Everyone agrees that your body needs a healthy diet to function optimally. Only with with the right fuel, nutrients and building materials can you live a long and happy life. It prevents you from many ailments and strengthens your immune system so you do not have to spend your days sick in bed.
However, I argue that your mind needs a healthy diet too. I am not talking about how the brain as part of your body is affected by food as well. I am talking about the diet of information and knowledge you feed your brain.
Every day you decide consciously or unconsciously the input your brain receives. What it is will determine about what you think, what you know, how you look at the world and even how your mind works.
Using the metaphor of food as a guide, lets examine how you can put your brain on a healthy media diet. Because, the same principles that help you to keep a healthy body apply to keeping a healthy mind.
Junk vs. wholesome media sources
Ever experienced what happens if you eat junk food for a number of days? The dragging energy, the fogginess in your brain… Not even talking about what happens if you do it for 30 days straight. On the contrary, if you eat more wholesome and nutrient dense food, your body has plenty of energy and your mind is clear.
What makes junk food junk is its shallow nutrition profile as well as the heavy load of unhealthy fats and carbs. You can get it quick and easy, it tastes great, but somewhat leaves you unsatisfied.
Now what would be the equivalent in the information industry? It comes quick and easy, always available, has shallow content and a heavy load of unhealthy drama and sensationalism. Right, the 24/7 news cycle. You might feel informed but somehow always end up needing more. The content is highly repetitive and often not exactly the most relevant things for your life.
The healthy equivalent is not that straightforward. There are nutrient dense options in books, documentaries, blog posts, and some articles or magazines. However, it is difficult to swift through and find the true gems since in all of these mediums there is plenty of junk too.
Heuristics and mental models for finding healthy media options
One mental model that helps with finding these valuable sources is the Lindy effect. I read about this model first in Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book ‘The Black Swan’. Taleb proved the effect mathematically based on his theory on fragility and anti-fragility. The Lindy effect describes a heuristic originating from actors discussing Broadway shows in a New York deli (called Lindy’s delicatessen) and realizing that a show lasting for fifty years, will most likely last another fifty. One lasting two hundred years will most likely still be around another two hundred years later.
Using the Lindy effect, you can judge information and media on its merits. If the book is two hundred years old and still read, well, there must be something valuable there. Classics are the classics because they fundamentally shaped humanities thinking and must include tremendous insights. On the flip side, how many New York Times bestsellers are still read ten years later?
Another thing to consider is information by pioneers. There is a trend nowadays to read interpretations or discussions of original work instead of the real thing. While books like ‘The Wealth of Nations’ and ‘Civilization and Its Discontents’ have been highly influential to our modern day culture, almost no one has read them. Interpretations can be useful for gaining different perspectives on some work, however, the foundation is still the original work. There is a reason why these people are considered pioneers.
Variety and diversity
As a child I hated eating broccoli. I would just go nuts the moment it was on my plate. Every food it touched I would not eat. It was like it contaminated everything it came near to. I think it took like six years of not eating broccoli until I tried it again. Not until I liked it, just tried it again. It was delicious. I loved it and still do to this day.
We have a tendency to stick with what we know we like. But with food as well as with information, you won’t get everything you need to be healthy out of one source. Various foods have different nutritious profiles and to get all vitamins, minerals and macros you need to function optimally you have to eat other things than rice (even broccoli won’t cut it!).
So change it up a bit. Consume your information from a different source once in a while. Indulge in different opinions and opposing arguments as if you would try out a new restaurant. Not only will you potentially have a great experience, you might as well detect a new favorite food. If you don’t like it, you at least opened up your world a bit, strengthened your position by knowing exactly why you like the other thing better. It makes you a more well rounded person.
The power of a media fast
Paradoxically, sometimes the healthy thing to eat is nothing. Your gut needs a break too. Furthermore, your cells get lazy on this constant nutrient supply and even the broken unhealthy ones can sustain themselves even though it would be better if they retired. Fasting is a way to give your body a break and let him ‘re-order’ himself.
The equivalent for media and information can be found in the so called Think Week. Taking off for a couple of days to escape the over-stimulation and hyper-connectivity of daily life. There are countless examples in how one goes about it, from Bill Gates to countless creatives and entrepreneurs. I think what makes it so valuable is the shift from over-consumption to contemplation and even production.
Taking time for reflecting on the things you read, watch and listen is essential for taking value out of them. Some works force you to do this, for example a philosophy book has this effect where you want to take breaks. This is a good thing. It means that your mind is working heavily on making sense of new information and connecting it with existing knowledge. Only in this way can you produce original thought and differentiate yourself from countless others who are just a mouthpiece for someone else’s content.
What matters is not the amount of information and knowledge you have but how you use it and how well you actually grasp it. You do not need a whole week for this. As with the practice of intermittent fasting, take time regularly to stop consuming new information and instead reflect on old one. As Bruce Lee said:
“I don’t fear the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks but the man who has practiced 1 kick 10,000 times!”
Next time, instead of immediately picking up the next book after finishing one, just take some time and think. Contemplate. Let your mind wander and truly engage with the new information you just received. It is like with fasting, the first bite after a long fast will feel like a remarkable experience.
This piece covers fundamental principles for one part of the equation: How to consume a healthy diet for your mind. The other and arguably more important part is what to do with it. That part is up to you.