The scale and speed of the modern news cycle — from up-to-the-second crisis updates, to multiple feeds on international incidents, to horrifying push notifications every couple of minutes — is formidable. And in the wake of huge quantities of tragedy, we're often told to tune out, chill out, cease engaging — because too much exposure, it's thought, might damage us. There are multiple reasons behind this advice, but one theory stands out: that humans, who evolved as pack animals in human groups of 10-100, simply can't cope neurologically with the demands of empathy with billions of other people.
A study in 2016 looking at the Syrian refugee crisis found that a phenomenon called the "identified victim effect" has a big impact on how much you empathize with strangers who are impacted by disaster. Simply put, we empathize much more with individual people — as depicted in photographs, for example — than with a large group of people, even though both are experiencing the same hardship. The science behind these findings suggests that our brains simply haven't evolved to take on the human cost of the crisis in Puerto Rico, in Myanmar, the ongoing waves of sexual assault allegations against men in media, or any of the many other crises happening across the world at once — and why it's really, truly OK to tune out of the news cycle.