As a neuropsychologist, my day-to-day work involves assessing how people think and process information. Forgetfulness is people’s primary complaint when they see me; however, I evaluate more than memory. A thorough neuropsychological evaluation examines cognitive skills like memory, attention, and word-finding; emotions like depression, anxiety, or anger; sensory changes; and relational difficulties. Just as our thinking is complex, so are the variables associated with understanding and processing information. Although I use various psychological tests to assist in my evaluations, spending time with well over 10,000 patients over the years, I also notice behavioral trends that provide me with additional insight.
Increased anger and paranoia are patterns I have noticed more over the past few years, especially among my elderly patients. Although their doctors routinely refer them for evaluation of dementia, once they are in my office, their family members will tell me that dad has become much more irritable, judgmental, and paranoid. In my experience, it’s usually men who display this pattern. As a diagnostician, I am asked to determine what is wrong and what factors contribute to cognitive, behavioral, and interpersonal changes. In the case of dementia, changes in the structure and function of the brain are generally evident.
However, I have observed increased paranoia and anger often accompanied by constant exposure to cable news. More than once, as family members have lamented these behavioral changes, they have shared their exasperation, saying, “He watches Fox News 24/7” (n.b. I have only heard people say this about right-wing media. It does not, therefore, mean that the same thing does not happen with left-wing media).
Disease or injury can change our brains in drastic ways, but it is also true that experience changes our brains by strengthening or weakening synaptic connections. When we continually expose ourselves to toxic or divisive things, we unwittingly become more toxic and divisive. In truth, it is not only my dementia patients who are becoming this way; it is happening to many of us.
Thich Nhat Hanh wrote, “Many of the things we consume, both as edible food and as sensory impressions, have toxins in them. Just as we might feel worse after eating a whole bag of chips, we often feel worse after we spend many hours on social media sites or playing video games. After we consume like that in an effort to block out or cover up unpleasant feelings, somehow we only end up feeling even more loneliness, anger, and despair” (Silence: the Power of Quiet in a World Full of Noise, 2015).
So what can you do? First, understand that regardless of how intelligent, wise, or objective you believe you might be, what you expose yourself to shapes you gradually at first, but the effect can be drastic over time. Second, regardless of what you are taking in, be willing to ask, “what is the message behind the message?” Is this meme/newscast/article encouraging love and understanding or hatred and division? What emotional response are they seeking to generate? Third, set boundaries with people who seem to be driven by divisiveness and hatred; your heart will thank you. Unfollowing people on Facebook or Twitter can be a holy act. Fourth, intentionally turn off the television and do something else. Go for a walk and say hello to your neighbors.
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.-Philippians 4:8
*There is a fascinating 2015 documentary titled “The Brainwashing of my Dad,” that provides additional insight into this phenomenon. I watched it on Amazon Prime, though it can be found through multiple sources.
5 thoughts on “be careful little eyes what you see”
I absolutely 100% agree with almost all of what you have shared, and I am far from a clinician. I sense that I have become a fairly good student of life and how things affect us from a “street” sense.
I do not disagree with the example provided in which Fox News was mentioned. In fact, I highly agree with the implications (and I believe that they are fact) is a culprit feeding minds. That said, I don’t like that Fox was singled out. I believe, from personal experience, that the majority of most media outlets are culprits. As an example, my wife literally feeds herself with “news” from CNN, and what I have noticed glaringly over the past 10 years or so (since she started) is bitterness, anger, and some hatred I never, ever, saw in her before. That, and what has become a full blown obsession with things over which we have no or very little expanded control…..deaths from street violence, Covid deaths, weather/climate catastrophes, and the like. The reactions (stated above) are not personally directed, but rather just filter into ordinary everyday conversations about daily life.
My short take is a simple one…just as with computers, “garbage in, garbage out.” I’m not calling news events garbage necessarily, but am saying that without a balanced view it becomes garbage, and it is garbage that has effects on the mind.
Lastly, regardless of news affiliations, one thing has become clear to me. The syndrome is clearly more evident in those who seem to have no, or little connection with a Christ centered life.
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Joe, of course your opinion is welcome. I was sharing one example of several in which my patients singled out Fox News. I appreciate your counter-example from your own experience. It adds weight to what I wrote. In my essay, I indicated that I was sharing from my own experience and that The same could likely be said about left-wing media, so your example is welcome.
I would ask why it bothered you that I shared from my own experience. Would it have bothered you had a singled out MSNBC for example? I’m not looking to debate, but offering opportunity for self reflection.
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Please be assured that I was not at all bothered that you shared from your own experience. Not at all. I was simply sharing that in my opinion all news carries their own baggage, and much of it can, and is, as you pointed out so well, a factor in the dispositions of folks who tend to not have some balance in their “diet”. My response was in no means intended as anything personal at all, and if you read into it that it was or might be, I fully apologize for writing it in such a way that that could be deducted. There was no implication intended.
In fact, I loved the fact that you shared of your own experience in your chosen capacity to point out an issue that may well often be one of the elephants in the room. Not many take the time or effort to do so. In my mind the topic isn’t a right vs left issue at all, but rather a heart issue.
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Thank you SO MUCH for writing and sharing this article. My 72-year-old husband, who has recently undergone 44 radiation treatments for prostrate cancer, is suddenly lashing out verbally at me and his very precious 49-year-old daughter, over things that don’t make any sense to either one of us. Seemingly overnight, my normally reasonable and loving husband has become strangely paranoid and hot tempered. I feel like I’m at my wits end.
My husband, a former US Marine rifleman, is a 100% disabled combat veteran of the war in Vietnam. He has had extensive treatments over the years for PTSD, including years of talk therapy, EMDR, and an 8 week in-house treatment program at the VA hospital in Topeka, Kansas. He went to Topeka in 2005 and it saved our marriage. But now he is behaving almost as bad as he did before going through their PTSD program, and I don’t know what to do.
I will share this article with my stepdaughter. Again, thank you so much.
By the way, I noticed in your ‘Who am I?’ at the top right of your blog, the first sentence says:
“I am a Neuropsychologist at at the Marshfield Clinic …” I don’t mean to be a nit-picky grammar cop, but I’m thinking you may want to delete an ‘at’. 😀
Thank you again, and God bless!
Thank you for being a grammar cop! Bless you.
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