Brain Candy

What we feed our mind is important, but it doesn’t get nearly the same level of attention that we give to the food we consume. It’s time we started calorie-counting what goes in our brain.

If most of what you read (and watch) just goes straight through, leaving you with a faint memory of what it “felt like” but nothing of its actual content, you might be starving your brain on a diet of brain candy.

Having recently started to pay attention to my diet, the first item on my to-do list was calorie counting.

I know there’s a whole tired debate about the effectiveness of calorie-counting, but it does have its merits –if not only because it forced me to write down everything I was putting in body: realising I had Pringles before noon and thrice in a single week gave me pause. Also, doing it properly required me to be precise with quantities, which is where I find out a lot of little snacks add up to hundreds of calories. Put simply, you can see why you shouldn’t eat candy all day: it’s not just because it’s sugary, but mostly because while it does nothing for you in terms of nutrition, it does take up space in your caloric allowance that you should have given to actual food.

But going beyond the calorie, the next most important thing is to read on nutrition to understand the context. That’s were I realised the strong parallel that runs between nutrition and knowledge.

This is not an article about food, but it’s a fundamental comparison, so read on and I will get to the point.

Food is a necessity. We all need to eat, we’ve always needed to, and we’ve always gotten sick if we didn’t eat the right food—hence the quote by Hippocrates,

let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.

Michael Pollan wrote in Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation that it was cooked food that made us human: 

According to the “cooking hypothesis,” the advent of cooked food altered the course of human evolution. By providing our forebears with a more energy-dense and easy-to-digest diet, it allowed our brains to grow bigger (brains being notorious energy guzzlers) and our guts to shrink. It seems that raw food takes much more time and energy to chew and digest, which is why other primates our size carry around substantially larger digestive tracts and spend many more of their waking hours chewing — as much as six hours a day.

As we struggled through history, our attitudes towards food consumption have changed. They have done so qualitatively: Seneca warned his Stoic disciples of the dangers of fresh bread, because stale bread was just as good to to quench hunger. Religion made it a matter of identity: some Hindu cultures are vegetarian, jews and muslims don’t eat pork or shellfish. But the larger, more recent and most impactful trend has been a quantitative one. The best description I’ve found of this is from late historian Anne Hollander, who wrote a beautiful piece about this in the New York Times:

Today, people spend money, time and energy acquiring the skeletal look of galley slaves. Fatness and softness‐status symbols for centuries — have become thoroughly déclassé in two generations. They are now in fact the accepted signs of mental slavery — weakness of will, neurosis or bondage to ethnic traditions that are dependent on starchy foods as a staple of diet. Even worse, fatness suggests unhealthiness and early death — just as hollow cheeks and bony frames used to do.

These trends were certainly not motivated by scientific thought, which is why they endured for hundred of years before changing course. Modern nutrition science, on the other hand, proceeds at breakneck speed, and every study appears to be contradicting the previous one:

Don’t eat those eggs!

But that’s how science works. “History of modern nutrition science — implications for current research, dietary guidelines, and food policy” was published less than a year ago. The paper’s authors track the evolution of nutrition science from 1926 (when the first vitamin was isolated) to the creation of government policy based on those findings: recommended daily allowances (RDIs), fortified foods, fat VS sugar, calories VS protein, eggs VS no eggs — all the way to our current decade and future prospects.

There’s a kind of Socratic justice in the fact that we just realised we knew nothing about something we’ve been doing forever, but — again — that’s how science works.

In the last 20 years, the evolution of food in our society seems to have come full circle: chefs are celebrities now, food is 3D printed, meat is being grown in labs, agriculture is moving away from the fields and food is one of the hottest trends in startups and investment.

So it may have taken a bit longer than it should have — not least because we had to detect and debunk the distortions caused by food industry lobbyists — but if one takes the tme to review the available science and separate wheat from chaff, the question of what should go in our stomach is not as mystical as it used be. Michael Pollan said it best: eat food, not too much, mostly plants.

So much about our stomach. What about our brain?

It’s fair to say that we know a lot less about the brain than we do about our stomach. But as 21st-century philosopher Casey Neistat said, the brain is what matters — the body is just there to keep it running. 

The reason for the lag is that self-awareness does not comes naturally.

19th century sociologist Georg Simmel explains that ‘mental life begins with an undifferentiated state in which the Ego and its objects are not yet distinguished. It is as a result of a second-stage awareness that a subject in particular conditions comes to be distinguished from the content of his consciousness in those conditions’. Short version: we use our minds to think, so thinking about our mind is not something that comes naturally. This is known as “meta-cognition”.

We are a predominantly visual species, and while we can see ourselves getting fatter on Instagram, we can’t see ourselves getting dumber. And we are getting dumber. 

The election of Donald Trump, the flat-earth movement, vaccine hesitancy and all comparable abominations are all consequences of the stultification of society. Sure, these events also had concrete reasons that can be found in sociology and economics, but the second-order cause (meta-cause?) is people’s lack of ability to understand these reasons — lack of metacognition.

And the reason for this is the flattening, by means of decentralisation, of knowledge.

Flattening implies that there once was a three-dimensional structure that has since reduced to a two-dimensional one— or at least, made shallower. When poet T. S. Eliot askedWhere is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?‘, he was unwittingly referring to the concept known as the DIKW pyramid:

That is the structure that is being flattened.

When I was researching this article, I found a number of books that, on the surface, discussed this same topic. But in fact they didn’t, and with most of them the proof was in the title. “The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption” by Clay Johnson is a case in point: all these books talk about information, not knowledge. Clay may be on the right path (he even had my same idea of using food and diet as a guiding metaphor), but he sells himself short by limiting the scope of his investigation by only focusing on information.

By this point you should have asked yourself the million-dollar question:

What is knowledge?

You may be relieved to know that you’re not alone. Plato, Kant, Nietzsche and a few others have asked the same question (I, on the other hand, have literally just now realised what I got myself into).

See, the purpose of this article was to act as an introduction of sorts to my future articles. I enjoy writing and I’ve tried to start a blog for years now, but “writing about stuff” didn’t seem like a good enough goal. I have still struggle to understand what I wanted to write about, but I recently realised that I knew what I didn’t want to write about: I didn’t want to write about “brain candy”. 

Brain Candy is information that looks like knowledge and feels like knowledge — but isn’t. 

Like candy, it looks like food and feels like food, but it’s not food: it’s candy. That’s why there’s a separate word for it. The word “candy” itself comes from Sanskrit खण्ड (khaṇḍa): it means piece, fragment, scrap, morsel. 

Candy won’t kill you — but if you eat only candy, you will get fat, ugly, sick and die. 

The next part of the article talks about what Brain Candy is and how to recognise it. But I feel like the article would be incomplete if I didn’t try a definition of knowledge.

Knowledge is qualified and contextualised information. 

Information can be true or false, right or wrong, complete or incomplete. As you can see, knowledge requires someone to evaluate information and qualify it as knowledge. That’s because nothing is inherently true or false: “true” and “false” are concepts that only exist in our mind.

When I said that decentralisation causes a flattening of knowledge, I was talking about Google, basically. You may believe that you don’t need to read² or learn stuff because information, when necessary, is available online. But knowledge can’t be summoned or downloaded. Only information can. 

To qualify information as true or false, right or wrong, complete or incomplete (and then determine, for example, to believe it or not) you need to perform a critical exercise that cannot happen if you treat “information” as an end upon itself. Information is the means by which we obtain knowledge. The medium is our brain.

The pyramid metaphor is particularly apt because it shows something else that’s equally important: there’s a lot of data to go around, less information, even less knowledge and still lesser wisdom. Not all information is knowledge and not all knowledge is wisdom.

Someone has to make the distinction — and it better be you³.

Here’s a few examples of information that looks like knowledge and feels like knowledge — but isn’t:

  • Anything you were not looking for. Most categories below fall under this macro-category. You might have read that, if you get distracted while you were doing something, it takes almost half an hour to get back to your previous state of concentration. From this point of view, it doesn’t matter how interesting or curious or amusing something is — if you were not looking for it, it’s brain candy, and like any snack it will disrupt your intellectual digestion. I believe life should be lived deliberately and you shouldn’t allow yourself to be derailed by whatever gets thrown on your lap. This doesn’t rule out serendipity — but as Seneca said, ‘luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity’: it seems to me that you can’t use an opportunity that you were not preparing for. Despise the lottery.
  • Anything on social media. The obvious corollary is social media. It doesn’t matter if the content was shared by someone (or some company/magazine) you know, you respect or you trust: you shouldn’t be reading that. It’s like walking in on someone without knocking and learning about something that was supposed to be private: you shouldn’t have gone in, but at the same time, once you know it, you can’t forget about it. Just don’t go there unless you’re actively looking for diversion.
  • News. If it’s not relevant to your daily life, it’s not news. And if it doesn’t cause you to do anything different than you would have otherwise, it’s not relevant. Neil Postman described it better than I possibly could: the news of the day is a figment of our technological imagination.
  • Quotes. This is not necessarily a distraction, but they proliferate on social media so they’re worth mentioning. Quotes (inspirational or not) often sit on the top of the DIKW pyramid: they’re distilled wisdom. But as the saying goes, you can’t fill a cup that’s already full. Wisdom that you don’t practice, or for which you have no philosophical or empirical experience, is a dressed-up turd.
  • Instant messaging. If the entire relationship with the person you’re chatting with is made of brain-candy (again, information that you have no context for or actually care about), is the relationship really valuable to you? And if it is, are you enriching each other or just robbing each other of time and attention that could be used purposefully

Disclaimer: this is what brain candy is to me. I give importance to deliberation (knowing what I was looking for) and purpose (knowing why I was looking for it); everything else is noise. Maybe you’ll definite it differently.

I’m not saying that you should never eat candy; everybody does (and they should), hopefully as a part of a more balanced diet. But everybody knows candy when they see it.

That’s not the case for knowledge.

The point of this article is that, at the very least, you should be able to recognise brain candy when you see it. I hope that this article helped you learn the difference.

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