You can't stop watching. Night and day your head and eyes turn to the screen.
The images flow like waking dreams. Walls of water lift up Japanese houses and schools like paper toys. Hundreds of thousands in Tahrir Square shout the end of dictatorship, chanting, singing, then cleaning the street refuse of decades. Warplanes and cruise missiles pop as brief pinheads of light, then unknown buildings explode into grey and white ash.
But whose images are you watching, and what does it mean? Beyond immediate fascination, are you being informed, entertained or manipulated?
And how do you control it?
Here are a few steps to use the news rather than being controlled by it:
- Get multiple points of view. Many of us will sit in front of CNN and other networks staring again and again at the same stuff. Check different sources, especially local ones. What NHK is saying as the "official" Japanese line will be very different from what unofficial Japanese, British and other Asian sources describe. If you don't believe what the Japanese government is saying, why listen only to them? Ask what's missing from the story. What are they not talking about? A good way to do this is to go on to step two.
- Aggregate different news sources. Set up a feed from Google, Bing, major blogs and sources you might otherwise never consider, like Latin or Asian news companies. Rather than watch continuously, check periodically -- once an hour, once a day. Suddenly you'll see facts and images that may contradict everything you think you've seen.
- Get up and walk around. Some people tell me the news is so engrossing that they forget to eat. Remember, sitting more than six hours a day is a risk factor for fatality. Open the blinds and look out on your own environment, then get into it. Humans are walking machines. We think more effectively if we move. Mental fatigue responds to physical effort.
- Talk about what you've seen. Pick up the phone and call friends and colleagues, questions ready in your mind.
- Summarize for yourself what's happened. Take a few moments and explain to yourself, in a few simple sentences, the facts you've witnessed.
- Analyze it. Is Fukushima a harbinger of further nuclear accidents? What will the fallout do to the local people, to the rest of Japan, the rest of the world?
- Visualize what you've seen. The brain craves explanation. Imagine in your mind what it looks like to raise a country two feet in the air; imagine a 30-foot-high wall of water hundreds of miles wide that keeps coming, stopped by nothing; imagine a landscape from high up, first a few concentric feet, then football size patches, then a whole province, wiped by a watery wall; then see the movements of all the people inside that wall.
- Write about what you've seen. It's not enough to passively witness. Write family, friends and colleagues about what you've seen and understood. You can certainly write comments on the Net, but why not create original opinions? There are many places to place them.
- Act on the news. If you live in San Francisco, did you make new plans for possible earthquakes? If globally felt black-swan events look more likely, what can you do to control your life and that of those you care about to feel safe? Are you ready to do something about climate change? If you're a businessman, does disaster increase your desire for risk or provide you opportunities?
New events certainly provide opportunities to rethink the world -- and do something about it.
Your Brain and Information
Going through these nine steps lets you recapitulate much of what the brain normally does with information. We witness it; put the parts together; make a picture of what we've seen; summarize and gist it; analyze it, not just in words but visually.
Then we act on it.
And finally we both remember and forget. That's what your brain and body does -- it processes information, summarizes it, uses it, then remembers the useful stub and forgets much of the rest. The vast majority of this process is not conscious. Much of the information is never stated in language, as in how your immune system responds to the new bacteria that lands on your hand. This vast flow of information arrives; you learn from it; then you act. Learning is how the body continually upgrades, quickly rebuilding itself to stay alive.
Like the news, the process is very fast. Most of your body is gone and replaced within a month.
But all that learning can be fun. You want new ideas, new thoughts, new memories you will mine for your own creative solutions. That's how the news should ultimately be used -- for the regeneration and rejuvenation of your own, always-active mind.
Dr. Matthew Edlund is an award-winning sleep expert and the author of "The Power of Rest," now available in paperback from HarperOne.
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