politics

Fox News and the human brain

In May, I had to move and the place I found – the only place I found – was a three-bedroom apartment in Beaverton, near Nike. It’s a nice enough place. It’s cheap, the internet is excellent, and the people I rent from are pretty cool. They are also Fox News devotees.

So for the past half-year, I have heard more Fox than ever in my life, and while I wish I could say something like it’s been informative, what I do have to say is:

It’s worse than I thought.

The problem with Fox lies in the nature of the human brain and the impact of watching something like this on a daily basis, for hours each day. I’m not sure Fox is programming based on brain science, but what science has learned about the human brain in the past few decades explains why Fox viewers think and behave as they do.

The human brain, like every brain of every kind, evolved with the purpose of keeping each organism sufficiently functional to produce the next generation. Evolution is a process dependent on a number of factors, not the least of which is how long it takes for a new organism to produce the next generation.

For humans, for most of our history (several hundred thousand years in our current iteration; a few million in our preceding forms), this was about 15-20 years. Of course, this is a rolling process – new humans are born daily – but the ability of the genome to adapt is pretty slow. And given the innate adaptability of humans, our ability to survive in just about any circumstance, evolution hasn’t exactly zipped along for us.

20,000 years ago, humans were hunter-gathers, wandering across the planet as they lived, bred, died – and evolved. Then somebody got the bright idea to settle down, focus on agriculture, and built cities and civilizations. This wasn’t the worst idea; having a permanent home, food that is easier to obtain, and people you could depend on as family and friends close at hand would seem to be a great way to live.

Sadly, at a time when we were quickly and radically changing how we live, our brains continued to function as they had done for hundreds of thousands of years. A world based on cities works best as a world at peace with people cooperating and sharing. Conflict and struggle do not make for good city life, as we can see from the poverty and suffering that seem to be an inherent part of urban life.

Our brains have not evolved to match the circumstances of our lives. Our brains still have the mechanisms needed to protect ourselves from the dangers of a hunter-gatherer lifestyle: watching out for noises in the shadow, distrust of others, the need to hoard in case of hardship, worshipping gods for protection against the unknown. In other words, the ability to function based on fear so that we don’t die.

Once humans moved into villages and then cities, the need for fear became obsolete. What was needed was cooperation, sharing, trust, and so on. Kings, warriors, greed, poverty, illness springing from destitution, slavery, and so on: we have these plagues because we are trapped with brains that still fear the dark.

Fox feeds those fears. “They are going to destroy your happiness and take your hard-earned stuff” is their major message. It doesn’t matter who “they” are, although, of course, “they” are usually brown or black or liberals. It just matters that their viewers are afraid of somebody all the time.

Along with fear, or in service to it, is hate, and no one is to be hated more than liberal Democrats, especially women and most especially women of color. Nancy Pelosi is the most evil person in the Fox News universe. Antifa will burn your house down. Liberal Dems want to give guns to black people through the Affordable Care Act – I mean, I can try to get ridiculous about it, but honestly, until I started hearing it frequently, I simply did not understand the basic editorial principle at Fox:

Make up whatever shit scares people.

So even though Fox News requires all its people to be vaxxed, they continue to tell their viewers to fear the vaccines, to fear Dr Fauci, and to fear the loss of democracy if we make the covid vaccine required in the same as we do polio, measles, and others. As a result, their viewers are the ones who continue to get sick and die.

Now and then infecting vaccinated bystanders like me, who failed to understand one of my landlord’s terrible cough was covid and so got myself infected. Thanks, Hannity.

Fox is worse than I thought. I have heard enough of their messaging to know just how heinous it is. When people watch it extensively, as do my landlords, their brains become addicted to fear. Our hunter-gatherer ancestors didn’t live in constant fear; when they were in safety, they knew and their brains took the foot off the anxiety pedal. Fox keeps that engine running endlessly.

It’s a horrible way to live. Thanks to covid, it’s also a horrible way to die. 

Our brains need to do a lot of evolving, but that won’t happen overnight. We might not even survive as a species for that to happen. For now, recognizing the nature of the brain and learning how to live in a more healthy, less fearful way, is all a person can do. Fortunately, that’s not really that hard to do.

Turning off Fox can help a lot, but also detaching from whatever it is that makes you anxious. I mean, I love me some Rachel Maddow, but there are days when I have to say, Nope. Sometimes it’s better to be at peace than to be informed.

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