Illustration: Matija Medved

One Day at a Time

Breaking Your Addiction to Breaking News

Daily insights on life in the face of uncertainty, by psychiatrist and habit change specialist Dr. Jud Brewer

Elemental
Published in
4 min readApr 3, 2020

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These are strange days.

Do you find yourself compulsively checking your favorite news sites over and over — looking for the latest news? Repeatedly these past few weeks, I was asked to help folks with this. It seems we’re all struggling with it, so I wanted to explain why this happens and what you can do about it.

Here’s the science.

Our brains are wired to plan for the future. Why? So we can remember where to find food. Imagine our ancient ancestors out on the savanna foraging for food. When they happened upon a food source, their brains fired off a bunch of dopamine — the chemical in our brain associated with reward.

This helped them lay down a memory so they could recall what they ate and where they found it. But over the course of the learning process, the timing of the dopamine firing changes. Instead of dopamine firing when our ancestors encountered the food itself, it started firing when they thought about going after food. And this is still true for us today: Dopamine shifts from firing when we get food, to firing when we anticipate getting food. This is part of habit formation, and why all of us today feel cravings and urges. We get hungry, which triggers memories of where we’ve found food in the past, which triggers dopamine firing to motivate us to go get it.

It’s likely that the bigger the headline, the bigger the dopamine hit. It certainly feels that way to me!

How does this relate to compulsively checking the news?

In today’s world, information is food. It helps us survive. If you haven’t checked your favorite news site in a while, you might get a dopamine spritz when some big news hits. It’s likely that the bigger the headline, the bigger the dopamine hit. It certainly feels that way to me!

And even though big news doesn’t hit every five minutes, you feel compelled to check in anticipation of getting new news. You check and check and…

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Jud Brewer MD PhD
Elemental

Addiction Psychiatrist. Neuroscientist. Habit Change Expert. Brown U. professor. Founder of MindSciences. Author: Unwinding Anxiety. www.drjud.com. @judbrewer