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Reducing Negative Input (My News Blackout and Mirror Neurons)

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We get bombarded every day.  Every angle.  I drove 10 minutes across town and saw (or heard) over 70 advertisements.  Some not appropriate for kids—but they were still in plain view. 

But let’s back up a second. 

Over a year ago I stopped watching the news.  Call it a news “blackout.”

Some of you will remember the power blackout in 2003.  That night I remember walking home from work in Toronto: Strangers directing traffic, people out on their porches, and shop owners giving out water.

I distinctly remember there being no lights, T.V. or computer.  That night we sat out on the porch in candlelight drinking a glass of wine.  Just talking and laughing.  Brilliant.

This is all a roundabout way of saying that when we turn things on, plug in or tune in, we are often subjecting ourselves to a barrage of  information. 

And most of it is negative. 

A huge number of TV shows showcase (and normalize) violence; the internet can be an easy trap and promotion tool for unhealthy appetites… and the news can give an unrealistic perspective of what’s going on out there.  Not always, but often. 

So I tried an experiment: I stopped watching. 

And I don’t miss it a bit.  There’s the odd exception when I tune in.  I find out that something big is happening through Facebook or Twitter, and sometimes from the radio if I’m in the car.  Then I’ll tune in to the news for the top story (like during the Boston Marathon bombing).  But then it’s right back off again.  Every once in a while I’ll pick up a newspaper. 

Here’s where the “mirror neurons” come in. 

Christian Keysers has an article about “mirror neurons” in a book called What’s Next? Dispatches From the Future of Science.  (He’s a super-smart guy with a Ph.D. in neuroscience.)  In it he highlights findings about how our brains operate.  Ever feel happy when you see someone else laugh?  Or hurt when someone’s in pain?  Or how about feeling hungry when you see someone wolfing down a Mars bar?  Basically, things we see and take in in our senses are not “out there”—separate from us.  The neurons that fire in our own brains when we see and hear someone laugh are the same ones that fire when we laugh ourselves.  The body has a way of telling the difference, but the same neurons are working in us as when we see those actions in others.  We are actually physically connected. 

There are huge implications to this. 

When we see violence and negativity all the time our brains are partially functioning as if we were participating in those things ourselves.  I think of violent video games, or shows that promote adultery, or music that belittles what it means to be human… the list goes on and on.  We are not neutral bystanders.  We are affected. 

So why not reduce the negative input and increase the positive?  It’s good to be intentional about this.  

And we need not rely solely on the field of neurology for this insight.  Didn’t Jesus say something about “Do to others as you would have them do to you”? (Matthew 7: 12)  Our brains seem to be “intuitively predisposed… to this maxim,” says Keysers.  Hmmm. 

So, does my not watching the news make me unaware of what’s going on out there?  Naive?  Of course not.  I talk to people, see Facebook, get the gist.  In our world if anything big happens, you find out about it. 

Some of my theolog friends will say, ‘But didn’t Karl Barth argue that we should prepare sermons with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other?’  Not really.  What he did suggest in a Time Magazine article was that what happens in the world around us should be interpreted through the Bible. 

But too often it’s the other way around. 

Try turning down the negative, and turning up the positive.  It will change your outlook, and probably your life.  Oh, and because of the mirroring effect of the neurons in our brains, you’ll actually change somebody else’s life too

Image by Takkk.

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7 Comments »

  1. I appreciate this topic as it helps me understand my own thoughts/behaviors related to life around me. I do live with the news in one hand and my understanding of Bible/faith in the other; I admit it’s hard to hear God in the midst of the chaos of media unless I make time to be still (a state of being not in my nature ha). These days I find myself reflecting more on how Jesus was with the people he encountered, who they were, how the crowds(majority) reacted, how alone he was in his actions and views. Tis as difficult to be knowledgeable about political, social and spiritual matters in these times as it was in Jesus’ day. Thanks for your thoughts, Matthew. Keep on keeping on..

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    • Hi Carolyn, I hear you. It’s hard to be ‘still’ these days; it really does take intentional behaviour on our part to achieve it! I think of Psalm 46: “Be still… and know that I am God.”

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  2. I find that as I grow more spiritually I become less interested in what the media has to say. Much of it seems like mindless chatter and personal opinions separated from God. Over the last year or two I have slowly switched over to listening to more Christian music and programing that center around God’s word. It helps to keep me focused on what God wants in the chaotic world around me. Thank you Matthew for your thoughts on social media.

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    • Hi Crystina, I’ve found Christian radio helpful in that regard too. You can also have it on in the car and not have to worry about rude or violent comments/ideas etc when the kids in the car. The positive messages really lift you in your day. And yes, in terms of the ‘mindless chatter’ you mention, when God isn’t mentioned — ever — it isn’t a neutral statement; it’s fostering a world view where God isn’t at the centre (or even near it). Thanks as always for your thoughts!

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  3. Thank you once again Matthew! Your comments tend to hit me at the same time I am contemplating or researching, in Abnormal Psychology especially. I have been talking a lot about the mirror effect quite often actually, over the last few months and found it quite interesting how people respond to negativity so differently depending on their lot in life.

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    • Hi Shelley, ‘abnormal psychology’ sounds very interesting! And about negativity, I agree. And if we’re aware of it we can often respond with more positivity or godliness. Have a great and uplifting day!

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  4. Hi Matthew, your blog was great to read. I find it interesting that when I watch news programs, or regular TV programs and even when I listen to the radio I am seldom up lifted. In most cases, I turn off the program because most iems that are presented are negative in so many ways. Reality shows, crime shows and shows that promote infidelity are the norm these days. Most of these shows don’t promote values that I was rasied with. The only thing negativity fosters is more negativity. I tend to watch programs on the Discovery Channel or Learn Channel….perhaps I may gain some useful knowledge. I feel good when I learn something, and I’m sure others do as well.
    A few years ago we bought a flat screen TV. My wife said to me one night, ” we bought this big TV and have all these channels but all you watch is sports”….my response was ” sports is real, everything else on TV is mostly someone esles fantasy”. Why people cling to programing that gives you so much negativity is beyond me. Perhaps a Christ centred focus in their lives would change their way of thinking.
    I think I will try your example and encouarge my family to try a day or even several days with out cell phones, the internet, news papers and T.V. We may actually do something productive, like spend time together.
    My son is headed to camp soon…there is no TV, no cell phones, no gaming, no internet at the camp, yet he returns just fine and in great sprits. It’s a positive experience… it is a Christian Camp.
    So let the experiment begin…right after the Stanley Cup finals are finished!!

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