Watching the World Burn: The Weird Appeal of ‘Doomscrolling’

Brain Yapping by Dr Dean Burnett

What with a raging pandemic, Brexit chaos, climate turmoil, economic woes, and now a Trump-endorsed armed insurrection attempt against the government of the western world’s dominant nuclear superpower, there’s a LOT going on in the world to worry about right now, even for those of us who live relatively safe and pampered lives in first world nations. It’s enough to keep you up at night.

One unexpected use of smartphones and social media; you get to watch the apocalypse in real time

And it often does just that. Because as bleak and alarming as it all is, many people seemingly can’t tear themselves away from it. The combination of smartphones and ever-updating social media feeds means we can subject ourselves to as much bad news as possible, for minimal effort. And we often do just that, staying up late, constantly refreshing our feeds to see how the latest bad thing is unfolding.

To trendy term for this is ‘Doomscrolling’. And we probably shouldn’t do it. Experts have flagged up that it’s likely harmful to your mental health. And why wouldn’t it be? Modern life can be stressful enough, particularly with Covid19 and lockdowns aplenty, and stress is detrimental to your mental health. So why would anyone actively seek out and focus on seriously bad news, which can only stress us out even more?

But many of us do just that, very often. Whatever the logical, rational arguments may be, we can’t seem to stop ourselves seeking out and embracing the horror the modern world throws at us. Why is this?

Well, lots of possible reasons, but a big part of it is that this is just how the human brain works.

Staring at your phone or device before going to sleep is something people tend to do anyway. It doesn’t need to be doomscrolling; people check the generic news, look at Twitter/Instagram/whatever, play games, chat with friends, and so on. This is known to cause problems and issues with sleep, which isn’t good for our wellbeing as it is.

It’s different to reading a book, or similar. As well as the different light output, a book is essentially fixed, and finite. It doesn’t change. Social media feeds and news sites do, though. All the time. And if there’s one thing that really stimulates the human brain, it’s novelty. Therefore, looking at something that’s constantly ‘new’ has an inherent appeal, thanks to how our brain’s work.

Jigsaws are meant to be relaxing. But this is not relaxing.

Our brains may like novelty, but they don’t like things being unfinished. We instinctively reject or respond negatively to things being incomplete. That’s why it can be so infuriating if someone doesn’t finish an anecdote, or why we insist on watching to the end of a TV show/series, even if we’re not really enjoying it. Our brains just don’t like loose ends.

Reading a book isn’t so bad, because you can get to the end of a page or chapter before putting it down, and you know you will finish the whole thing eventually. But news or social media feeds don’t have an ‘end’, per se. They’re perpetually updating, with no end in sight. And with no obvious endpoint, we’re instinctively compelled to keep refreshing and checking on what’s going on.

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On top of this, our brains are seemingly hardwired to focus on negative outcomes, more than positive ones. The appropriately named ‘negativity bias’. You’ve likely experienced this yourself; you can have a hundred people praise you for something you’ve done, and one person criticise you. Even though it makes not logical or mathematical sense, it’s the one critical person you’ll pay attention to. It’s their words you’ll dwell on.

There is a certain sense to this, in fairness. Our brains are geared for survival; they wouldn’t have evolved this far if they weren’t. And one thing that increases the odds of survival is being keenly aware of, and paying attention to, anything that could pose as a threat to us. Hence our brains have fundamental, sensitive, and very potent threat detection mechanisms in place, that keep us wary of, and focused on, anything that could potentially pose a danger to us.

This can filter into our higher brain functions in a variety of interesting ways, some of which mean we actually enjoy the experience of fear. It’s very arousing (as in, stimulating, not the ‘other’ kind of arousing). It means we learn more about the world, particularly about the threats and hazards in it, which is something else our brains instinctively enjoy. And if we can experience these benefits of fear in a situation we know is safe (e.g. watching a scary movie, but knowing it’s not real and you can switch it off at any time), then we get all the benefits of being scared with none of the risk.

Some people enjoy being scared. Others enjoy pina coladas, and getting caught in the rain. Each to their own.

So, your brain doesn’t like leaving things unfinished, it focuses and dwells on negative things (particularly if they may affect us), it enjoys new and unfamiliar things and information, it even enjoys being scared, as long as it happens in a safe and controlled way.

Weird as it may seem, doomscrolling ticks all those boxes. So, given how our brains work at the fundamental levels, it’s no surprise that we can end up gorging on all the disasters happening in our society right now. It would arguably be weirder if we didn’t.

Granted, it’s not good for us to do this. But then, we humans have never been too concerned with doing what’s good for us. If we were, we wouldn’t have much to doomscroll about.

Dean Burnett’s new book Psycho-Logical: Why Mental Health Goes Wrong – and How to Make Sense of It, is out in paperback on February 4th

Dr Dean Burnett is a neuroscientist and best selling author of such books as The Idiot Brain and The Happy Brain. His former column Brain Flapping for The Guardian (now Brain Yapping here on the CSN) was the most popular blog on their platform with millions of readers worldwide. He is a former tutor and lecturer for the Cardiff University Centre for Medical Education and is currently an honorary research associate at Cardiff Psychology School and Visiting Industry Fellow at Birmingham City University.  He is @garwboy on Twitter.

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