Stop Feeding Your Brain Mental Garbage

Less than 10 minutes after waking, I threw up cigar chunks into my master bathroom toilet.

It shouldn’t have been a surprise.

Twelve hours earlier, the groom and I were celebrating his upcoming wedding with a night on the town in historic downtown Leesburg, Virginia. 

As you might have guessed, this night included alcohol and stogies.

We drank and walked and talked and smoked and drank some more. We hopped from restaurant to restaurant, downing wine and beer and whiskey, all the while drawing down a box of cigars purchased at the local tobacconist.

At one point, the groom had me laughing so hard that I bit down on the cigar butt, crumbling the outer paper, which I inhaled, coughed up, then involuntarily swallowed.

I washed it down with a swig of wine—all of it came up the next morning.

Gross, I know.

But it perfectly illustrates the entire point of this article... 

Garbage In Garbage Out

“Garbage in garbage out,” they say. 

In my case, it was wine and cigars; and there was no question as to why.

When it comes to how we feel, it’s easy to see cause-and-effect. Drink too much, get sick. Eat bad shrimp (another story for another time), pray to the porcelain gods.

When we feel bad and don’t know the cause, we look for one. 

Just recently, having woken up with a splitting headache two days in a row, I started wondering what could be causing such pain. Was I stressed? Had I stayed up too late? Did I drink too much coffee or eat too many peanut M&Ms before bed? 

Something was causing the hurt. Some input was affecting the output. And since my brain was the victim, I was very incented to uncover the culprit (it was coffee).

Interestingly, though we avoid consuming things that cause us immediate physical pain (like bad shrimp), we remain largely unaware of how other inputs (like social media) might affect our thinking or happiness.

Of course, they do.

I’ll give you three guesses as to what’s wrong with this guy…

I’ll give you three guesses as to what’s wrong with this guy…

The books we read, the podcasts we listen to, the television we watch, and the social media feeds we scroll through are all inputs that can drastically affect our mood, our behavior, our ability to meet our goals, and our happiness. 

In other words...

What We Consume Affects All We Do

The foods we eat, the books we read, the company we keep, and the media we consume all inform us, drive us, and guide us in good ways or bad. Which is to say, the way I feel and think today has a lot more to do with how I fed myself (physically and mentally) yesterday.

Consider the psychological research [1] done by Power of Positivity, which states:

“Being a witness or victim of violence of any kind can trigger a biological reaction that evolves into full-blown anxiety and depression.”

Or that, after the 1929 Wall Street Crash, the United States saw over 23,000 suicides, the highest number recorded in a single year [1].

In these two examples, the stakes were at their highest; negative inputs caused anxiety, depression, even death. But plenty of research shows that hundreds of other inputs cause drastic effects to one’s health and well being, for better or worse. 

The news is a perfect example.

In one study at the University of California Irvine, Professor Alison Holman discovered that people directly exposed to the Boston bombing incident reported less stress than those who had watched six or more hours of daily news media in the time following that event. Why would this be the case? Why would watching the event unfold on the news be more stressful than seeing it in person? Professor Holman suggests that the “repetitive showing of traumatic clips and images” is the probable cause [2].

And it’s not just sensational media holding power over our well-being. Social media, the largest communication platform created in the history of humankind, is a source of pleasure, relaxation, information, and news for over 40% of the world’s population. We scroll through post after post, enjoying the occasional update from a friend or family member, but also making decisions about whether to pause and read the latest political gossip or click the advertisement for an enticing new product.

Consider how what you discuss with your friends would be different had you not seen pics of their most recent vacation. Consider how upset you got over the latest article a distant family member shared on gun control and immigration. Consider how your definition of a “beautiful person” is influenced by advertisements showing unrealistic images of “ideal bodies,” which are often Photoshopped into unattainable beings [3].

When we consume to change ourselves it’s important to ask what we’re changing and why. If there’s nothing inherently wrong with what we’re changing, why do it? If the reason is to become more like a fictional TV character whose appearance may have been digitally altered anyway, we might want to re-evaluate our actions.
— We Are What We Consume, Psychology Today

News changes us. Social media changes us. Television and books and the friends we keep change us.

The change could be good. Or it could be bad. Either way, the way these inputs affect our output is something to consider. 

It May Be Time for Your Brain to Go on a Diet

If we started at ground zero, with no inputs whatsoever, we’d go mad. 

Volunteers observed in Antarctica research stations, where they were isolated in their facilities by dangerous temperatures and 24 hours of darkness, experienced high degrees of stress, feelings of torment, changes to sleep and appetite, and the inability to track the passage of time [4]. 

Furthermore, “...studies confirm that loneliness isn’t good for anyone’s health. It increases levels of stress hormones in the body while leading to poor sleep, a compromised immune system and, in the elderly, cognitive decline.” —In Social Isolation, the Brain Begins to Act in Strange Ways to Preserve its Sanity, The Conversation

Humans need input. We crave interaction. And, once we have fulfilled the base needs of human connection and mental stimulation to keep us stress-free and on a normal sleeping and eating schedule, the rest of what we consume either enhances or detracts from our ideal state of being.

It’s the very reason we must put our brain on a healthy diet. Or, said another way, we must curate our inputs.

The television we watch can be a great source of entertainment (think Stranger Things on Netflix), a venue for deep thinking (think Handmaids Tale on Hulu), or a wellspring of information that changes how we view the world and what we think of others. 

We can’t control what the networks create, but we can control what we allow to influence us. 

This brain of ours is pretty amazing. And, just like our body, it needs a healthy diet of mental inputs to maintain a healthy attitude.

This brain of ours is pretty amazing. And, just like our body, it needs a healthy diet of mental inputs to maintain a healthy attitude.

Similarly, when the people we follow on social media show up in our feeds, we consume the information they create. We allow them to enter into our mind, to influence us. And while we can’t control what they publish, we can (and should) curate our feed such that the people we allow in are the kinds of people that will nourish and inspire us to be who we want to be.

The friends we keep, the books we read, the food we eat, everything we consume can be curated. 

By curating our inputs, we can enhance the quality of our thinking and being. In turn, this can lead us to make better, smarter, faster decisions. We’ll feel good about ourselves, our relationships, our world. We’ll attain higher levels of focus, clarity, and discipline in pursuit of our goals. 

Knowing What We Want

Curating your inputs starts by knowing what you want to get out of your life. What is your why, your purpose, your reason for being?

Knowing your why is fundamentally essential to changing your behavior for the better. Without knowing our why, you will mindlessly consume the next television show, the next social media post, the next New York Times bestseller. All of these inputs will change your behavior, but because you’re not aligning them with your why, your behavior will be changed at the whim of marketers and advertisers and news outlets--all of who have their own goals and objectives, none of which align with yours.

When you know your why, you’ll understand how who you follow on social media inspires you, informs you, and guides you in the direction of your goals (or doesn’t). 

When you know your why, you will understand which books you should read to produce the ideal version of yourself. 

When you know your why, you’ll know which habits to create and what friends to keep to help you live the life you’ve always envisioned.

Garbage In Garbage Out

What goes in must come out. 

Of course, you can’t control what other people spew out into the world. But you can take efforts to filter what you allow in.

That means curating who you put in our social media diet, who you befriend, the books you read, what you watch on TV.

It’s a diet for your brain. 

Fill yourself with one crappy news article after another and you’ll feel crappy. Surround yourself with miserable people and you’ll become miserable. Read thoughtless books or listen to thoughtless podcasts and, you guessed it, you’ll think thoughtless thoughts. 

Do the opposite, and you’ll become the opposite.

There’s no excuse for not surrounding yourself with information that will make you smarter and more effective. There’s no benefit to spending countless hours sifting through social media articles posted by people you’ve followed ages ago for reasons unknown—reasons that don’t align with your goals, reasons that don’t help you become smarter, better, stronger, more empathetic. There’s no reason you can’t build a relationship with nearly anyone in the world, extending your reach and influence while increasing your self-worth. 

Control the inputs in your life: your friends, those you follow on social media, the books you read, the television you watch, the news you consume. All have an effect on you—maybe not immediately felt or seen, but an effect nonetheless.

Why not make that effect a positive one?

I don’t know the books I read last year any more than the food I ate. Even so, they have changed me.
— Mark Twain


  1. 7 Common Causes of Anxiety & Depression. March 1, 2017.

  2. Watching the News Can Increase Stress and Anxiety. July 13, 2014.

  3. We Are What We Consume. Psychology Today. September 15th, 2013.

  4. In Social Isolation, the Brain Begins to Act in Strange Ways to Preserve its Sanity, The Conversation. November 15th, 2016

About the Author


Michael Mehlberg


I help high-achieving entrepreneurs organize their brain and schedule so they can organize their life and business.

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