The Information Pathology

November 2018

When I write, my aim is to learn more about a subject, to start conversations, and to serve as a point of departure for further exploration (rather than a point of reference or conclusion). So please feel free to contribute to the exploration of this topic either by email or on twitter @jamesbeshara.

TL:DR: The major pathology of the 20th century was food related, and the major pathology in the 21st century will be an information pathology — that if uncurbed, systematically or individually, will lead to a continued increase of mental illnesses like depression and anxiety worldwide.


“Information is power.” You’ve heard the adage often. But does it apply any longer without a caveat or indicator of what the right *kind* of information might be? In a world overrun with information, do we want to absorb any and all information, turning our mind into a psychological version of clutter and junk stacked up throughout your house? Home isn’t just where the heart is. A home’s comfort results from what it discerningly houses and what it doesn’t. The same can be said for nutrition. In a food-scarce world, any food is good food. But in a world with food excesses, our long-term physical health has more to do with *choosing* food rather than *finding* food.

To encourage better food choices, the term “junk food” was coined by Michael Jacobson from the Center for Science in the Public Interest in 1972. What are the consequences of this information overload — and is it time for us to create a similar term for information that is “junk food for the mind,” as coined recently by entrepreneur Naval Ravikant. [1]

It is my view that mental health is where physical health was fifty years ago: we only discuss it when something is wrong (rather than thinking about it preventatively) — and with an unprecedented rise of hyper-connectivity and a world that is better informed than ever before, is there a case to be made for distinguishing healthy information from unhealthy information in preventing mental illness and promoting mental health? In a world where self-inflicted injury and suicide lead to more deaths per year than all conflict and violence combined [2], we’ve found ourselves in a point in history where we’re actually closer to world peace than we are to inner peace. I believe the major pathology of the 21st century will be a psychological one, and the growing epidemic that affects almost 1 billion people [3] will lead to a massive amplification of the discussion about the kind of information we seek, why we crave it, and the costs in consume it.

What is a pathology?

Pathology, within medicine, is the structural and functional changes caused by disease.

A “social” pathology, then, can be understood as the collective physiological and social reasons(not reasons for, consequences of) You are talking about etiology here) for a spread of a maladaptive behavior — for example, not necessarily the biological root cause of diabetes, but the social and physiological collective understanding of what would give one group a higher predisposition for diabetes over another (or mental illness or cancer etc.).

The collective “groups” could be categorized by nationality, social circles, age, or historical moment. Major pathologies have struck the Western world or at least the United States in the last few centuries (and increasingly the entire world, as we become more and more connected). Obesity, for instance, has taken the US by storm. Often we use the metaphor of an “epidemic,” even though these pathologies are not spread by agents like bacteria or viruses, to describe social pathologies.

To further articulate the difference between an individual pathology and a collective pathology — For an individual, the root cause of a disease may be a biological pathogen. But for a collective, the root cause of a pandemic is often more social or behavioral than it is biological. This leads to major mitigation efforts of the spread of that pandemic through as much behavioral understanding as biological understanding. For example, the root cause of a Native American dying of smallpox in the 17th century could be explained biologically on the individual level, but to truly understand the root cause outside of the individual biology, it is better explained socially or behaviorally by understanding that the cause of the pandemic was perhaps a consequence of foreign populations (conquistadors and missionaries; that carried strains of smallpox that they themselves were resistant to) coming in contact with Native American populations that had underdeveloped resistance to these diseases. They got Europe back by giving explorers syphilis, which the explorers brought back to Europe devastating urban populations throughout Europe in the 18th century [4].

So what does this mean? In an increasingly productive, prosperous, and connected world, I believe that the major pathologies of the last 100+ years have largely been socially driven. And not just by contact between populations: by excesses to which our hardwired biology and preternatural tendencies have led us over billions of years of evolution. Today these have culminated today in an excess of easy-to-access information that will have as drastic an effect on health in the 21st century that excess food has had in the 20th century.

The 20th century: The Food Pathology

It’s worth thinking further about overeating and food choices: unlike the smallpox epidemic, this is a more purely behavorial pathology. When a pathology is behavioral, meaning that a human’s individual or communal behavior contributes to acquiring the illness, then it’s not just a viral or bacterial ‘pathogen’ that’s to blame. But biology can still play a role. Human biology is often to blame for the behavior that leads to the acquisition of an illness — the behavior itself can be the result of a biological path-dependence that may have made sense evolutionarily but no longer makes sense in its so-to-speak original form today.

In other words, it takes two to tango: behavior (either adaptive or maladaptive) and biology.

A primary path dependence we’re dealing with as a global community today — and the pathology most important to this essay because of the way it combines behavior and biology — is our hardwiring to treat food as a scarcity. In the last one hundred years, with immense progress in the last fifty, more people now die from preventable diseases caused by an excess of food, especially high-calorie food with little other nutritional value, rather than the scarcity of it. Obesity leads to health issues ranging from cardiovascular disease to diabetes to several forms of cancer and is the second leading cause of preventable death in the United States. It is estimated that nearly one in two people are affected by obesity today [5].

This means that the prevention of what is becoming the leading cause of preventable death in the United States, a food pathology (reflected in the obesity epidemic), is driven by an understanding of the correct preventative behavior for the individual — along with an improved social awareness of these preventative measures for the collective community. [5]

Our “evolutionarily-tuned” bodies and minds never expected a world with plentiful, cheap, and good-tasting food. And it requires conscious effort to make the right long-term healthy choices that may compete directly with our biological urges. We began to learn this in the 20th century. And now we’ve got to deal with new challenges in the 21st, especially when it comes to our mental health.

The 21st century: The Information PathologyWhat might be something else that our “evolutionarily-tuned” bodies and minds never expected? — and for which we’re going to have to develop a new social understanding and new preventative behaviors?

You already know I mean the excess of information at our fingertips today —from the trivial, to the career-making, to the life-saving.

It is an excess that makes food’s excess look minuscule in comparison (given that even very unhealthy food costs something financially, so consuming seven hours of pointless information is a lot easier and cheaper than eating thirty Twinkies). This excess is leading to a mental health epidemic the world has never seen. Like the 20th century shift that led to more people dying from eating too much than from not eating enough, more people now die from suicide and self-inflicted harm today than from violence including armed conflict — and it is reported by the World Health Organization that depression is now the world’s leading cause of disability [6]. Here in the US, mental illness is the second leading cause of death of teenagers [7]. More alarming than completed suicide attempts is the recent stat that each day in the US, there are 3,041 suicide attempts, most uncompleted attempts, by teenagers in grades 9-12 [8].

What’s to blame?

Mental illnesses are extremely complex, and they’re interdependent on many biological and physiological factors. Exercise, diet, and genetics are all key ingredients in this complex equation. But the rise of major depression in teenagers is not typically understood as an exercise or diet-driven phenomenon. So that leaves genetics or another under-discussed element of the equation. That element may be our mental diets and the information we put in our heads. The unprecedented access to information today, coupled with undiscerning absorption of any and all dopamine-releasing information is leading to poor mental health in the same way unprecedented access to food as led to the maladaptive habits plaguing our physical health.

The access we have to information today is invaluable in many ways (like the access to food). That is obvious. When accounting for the negatives, the fact that we all have more information in our pockets than the President of the United States had in 1998 (!) is still ten steps forward, but I am going to try to acknowledge the many steps backward that this world presents as well.

100,000 years ago, it was helpful to know 20-30 pieces of new information during the course of a day (where our family members are, how they are feeling, where we need to go out and hunt or gather, where the snakes and predators are, etc). Today, when we look at our phones, we can see a near-infinite amount of positive or negative, beneficial or harmful, funny or sad, exciting or frustrating, intellectual or stupefying, stimulating or numbing, inspiring or dispiriting things all in the course of 60 seconds. And like a gambler at a slot machine, we don’t know what we’re going to get when we turn our screens on. Some of it is sought out (like a book or a podcast); some of it is pushed toward you (Instagram’s algorithm or email threads). But ostensibly all of it is new information. What are we supposed to do with this new information? Why do we seek it in the first place? What is a healthy amount? What is the healthy kind? What is an unhealthy amount? And what is the unhealthy kind?

After years of thinking about this topic, here is where I’ve landed:

Why do we seek information?

It seems to me that the absolute most basic reasons for our biological wiring for seeking information are, not in any particular order: 1) to assess and achieve our safety and security 2) to assess and achieve higher status; to see how we can personally improve and climb the dominance hierarchies in which we find ourselves (school, work, neighborhood, industry) and to see where we currently are in that dominance hierarchy (comparison to others) and 3) as a means for an escape. [9,10,11]

What is a healthy as opposed to an unhealthy amount of information? We need information. And we can’t not seek it. But if these are both true, then it becomes even more important to determine the right amount to seek and hold fast to it as a means of combating our impulses. How to calculate that best amount isn’t always entirely clear — but I will try to describe it as a function of the benefit both your and your community’s wellbeing receive from your having acquired it. That is to say that a healthy amount of information should be considered as a function of optimal “output,” with the optimal amount of information acting as “input.” The healthiest amount of input enables the most productive and positive output for yourself and your community.

Here are a few examples:

If you are becoming a doctor, then 10 years of general, then specialized medical information and training (input) could be the right amount for the goal of practicing safe and effective medicine (output). Good for you, good for your patients. If you’re aiming to write a biography of a historical subject like Ghandi, then reading from every great historical account of his life you can get your hands on for a few years could be optimal. Good for you, and great for your readers and fellow scholars. If you have a stress-inducing job, watching a Netflix standup special at night to give your output-focused mind a rest could be optimal for de-stressing before another hard day tomorrow. Makes you feel better and reduces the chances you’ll snap at coworkers, miss deadlines, or otherwise negatively affect the workings of your company.

However, there is a line where consumption no longer serves production and value creation. This is similar to the biphasic responses to alcohol consumption below [12].

When your BAC hits about .075, you hit the biphasic line. One phase — stimulation — shifts into another: sedation. And its features aren’t pretty.

Four hours of Netflix per night, two hours of cable news per night, checking social media 45 times a day, isolating yourself between two headphones in a world of podcasts at the expense of your social relationships or social usefulness has a line where the entertainment is beneficial in the short-term and detrimental in the long-term. The unhealthy amount is the amount that no longer benefits you and those around you, and therefore, it works against your creative, productive, value-creating biology and psychology. This is critical because we are biologically and socially rewarded for being useful to others.It’s true that information is power.

But like the power charging a Tesla car, the purpose of the power is to be used in pushing the vehicle forward — not to accumulate indefinitely in the car batteries while the vehicle sits collecting dust. And with information, it’s actually more than just sitting idly, poor discernment of the kind of information we seek and digest throughout the day can materially deteriorate our mental wellbeing.

The function of information is to empower purpose, and when you hear a little voice in your head telling you that you’re passing this biphasic line, listen to that voice. It just might be your future self telling your present self to make better investments of your time.What is unhealthy information?

Sweets in small quantities and in the right sequence are called desserts. Sweets in large quantities and in the wrong sequence are called “junk food.”

The answer has much to do with quantity and sequence, but the general sense is that the majority of the sources of information the average person consumes (and the quantities of it) are junk food for the mind, just as certain foods are junk food for the body. Social media, “news”, television, politics, all have negative effects on value creation for you and those around you. Our biological path dependence to acquire information to assess and achieve safety (for means of preservation) and to assess and achieve status (for means of attracting a mate and human reproduction along with increasing value production for those around us) will work against its own long-term interests when information erodes, instead of empowers, the mind. Our current concept of “news” is a perfect example of junk food for the mind. The 1990’s brought us the idea of 24-hr news channels. What was once 30-60 minutes per night for local, regional, national, and international news became 24 hours of national and international “news.” [13]

The issue is that there isn’t enough actual news (ie events that are ‘new’) to fill that amount of time — so the fillers became pundits and commentators interpreting events and an-ever-growing number of potential events (ie actual ‘news’ and ‘potential news’) for us. Humans are good at finding efficiencies, and potential events far outweigh the number of past events, and potential negative events captivate our attention better than potential positive events, so these news-cycles naturally became dominated by commentators interpreting any number of potential negative events. Let that sink in. The reporting of events became interpretation of possible but non-existent negative events. If this was a dessert, it would be triple-chocolate cake, delicious to the tastebuds but terrible for your diet.

Commercially-driven news plays on our desire to seek information to assess and achieve safety. Social media plays on our desire to assess and achieve status. That’s not necessarily how they started… I loved Facebook when it seemed more like a way to connect. Same for Instagram. But now these platforms are for broadcasting and comparison, not connecting — and as Theodore Roosevelt observed, “comparison is the thief of joy.”

In my opinion, the easiest way to go on an information diet is to try disconnecting from them for 30 days and see how you feel. Important news will still reach you through friends, family, and co-workers (trust me), and deleting social media applications will give you a chance to register your internal state when you’re not impulsively checking them. I’ve also found that something like reddit is a good digital alternative: it keeps me informed of major news, leaves me feeling more positive than Facebook/Instagram/Twitter, and fills those 5-10 minute gaps in the day where a small escape is desired. What is healthy information?

Information, like a map, is helpful in providing direction, but it won’t get you to your destination.

Healthy information is the content that “in”-forms, gives form and shape, to your pursuit of creating. Creating art, music, a tool, a company, an essay, a livelihood. Healthy information, like healthy food, “in”-forms towards an optimal form and shape that empowers purpose and usefulness to yourself and those around you.

Food for Thought

The consumption of information and food are biologically hardwired. And our biology could have never predicted (nor prepared us for) the excesses of both that surrounded us today. We find ourselves in a time and place where our long-term prosperity depends on our restraint and discipline rather than our ability to seek and consume.Historically, we had to outwit quick and clever prey or aggressive tribal adversaries to thrive. Today, we have to outwit our baser selves.What specifically can we do about it? Here are a few thoughts:Observe how you feel after consuming the news,TV, and social media. Just note how it makes you feel. Do you recognize a biphasic sense of how you feel — that is, a point at which you shift from feeling empowered to feeling anxious?

(1) Delete broadcast-driven social media for 30 days (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter) to see and reflect on how that makes you feel.

Let your friends know so that 1) they know you might miss out on personal or family updates announced on the platform and 2) they can also find the benefits of not being on these comparison/consumption cycles.

Pay attention to your own attention span. Does it change as you disconnect from social media?

(2) Don’t watch commercial news.

You’re safe. We are safer than we have ever been in human history in a macro-sense. In a micro-sense, watching national news is not going to inform you of your individual safety.

If something is critically important, your family and friends will tell you and then you can proactively look up the specifics (this is the same for politics).

(3) In general, humans get obsessed with solutions rather than first building an obsession with a problem (and fully understanding that first).

But skipping a full understanding of the problem is like skipping medical school and going straight to writing prescriptions without fully understanding (or seeking to understand) the underlying causes of diseases.

If you want to engage in obsessive information consumption, make it around problems (and not proposed solutions and those espousing them). The people clamoring about solutions –without first exposing the problem clearly and convincingly– skip past an important part of value creation. Just because you were given potential answers to the quiz does not mean you understand the subject.

(4) Strive to create more than you consume.

When I first learned to program, it wasn’t until I had a concrete project I wanted to build for the world that I really learned how to program. Purposeful creation is the best way to force high-integrity information uptake. It’s the best of both worlds. Awa Kenzo, the spiritual Zen master, believed you could only learn the abstract concepts of Zen by striving for mastery in practical affairs like archery or flower arranging.

(5) Turn off the comparison to others.

As the wisdom goes, compare yourself to who you were yesterday rather than who others are today.

(6) And in the parlance of Alcohol Anonymous’s famous advice, “if you’re prone to slip, don’t go where it’s slippery” — another reason to avoid the current state of social media or tabloid news that focuses on people’s triumphs and failures.

Choose in-person socialization or or technology platforms and products that create visual connection and communication (FaceTime, Marco Polo, Skype) when technology is preferred/needed rather than platforms built for broadcasting and ego-enlargement.

Thematically speaking, information is not wisdom. Knowledge and wisdom are more like processes that collections of facts and opinions. And that laborious process goes something like this: Selection of sources followed by 1) Revelation 2) Interpretation and 3) Application.

Distilling a collection of facts into wisdom requires nailing all four, and doing that requires developing muscles of discernment, contemplation, patience and the courage to stumble around until things begin to click. This is why wisdom is so rare. (This is also why the current daily deluge of information is perhaps most harmful to adolescents and teenagers — where depression and suicide rates are climbing fastest [14].)

In a world where you can consume 100 pieces of new information per minute with infinite scrolls and flicks of the thumb, approaching mental health in a preventative and habit-focused way will be critical in curbing the growing mental health epidemic that is set to dominate the world this century.

After all, we are what we eat. Let’s make sure we each choose wisely.


Thank you to Peter Carnochan, Annie Wyman, John Studdard, and Nasir Tekhund for reading drafts of this essay.

1. https://twitter.com/naval/status/847592906495934465?s=21 [While finishing this essay, a friend also pointed me to an entire recent, and well reviewed, book on this topic actually called The Information Diet further proof that no ideas are truly original :P]

2. https://news.un.org/en/story/2009/09/312092

3. https://ourworldindata.org/mental-health

4. https://www.news-medical.net/health/History-of-Sexually-Transmitted-Disease.aspx

5. https://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/adult.html

6. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/article-abstract/2618635

7. https://www.prb.org/suicide-replaces-homicide-second-leading-cause-death-among-us-teens/

8. http://prp.jasonfoundation.com/facts/youth-suicide-statistics/

9. It’s true to say that we also seek information to learn, but saying that is like saying “we seek information to be informed” and tells us very little about why we want to learn (and reason number 2 above is my answer to that question).

10. None of these are nefarious, as I think that entertainment as a form of escape from your typical patterns of thought can be very beneficial in appropriate doses. Additionally, even something as poorly understood as “comparison” as only a negative (as in the theme of “comparison is the thief of joy”) is deeper than just narcissism or egoism, and may have just as much to do with an innate desire to provide value to your community as it does to selfish egoism — eg, if you’re the worst of five blacksmiths in your village or far from the best guitarist in your high school that is trying to provide value to others, it’s disheartening for the ego and for the desire to provide value to others. Here is a great article on why we should not consume news— “News Is Bad For You” https://www.theguardian.com/media/2013/apr/12/news-is-bad-rolf-dobelli

11. Self-help material, from books to TED talks to podcasts, are especially interesting as they fit in multiple buckets of why we seek that kind of information. Self-help material can be very powerful in reinforcing positive ideas and articulations of thoughts you yourself may have had but never knew how to express — but it is especially addictive because it is a pseudo-productive, guilt-free, consumption of information.

12. https://www.alcoholproblemsandsolutions.org/biphasic-curve-shows-how-alcohol-affects-us/

13. I’m not talking about enlightening, backwards-looking, honest journalism; much of which has improved the world in countless ways. Sadly, however, our “news” is dominated by forward-looking, fear-mongering potentiality with talking heads telling us how to think and what to do about these potential events. The former is fact-driven enlightenment, the latter is opinion-driven manipulation.

14. http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/141/6/e20172426


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