all gifted with a certain amount of innate creativity. Neurobiological research implies that creative thinking is correlated with a wide network of brain engagement. It is reasonable to conclude, based on the neurobiological evidence that becoming mired in the echo chamber of cable news may limit our thinking to a particular part of the brain. Since creativity is a full brain process, some groundbreaking ideas are likely to be missed.  

Brain science supports the notion that intellectual bubbles, such as those created by cable news, are bad for society. Citizens are intellectually impoverished by the absence of input from those with different life experiences and different perspectives. Cable news is also bad for your brain.

Marc Arginteanu is a neurosurgeon.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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