Sunday, March 26, 2023

Firewall for the Mind


I recently read a compelling New York Times opinion piece by David Brooks called “The Self-Destructive Effects of Progressive Sadness.” It discusses the growing darkness of the national mood, which Brooks terms “maladaptive sadness,” and which he attributes to three trends: a catastrophizing mentality; extreme sensitivity to harm; and a culture of denunciation. The result, the author contends, is a decrease in one’s sense of agency, which causes emotional duress that can eventually lead to sadness and anxiety.

I was hoping the article would suggests ways we can work to mitigate this problem, but it didn’t get into it—that’s a whole other article. This post is me taking a swing at that other article.

Pay attention … or not

I believe the solution to this maladaptive sadness begins with deciding where and how—and, crucially, if—to focus our attention.

Let’s start with the catastrophizing mentality. Humans do have a talent for focusing on the negative. The late Hans Rosling, a Swedish physician and statistician, examined this in his excellent book Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World—and Why Things Are Better Than You Think. This book explains why the vast majority of people—including scientists, executives of multinational companies, journalists, medical researchers, attendees of the Davos World Economic Forum, and others—have historically done really poorly on a multiple-choice test about the state of the world. In fact, people do worse than if they guessed at random; as Rosling explains, they’re “systematically wrong.” Out of nearly 12,000 people tested in 14 countries in 2017, “every group of people … thinks the world is more frightening, more violent, and more hopeless—in short, more dramatic—than it really is.” Rosling identified ten key reasons people err, and one of them is “the negativity instinct.” To some degree, we’re hardwired for pessimism, which is exacerbated, Rosling explains, by “selective reporting by journalists and activists”—which accentuates the negative to create a sense of urgency. (Read this, quick! Donate now!) Meanwhile, he points out, people may feel that it’s heartless to acknowledge that the world is improving when there is still so much wrong with it. But then, naysaying doesn’t help, particularly when it depresses us.

I’m not suggesting that the solution to a widespread emotional health problem is simply to decide to be more positive. I acknowledge that a lot of our vulnerability is more psychological than logical. I can remember being a little kid and only just having learned to swim, and how I would be afraid to venture toward the deep end of the pool. Of course it’s no more dangerous over there; a person can drown in six inches of water. It just seemed more dangerous. As much as I reassured myself that the deep end was no big deal, the sight of that chasm opening up below me freaked me out every time. I finally got over this fear by simply closing my eyes when I got to the deep end. Without the visual stimulus, I could swim all the way across. The point is, “eyes wide open” doesn’t always reduce risk, and can introduce nonproductive anxiety.

Fast-forward a few years to when I’d moved on to bike racing. The Junior field (ages 16-17) in those days was pretty big—50 to 60 riders, typically—and fast. I remember the first road race of the season on a cold day with a strong crosswind, which meant lots of jostling around in the pack. I was feeling really intimidated, especially when I looked back at the large swarm of riders behind me, all of whom it seemed were saving their energy (in my draft) and could come flying past me at any moment. This was a major burden, psychologically, until I decided only to look at the riders ahead of me, and never allow myself to fall back very far. Each time I finished taking a turn at the front, I would only drop back a bit, and then get back into the line at fifth or sixth position. (To worm your way in, you look only forward, at the wheel you want to take.) This way, I was able to pretend I was already in a small breakaway with no swarming peloton to worry about. I did this for about fifty miles until I realized it was always the same riders ahead of me. Finally I sneaked a look back. The pack was gone—we’d dropped them! It wasn’t the size of the pack that mattered, but the quality of the riders near the front.

Far higher achievers than I have employed similar mind tricks. In this great interview, the cycling champion Andy Hampsten talks about the psychological rigor of beginning a pro career in Europe. So often, he was tempted to quit. He describes one such occasion, racing on a terribly cold, snowy spring day in Spain. He was shivering so badly he feared he might crash, and seriously considered abandoning. But then he found a way to deal with his fear: “a silly book called The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that I thought of … where when the hero was in danger he had special glasses that would turn pitch black so he couldn’t see how dangerous things were. It’s best not to know … so I tried to apply that.” Instead of focusing on how frigid and dangerous this downhill was, he tried to look forward to the climb ahead, where he could warm up and the speed would be lower. His crisis of confidence hadn’t been driven by a fully reasoned assessment of the conditions; it was just negative self-talk. By choosing not to dwell on that negativity, Hampsten not only finished the race, finished the season, and made the transition to a world class professional, but grew his confidence and famously won the 1988 Giro d’Italia stage race by dominating a legendary mountain stage in a snowstorm.

Two circles

So, am I just suggesting we put our heads in the sand? That’s the whole trick, just ignore apparent threats? No, of course it’s more complicated than that. In his editorial, Brooks goes on to say, “People who provide therapy to depressive people try to break the cycle of catastrophic thinking so they can more calmly locate and deal with the problems they actually have control over” (italics mine). Societal catastrophes like climate change, systemic racism, and the vanishing middle class are all real problems, of course, but they have something in common: they are beyond the ability of most individuals to combat. They’re bigger than us, which is why we feel so powerless.

This brings me to a useful concept (which I’ve mentioned in these pages before, so bear with me if this is review): the distinction, as described in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, between the “circle of influence” and the “circle of concern.” Below is the author’s schematic. The idea is that we should spend most of our mental energy on what we can influence; for example, learning to manage our own stress. We should avoid spending too much energy on the circle of concern, such as the future of democracy, because that’s where most of us are largely helpless.

Did Hampsten’s team management emphasize to him how dangerous the race over the snow-covered Gavia Pass would be? Did they remind him that that no American had ever even finished on the podium of the Giro, which he now stood to do but only if he didn’t crash out in this dangerous stage? Did they show him a highlights reel of riders crashing on descents in bad weather? No, that would be pointless, and worse—and that would all be in the circle of concern. Instead, the team focused on what aspects of the race they could influence. They went around to all the sporting goods stores in the area and bought up all the cold weather gear they could find to equip their riders. They prepared Hampsten for success, and—since literally no other team had thought of this—in doing so they gave him an edge over his competition. (That stage of the Giro has become legendary; the tifosi (Italian fans) call it “the day the big men cried.”)

Why now?

Okay, so it’s best to separate what information is actionable, and what isn’t. But the Seven Habits book was published in 1989; if the matter is this simple, why is everyone’s emotional duress seeming to increase so much, and so fast, now? As reported by the National Institute of Mental Health, “more than one in five U.S. adults live with a mental illness (57.8 million in 2021).” If a growing sense of powerlessness can be linked to people spending more mental energy in the circle-of-concern space, what is causing that increase?

The Internet and social media are obviously implicated and I’m clearly not the first person to assert that. Even if we set people’s habits aside for the moment, the pace of bad news has accelerated, and it can feel like our reaction time has to be faster. Consider the meltdown of the Silicon Valley Bank: as described in this Charles Schwab article, “With the effects of rapid news flows, especially via social media, and banking that can be done quickly and via mobile devices, the bank’s collapse happened with lightning speed.” Much of the ripple effect across the economy has been due to sudden and unwarranted loss of confidence in the banking industry as a whole; as Schwab put it, “The main channel of contagion so far is more psychological than systemic.”

But where the mental health crisis is concerned, it’s not just the speed of the Internet at work; it’s how we choose to use it. Brooks cites a culture of denunciation. Sure, you can denounce others without the Internet but it’s a lot harder. I mean, unless you’re a professional whose work can get printed on paper, what are you going to do—pass out leaflets? Stand on a street corner braying? Collar your colleagues at the water cooler? No, when people are feeling fed up about vaccines, politics, or any other battle in the culture wars, they go post vitriolic comments beneath articles, or send tweets, or otherwise leverage the computer network that connects five billion people.

With all this bold negativity on display, it’s no wonder, as Brooks points out, so many people have developed extreme sensitivity to harm. In the parlance of the schoolyard bullying culture I grew up in, “they can dish it out but they can’t take it.” Well, maybe that’s not totally fair, but I think there’s something complicated going on around being a bully in one moment, and wanting to appear sensitive the next. The thickness of people’s skin, so to speak, is selective. For example, progressives criticize Jane Eyre because one of its protagonists participates (albeit “off screen”) in colonialism without the author denouncing him for it, so anybody who has experienced systematic oppression might find this triggering somehow. They say it’s best, therefore, to write the book off as “problematic” and not use it in schools. But then they go off and watch “Breaking Bad,” a show about a guy who cooks meth, or “Real Detective,” which repeatedly shows graphic footage of a young woman’s naked corpse. If challenged on whether this could possibly be healthy to take in, they’ll say, “Oh, it’s just, you know, edgy.”

I have a scheme to help you navigate these waters and fight the tide of these increasingly anxious times. But before I begin: what follows isn’t for everybody. If you feel a strong need to grow your knowledge of the precise cause and extent of the world’s problems, and feel that proper virtue signaling can’t be achieved without sharing what you’ve learned, and that your personal identity depends on upholding a culture of personal punditry, you should just stop now. Go read something else.

What? You are still with me? You want to continue? Great! Let’s get started.

Opt out of the culture war

The first thing I’d like to establish is that in the culture war that’s raging, we should all be conscientious objectors. Why? Because this is a war that can’t be won. Our strong opinions are being weaponized, but we aren’t actual soldiers and we’re not being deployed with any battlefield tactic that can actually prevail over a known enemy. Political extremists and Internet algorithms are drawing out our built-in impulse to find someone to blame for the world’s problems, just to foment our opposition and thereby increase our loyalty. (The “blame instinct” is another of the ten reasons Rosling cites for people misunderstanding the world.) Unless we’re politicians or policymakers, we aren’t changing the world when we rail against it; we’re just collateral damage in a war that will never end.

I’m not saying we have no role in the world’s problems. Of course if we’re concerned about climate change we should try to walk, bike, take mass transit, etc., and vote for programs that address the problem. And those of us who are parents have a duty to educate our children and help them become responsible adults. But when somebody who isn’t a parent and hasn’t been a student in forty years wants to collar me and go on a tirade about the “crap” that “they” are teaching in “our” schools, I think it’s perfectly reasonable to run for the hills.

Take ownership of your attention

If a chain smoker complained to you that he was chronically short of breath, or a fast food junkie groused about how hard it is to lose weight, you’d probably be biting your tongue. Where our physical health is concerned, it’s easy to tie the willing consumption of a dangerous substance to the natural consequences it produces. Some of us are outspoken about this; consider the age-old cliché, “My body is a temple.” Fair enough, but what about our minds? We’re less likely to question the growing tendency we have to be glued to our screens, scrolling through our feeds. I do hear people confessing that they probably waste too much time on social media, but this is given with the half-serious, hangdog air of somebody acknowledging something fairly harmless, like a caffeine addiction. Nobody treats overconsumption of polemic Internet content as a big problem. But I believe this content is a pollutant, and possibly as dangerous to our mental health as tobacco or junk food are to our physical health.

I think it’d be easier to get people to agree with this concept if I took the partisan angle and said either that Fox News is toxic to the brain, or that NPR is, depending on my audience. But it isn’t so much the position itself that’s the issue; as Brooks, and the Seven Habits book, point out, the despair comes from railing against what we can’t solve (and guess what: blaming one party or another doesn’t actually help). So when we use platforms that track our interests, and that have learned how to push our buttons, we’re signing up for a steady diet of emotional unease. What’s needed is the wisdom to understand the threat here, and the discipline to shelter our minds from constant provocation. It’s realizing we can choose whether or not to peer into the chasm at the deep end of the pool.

Firewall for the Mind

In the realm of computer networks, a firewall is a device (or software function) that enforces rules about what communication, or “traffic,” is permitted. It filters out threats based on where content is coming from, what type it is, and so forth. Early firewalls had an access control list with simple rules like “allow [or deny] any traffic from [source] to [destination].” Modern ones are very sophisticated; for example, the one governing my home WiFi blocks all gaming, social media, and pornography, as well as any traffic from China, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Russia, or Syria.

I’m not suggesting you focus on creating a technical impediment to this or that Internet content. A firewall for the mind isn’t something you’d configure on any device, but rather a more general rule base you create and adhere to around how you’re going to use your brain and what you’re willing to focus it on. It’s about what information, news, entertainment, etc. you’re going to allow in, what you’re going to ration, and what you’re going to reject, whether it’s online, printed, broadcast, or spoken. I propose that instead of passively receiving what’s pushed toward us, we should each start with a general rule—“deny all”—and then make specific exceptions based on what will educate, entertain, or enlighten us without any side effects like frustration, existential angst, anxiety, or a feeling of doom and gloom. This should be highly personalized—never mind what everyone around you is focusing on. After all, that’s not working out so well lately.

As an adult I’ve never had cable TV; I was a late adopter of cell phones and smartphones; I eschew all social media. I also refuse to talk about politics with just about anybody. Those are aspects of my personal firewall, and my rule base has adapted according to what’s going on in my life. For example, when my wife was pregnant, I blacklisted the book What to Expect When You’re Expecting, which is a terrorist tract designed to terrify new parents. As I headed in to my third decade in corporate America I stopped looking at “Dilbert” because it was just too cynical. In the years following the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections, with political polarization at a fever pitch, I stopped reading the political articles in The New Yorker precisely because they took me deep into circle-of-concern territory where, like all kinds of people across the political spectrum, I felt aggrieved but helpless.

Of course your own rule base can be whatever you decide, but you might start with a few general questions:

  • Is this content making me happy?
  • Is it making me money?
  • Is it making me laugh?
  • Is it edifying or entertaining?
  • Is it satisfying my curiosity?
  • If it concerns a problem or an issue, is there some specific action I can take that will actually help?
  • Does this content dwell on bad news that occupies only my circle of concern?

Existing mental firewalls

It would be naïve for me to pretend this concept is entirely new, and in fact people have been building their own mental firewalls since the dawn of human existence. The problem is, the rules are often set up not around protecting our brains from sadness and anxiety, but around tuning out what doesn’t match up with our tastes and/or belief systems. Choosing between Fox News and NPR is part of a rule base, after all. Where things are going particularly awry is that cable TV programming, much modern print journalism, and in particular the myriad content providers on the Internet are tailoring their product to us. This seems like a favor except that the end goal is always to maximize our outrage and hang on to our attention for as long as possible. The circle of concern is their happy stomping ground—not yours. Good mental firewalls thwart these mechanisms.

In general, I go after content that primarily exists to entertain or enlighten me, not persuade me. Most fiction, for example, is free of any specific agenda (and when a work’s social conscience seems too prominent, to the point it’s just depressing, I reserve the right to withdraw). Where nonfiction is concerned I particularly enjoy topics that aren’t in the news, and which nobody is bickering about, such as (to cite a convenient example) this article on caterpillars in which I encountered all kinds of delightful, non-pressing information. For example, the “caterpillar of the silver-spotted skipper … uses an air-gun-like appendage in its anus to send its [feces] pellets soaring. This practice, known as ‘fecal firing,’ discombobulates parasitic wasps.” Stuff like this argues for a more nuanced model of attention involving a Circle of Delight.

This isn’t to say the caterpillar article was all rosy; it did explain how scientists are now seeing significant declines in insect diversity and population that could become an ecological crisis, based on how many plants depend on insects for pollination. So did I start combing the Internet for more information on this problem? Did I try to make it part of my feed? No. I don’t have a feed, I’m not a scientist, and this simply isn’t my problem to solve. That’s the kind of line that I have to draw … which I think you should draw, too.

[Speaking of drawing, the art at the top of this post is by my younger daughter.]

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