This is your brain on fake news

I just finished reading How to Build a Healthy Brain. I’ve always wanted one of those. Not surprisingly, there was a lot of information about the importance of sleep, nutrition and exercise for brain health. The author Kimberley Wilson also discussed the hazards of social media and technology. Excuse me while I take this call. Kidding.

I was surprised by the section on the effects of fake news on health though. Wilson quoted a study from Manchester Metropolitan University that found people who had “low information discernment” had a “flawed response to threat.” That causes stress which harms mental and physical health. She didn’t say so, but I think “low information discernment” is a polite way to say you’ll believe almost anything.

For example, maybe you heard the urban legend that every year we swallow an average of eight spiders while we sleep. It’s not true but you can see why someone with low information discernment might have a flawed response upon hearing it. They’d probably never sleep again which would definitely be bad for their brain. Someone with high information discernment wouldn’t fall for it and if they had any doubts, they’d do some research before they started taping their mouth shut every night.

To test your information discernment, take this quiz which I based loosely on Wilson’s critical thinking guidelines—very loosely.

1) We’re more likely to believe people we like or think are similar to us—whether they know what they’re talking about or not. With that in mind, who do you believe when it comes to the importance of exercise, your neighbor Oscar who drives across the street when he visits you or Mayo Clinic? A) Mayo what? B) Oscar. I drive across the street to see him too. C) Mayo Clinic. Oscar thinks aliens stole the tomatoes out of his garden last summer. That was me.

2) People with low information discernment sometimes confuse fact and opinion. If someone on your favorite news show says coffee is better with cream and sugar in it, do you think it’s true? A) Who cares? I agree. B) He’s a rich, well-dressed political pundit. Everything he says is fact. C) I’m a tea drinker.

3) The volume and frequency someone speaks on a subject has no correlation with their level of expertise. Would you let your mechanic take out your appendix? A) Sure. I trust him completely. Actually he delivered my baby. B) No. I’d go to my dentist for that. C) My appendix is fine. It stays where it is.

4) Consider the motivation of the person making the claim. With that in mind, why do you think Candidate Carol is spreading the story that her opponent was suspended from second grade? A) The public has a right to know. B) I don’t care. I love a good scandal. C) She’s trying to draw attention away from the fact that she’s embezzling from her children’s 4-H club.  

5) Consider the evidence. Do you believe Celebrity Cecil when he says, without proof, that eating corn chips will make you look 15 years younger?  A) That face is the only evidence I need. B) He posted it on Facebook, so it has to be true. C) I don’t even believe everything I say.

6) Movie Star Mavis says pepperoni pizza beats sausage and if you’re smart, honest and good looking, you know it. Which do you prefer? A) I’m smart, honest and good looking so I prefer pepperoni—I guess. B) I’m smart and honest but not good looking. Maybe pepperoni will help. C) I’ll take a slice of each.

Now tally your scores. If you answered with C’s, congratulations on your healthy brain—and appendix. But if you answered with A’s and Bs, those who are smart, honest and good looking agree you should read How to Build a Healthy Brain.

Dorothy Rosby is the author of I Used to Think I Was Not That Bad and Then I Got to Know Me Better and other books. Contact her at