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.