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Media’s effect on the brain

Journalist and author Brooke Gladstone, the managing editor of National Public Radio’s On The Media, discussed the subconscious influence that media have on human decision-making processes last Monday. She spoke to an audience of around 75 students and faculty in Giant Eagle Auditorium in Baker Hall.

She focused her presentation on her recently published book, The Influencing Machine. The book uncovers the changing relationship between humans and new media.

While Gladstone does not believe that media portray an accurate representation of our nation, shebelieves they run on what they can sell, and therefore generate manifestations of our desires.

“Media are largely a reflection of who we are. Right now [we live in] a fractious and furious nation. You all are facing a media catastrophe: an apocalypse of dubious information,” she said.

According to Gladstone, conscious choice is an illusion, and consumers subconsciously change the information they consume to fit what they believe. She said this problem can be fixed if consumers first add their own thoughts to the “creative aggregation” of opinions in media.

Citing the Oracle of Delphi, Gladstone said to escape from the “nauseating experience of constantly questioning our beliefs,” we can focus on the phrase “know thyself” as the foundation for approaching media. “In an era when everything can be asserted and anything denied, the responsibility falls very heavily on each of us to know ourselves,” Gladstone said.

“We have a trusty stock of old opinions, and when someone contradicts them, or facts contradict them, or they contradict each other, we are thrown into turmoil,” she continued.

Gladstone said our reactions are driven more by impulse than by irrationality. She referenced statistics gleaned from studies conducted for her book to show the audience how the brain reacts to the mind’s stream of decisions.

“Everything that we know about cognition says that when faced with a contradiction, we use our rational brains to think about it, but that simply wasn’t the case,” she said.

Citing a study conducted in the ’60s on college student smokers and nonsmokers, Gladstone said the study found smokers were more likely to focus on information given contesting the relationship between smoking and cancer and the nonsmokers were more likely to focus on the information given affirming that link.

“There you can see very clearly that the filtering happens an awful lot in our own mind,” she said, adding that it is difficult to fight something that is so built into our brains.

Citing the implicit association test conducted by Harvard University, Gladstone explained that consumers could check their subconscious biases and discover the filtering that occurs constantly in their brains.
Gladstone believes that the only solution to fix the problem of media’s infiltration of our subconscious is “to bring the unconscious forward.”

“Our only choice is to bring those impulses and biases where we can see them,” she said. “Talk back to the media outlets that you consume, and produce and distribute your own information and commentary when you know it’s good.”

Students who attended Gladstone’s lecture said they got a lot out of it.

Elizabeth Lee, a master’s student in English, said, “I think that media can [start to affect us] if we don’t think critically about what it’s telling us every day. I think if we just absorb it, then it would be dangerous. Talks like [Gladstone’s] are good because it is good to be aware of keeping your filters on.”

Some students, however, disagreed with aspects of the talk. Kurt Sampsel, a Ph.D. student in English, said that he disagreed with Gladstone’s assertion that media is a reflection of what we desire.

“I think it’s an interesting model of understanding or critiquing media to start with how it does things that we like, but it also ends up doing things that we don’t like. For instance, advertising ends up selling a lot of products that I’m not interested in, so it doesn’t necessarily mirror my interests,” he said.

Gladstone’s lecture was sponsored by the Humanities Center for its lecture series on media and social change, as well as by the Center for Arts in Society.

Kathleen Newman, an associate professor of English, was responsible for bringing Gladstone to campus.

“I think of Brooke Gladstone as somebody who tries to take a pretty fair look at media and social change,” Newman said. “She is sometimes dubious about the power of media to make a positive change, so I thought she was an interesting person to play both sides of the argument.”

Gladstone has received two Peabody Awards, which are awarded yearly in recognition of distinguished public service by radio and television stations.