So, in this essay I’m going to argue for something so basic you might as well close the page right now: that it’s better to consume better media, and worse to consume worse stuff. However, hopefully, by leading you on a goose-chase through cognitive science, I’ll give you a new perspective on that old chestnut, and even get a little closer to a theory of why better ideas/art/writing/etc. are better and why worse ones are worse. And I promise to do it all without postulating an eternal world of Forms!
Much of human cognition runs on pattern recognition. This was an old insight when Hobbes named it ‘fancy’, but modern cognitive science has placed it on an even firmer footing. The human brain doesn’t simply process its inputs and deliver them, un-editorialized, up to our conscious thought. Rather, pattern-recognition is the fundamental structure of perception from basic visual cortex structures on up. It resolves the chaos of undifferentiated electrical impulses into coherent shapes, relates those shapes to each other to form objects, and places those objects into a 3D visual field.
Now, we could get into the Kantian weeds as to why this is necessary for perception, but let’s be practical here. We know it happens, so how does it affect our experience? The next complication on this pattern-based perception is its temporality. Because we’re living beings, with needy and vulnerable meat bodies, the essential nature of human perception is temporal - it’s interested in what will happen next. The result is called ‘predictive processing’. Predictive processing unifies our sensory input with our pre-existing concepts in order to form a continuous stream of unconscious judgments about the world around us. We notice this most easily when it breaks down, as in an optical illusion. The brain gets tricked into predicting, on a pre-conscious level, something which isn't there. Where do we get those concepts, those frames into which we fit the data from our senses? From previous experience - that is, from patterns we have experienced enough to be burned into our neurons.
Why does this matter? If this is just the under-the-hood mechanics of our brain, we could ignore it as we do the nitty-gritty of our car engines or computer chips. But pattern-recognition doesn’t stop with the visual cortex. Our perceptions, encoded into patterns based on predictions about the world, aren’t just delivered to a consciousness which examines them in a free and un-determined manner. Rather, even our higher judgements are forms of (or, at least, deeply influenced by) predictive pattern-recognition. To see this influence at work, consider moods. What is a mood? In part, a tendency to recognize particular patterns over others, and make particular predictions over others. This can be extended to more enduring structures of thought, such as the negative cognitive biases identified by cognitive-behavioral therapy as a cause of depression, or the pre-packaged negative predictions which cause anxiety. Not all moods are depressive, of course, and positive moods tend to involve recognizing patterns with positive implications for the upbeat beholder.
Things get even more interesting outside the simple examples of good and bad moods, though. Our predictive judgments about the world are far more complex than “good/bad”. Pattern-based prediction also determines attention; it tells us what around us is important, and what aspects of it are worth consciously acknowledging. This desire of the mind to recognize and complete patterns of thought based on past experience drives much of our everyday, automatic engagement with the world. Even beyond that, it forms the raw material for creative skills, the necessary automatisms on the way to higher achievements. We learn patterns, we repeat patterns, we create patterns.
So, why does this matter? What do we learn from this brute fact of consciousness? The answer is so simple it might sound stupid: it matters what you put in your brain. The way to experience the world as more beautiful is to experience things of beauty; the way to master your language is to read excellent writing; the way to be more at home in society is to experience healthy social interaction; the way to learn is to try to learn. By actively choosing to put better, rather than worse patterns into your brain, you’ll be ready to re-recognize them when they’re ready to hand again. For a personal anecdote, my ability to see the beauty in everyday objects is noticeably higher when I’ve been watching a lot of hi-falutin art films. Nothing has changed in the lamp on the wall or the dishes by the sink, but my mind has learned a little to see them as Godard’s camera or Perec’s pen did. Of course, this is not really subject to conscious control, and I lost much of that since I fell out of the habit of watching film, but it was a striking experience to learn that my very perception could be shaped by art in such a manner. Hard to go back to reality tv or cable news after that.
Why even notice this phenomenon? Why consider it unusual? Well, the dark side is that it’s far easier said than done. If you think we have too much junk food around, junk media is a problem ten times worse. Our typical diet of images and words is easily as bad for the brain as the Standard American Diet is for the body, and for the same reasons - individual satisfaction, and corporate optimization for it. We are free to make ourselves dull, reactive, and depressive just as we are free to get physically bloated and inflamed1. Furthermore, even much of what we consider prestige media is designed to wire in harmful thought-patterns, because it can be justified for political or commercial advantage. Taking care of your cognitive diet is a never-ending process, with the same ups and downs as physical fitness. However, you can also think of it as systematizing something you did instinctively (if you’re reading philosophy blogs for fun, you already have at least one instinct in that direction).
Look, there’s no need to take this too far and become some kind of information ascetic. For one thing, you’ll probably not be very fun at parties. But I, at least, quite like the beautiful patterns art lets me spot. I can see the satisfaction an experienced hiker has in their understanding of the trail. I also see throngs of people enslaved to information structures which trap them in destructive spirals of negative prediction. You are what you eat, and you are what you see. But sculpting your own mind is a process only you can choose to direct. It's up to you to decide which patterns of thought are better for your personal and creative goals. Maybe Marvel has the right movies, or Twitter the right prose, to train your thought for how you want to use it - to teach you the patterns in the world you want to discover. And enjoy yourself, for heaven's sake! But you should make this choice to be entertained consciously, not because a marketer or an algorithm wants you to. More to the point, you should learn that some forms of media, like outrage-porn, offer a false fulfillment which likely takes you further from your goals. On the other hand, there is art, writing, etc. out there which will develop your thinking and expand your perception, and you should actively seek it. Choose freedom. Strive for truth. Sapere aude.
- Important to note: none of this mental health advice. Maybe the right analogy is ‘mental fitness’, but, either way, if you’re clinically depressed it’s not your fault and you shouldn’t blame yourself for your information diet. However, these ideas here are very compatible with cognitive-behavioural therapy - many depression-causing cognitive patterns are a case of maladaptive pattern recognition/predictive processing.