Human Brains Aren’t Designed To Handle The Modern News Cycle, So It’s Really OK To Tune Out For Self Care

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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.

The Personal Side Of Empathy

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The basic question behind the human inability to cope with news is this: How many people are humans designed to care about at once? Scientists believe our empathy instincts evolved to help us get along with others in our close surroundings. Group living, evolutionary experts suggest, fostered empathy because it makes it a lot easier to live with others if we understand what they're feeling and can form empathetic bonds. And that might have implications for how many people we can empathize with at once.

Some mammals do come together in huge gatherings (wildebeests, for instance, combine their small herds to form a massive migratory force every year). But none have access to vast networks of other fellow animals in the way that humans do, from social media to the news. And that, it seems, runs up against our evolutionary behavior. The study from 2016, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, shows the limits of our ability to connect with other humans outside our own group.

They looked at a phenomenon known as the "identified victim effect," which says that humans are much more likely to feel an empathic response, and to give generously, to specific victims of disasters, rather than huge, unidentified masses of victims. The researchers examined the particular response evoked by the worldwide news photos of the death of Syrian toddler Aylan Kurdi, who drowned off Greece as his family fled Syria in 2015. Before the Kurdi photograph was made public, the European response to the Syrian refugee crisis was muted; afterward, response and empathy skyrocketed, but then tailed off after the first "impact" of the photographs faded. Without a human face, people experienced what one psychologist, in conversation with Vox, called "psychic numbing": the more people involved in a tragedy, the less people are able to physically connect to it. They simply become overwhelmed and turn away.

We've known about the identified victim effect for a while, but this is one of the newest studies that applies it to the news cycle in particular, and shows the peculiar limits of human empathy when it comes to 24/7 news alerts. If we don't have a direct personal link with the victims, it seems, we can find it very hard to care — and that might be down to the way our social skills evolved.

Can We Get Past Our Empathy Limits?

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Another demonstration of the limits of empathy? Even those of us who are primed to care in great quantities by profession, from nurses to peacekeepers, are prone to a condition called exhausted empathy, or compassion fatigue. Research has consistently shown that empathy can be drained, reducing our ability to connect with one person after we've connected with another; a study of high-empathy workers, such as hairstylists, has shown that the more empathetic they have to be at work, the less they can spare for those at home.

The problem with the news cycle, from this perspective, is that it treats empathy as an infinite resource, but humans themselves don't appear to follow that pattern past a certain point. We seem to have finite social and empathetic energy. The evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar invented the idea of the Dunbar Number, which is the number of people with whom any one person can have a meaningful relationship — and he believes it to be 150, though others think it could go as high as 200. The identified victim effect is an attempt to add to our human connections, and it seems we may not have enough to go around.

So can we push past this? Not without a careful consideration of the difficulties. Ethicist Peter Singer has argued that human history has been characterized by expanding circles of empathy, from families to clans to political groups and so on; it's an idea touted by evolutionary thinkers like Steven Pinker, though not everybody's totally on board with the concept. In this perspective, as our communications and networks expand, gradually our empathy may grow alongside. But there's another idea: a collection of scientists from the U.S. and Canada wrote in  HuffPost early in 2017 that their research indicates that empathy may not be as limited as it seems, and that humans can be trained to empathize more — when they're convinced that it won't be costly. We can be more empathetic, they believe, when we decide to feel it.

Whatever the reality, it seems that humans may not have infinite ability to connect to people on the other side of the world — or at least may not be culturally trained to. So if you're finding constant tragic news on CNN exhausting and miserable, there's a scientific reason behind it — which is why you should feel comfortable turning off your push notifications, at least for a little while.