​You Are What You Consume

July 28, 2016

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Last night, I went to see Absolutely Fabulous: The Movie. It wasn’t playing at the regular theaters, not because it’s sophisticated or artsy—it isn’t—but I guess because it’s British? Who knows. Anyway, it was only playing at a theater downtown that tends to show small and independent films, the really good movies that the major theaters ignore because they aren’t likely to bring in a lot of income.

Midtown Cinema shows trailers for the other movies they’re showing or will be showing soon before their movies. Before Ab Fab, we saw trailers for Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Don’t Think Twice, Indignation, and Captain Fantastic. It’s a rare opportunity to watch a movie where you’re excited about every single preview you see before the feature presentation. Every single one of those movies looks amazing, and it made me rethink what I’ve been spending (or I should say wasting) my time consuming lately.

I watch a lot of TV, and for that, I have no regrets. I firmly believe that we’re living in a sort of golden age of television. With current shows like The Walking Dead, American Horror Story, Better Call Saul, and Veep, and recent ones like Mad Men and Breaking Bad, who can argue that TV has gotten pretty freakin’ good? The time I spend watching TV is time well spent.

The movies I’ve been watching lately, though—not so much. I watched the craptacular Sex Tape, which I stopped watching partway through then returned to and finished, mostly because Jason Segel is super hot in it. I watched Pitch Perfect then Pitch Perfect 2, this time because Anna Kendrick is hot. I watched Hitch, Friends with Benefits, and I can’t even think of what else because these movies are so bad you don’t even remember them after you see them.

I’ve been watching these stupid, stupid movies on demand, partly because I went years without having cable and I’m still in the honey moon phase of being able to watch things on demand at all, but also, I have to admit, because, for some reason, recently I’ve been fighting engaging with anything really worthwhile. There are great things available on demand. Boyhood was on demand for a long time, and I kept planning on but never getting around to watching it, and now it’s gone. Instead, every time I went to look for something free to watch, I’d turn on some bad rom com because I figured—and this was a very conscious thought—eh, I don’t really want to have to pay attention. I don’t want to have to think.

But consuming nothing but awfulness affects you beyond the moment of consumption. See, I’ve also been watching a lot of Youtube videos where people apply and talk about makeup. I know. It’s embarrassing, but it’s true. I think it started with the rom coms. Watching beautiful people like Mila Kunis and Eva Mendes made me want to learn a bit more how to wear makeup. So I started learning how to play around with cosmetics—highlighting, contouring, all that fun stuff. And it is fun. And it’s relaxing, and it builds my confidence, which helps with my anxiety. But it also has been an enormous distraction from other things that I could be doing, like writing. Or even just, you know, thinking about things other than what it would look like if I blend this shade of eye shadow with that.

Our minds are plastic and ever-changing. Each thought and experience affects how we respond to and perceive the world. When you have a particular thought, your brain changes ever so slightly to make it easier/more likely to have that (or a related) thought in the future. Consider addictive behavior; let’s take social media as an example. Once upon a time, there was no such thing as Facebook, and nobody cared to know every single thought that was popping into every acquaintance’s head. Then we started using Facebook, and checking our feeds for updates, then checking back again an hour later. Although you can set your Facebook settings so that you will get notified anytime the people whose posts you care about update their statuses, eliminating the need to ever check Facebook unless there’s actually something worthwhile to see, most of us check Facebook daily, some of us several times a day, just to do it.

Every time you check Facebook, you’re priming your brain to think about checking Facebook again later. You’re telling your brain, “This is something worth spending time on,” so your brain says, “Got it! Then let’s do this again soon.” There’s actually more complicated neurological science behind this, which I only kinda sorta (but not really) understand—something to do with how when a neuron fires, the path to get from that neuron to the next is shortened slightly to make it easier for those two neurons to meet up the next time that thought occurs. I’m probably getting the specifics garbled, but it’s something to that effect, I believe. The important thing here is the takeaway: when you have a thought, your brain slightly rewires itself to make it easier for you to have that thought again.

What that means is that, if I spend time thinking about how pretty Mila Kunis’s eyes are, I’m more likely to have a similar thought in the future. If I then go to Youtube and watch eye makeup tutorials, then practice with my own makeup, I’m subtly rewiring my brain to think more about eyes and eye makeup, and, in effect, less about other things. The next time I’m bored, instead of writing or reaching for a book, or even just staring off into the distance and contemplating life, the universe, and everything (42), I might turn on another Youtube video about eye makeup, or go upstairs and spend absurd amounts of time in front of the mirror.

And it’s not that there’s anything wrong with makeup, or watching goofy rom coms, or any of it. If that’s who you want to be, then embrace it. Life is short and pointless. Do the things that make you happy. It’s not really who I want to be, though, or at least, I don’t want to be just that. You have to be aware that what you watch and how you spend your time can slowly turn you into somebody else.

And if who you are now, who you want to be, is a writer, these changes can be particularly damaging. Think about it: what will you create if you spend your time consuming bad art? Bad art. A little bit of the bad can be fine, even instructive, but a lot of it will likely destroy your ability to create anything worthwhile yourself. This is also why it’s important to consume different types of art. Read different genres of literature. Read comics. Watch a variety of movies and TV shows. Expose yourself to a lot of different things to keep your brain on its toes and hone your ability to think about how varied and complex the world is.

But sure, if you want, watch a Youtube video now and then. Just don’t let it define you.

 ​​​​​​The Official Website of Author Ashley Cowger