Sunday, April 12, 2020

Stray thoughts about the aging mind — glitching, scripting, boxing (and Fox News):

Friends of mine have raised concerns that a mutual friend is showing signs of cognitive deterioration — little lapses and glitches, plus unusual crankiness and dismissiveness. I’m not so sure; he still seems normal enough to me.

But this has led me to wonder about what characterizes the aging mind. Which has further prompted me to wonder about Fox News and its primary audience, oldsters.

Standard signs of an aging mind are mostly about mental glitching — e.g., forgetting this or that. They show up mostly in memory lapses, involving all three of the mind’s cardinal cognitions: perceptions about social space, time, and agency — as in not realizing who or what is where (spatially), when something happens (temporally), or how to get something done (agently).

I see this glitching all around me now, including in myself, but not to serious degrees. Yet I’m also noticing two more signs of aging minds that, to my knowledge, do not figure in standard diagnoses: thought-scripting, and brain-boxing.

As for thought-scripting, oldsters’ thoughts appear to congeal around increasingly set scripts that they run (and voice) over and over. Of course, everybody likes to tell the same story again and again, particularly when reminiscing about good old days. But, if my observations are correct, this goes beyond that. It’s more reactive and programmed, like pushing a button or pulling a lever and out pops a set script, positive or negative. And if it’s an arguable script, it’s unlikely to be changed through argument. As a friend once said, people don’t change as they get older; they just get more so. Perhaps, as people’s arteries harden, so do their scripts. I don’t mean this as necessarily a bad thing — some people run marvelous scripts — just that it may be another sign of the aging mind (including in myself?), a pattern that may become evermore set with advancing age.

What I mean by brain-boxing (or thought-boxing, or mind-boxing) is that an oldster’s thinking about the world gets increasingly boxed within a frame. What they think, and how they think, about the world — their world — gets increasingly fixed, enclosed, boundaried. Their scripts run within that frame, those boundaries. The well-boxed brain rarely goes looking for new ideas and topics to think about; it prefers reassurance and reinforcement about what’s already in the box. It’s another way oldster's become set in their ways. The aging mind may not exhibit brain-washing, but brain-boxing is another story.

In sum, mental glitching, thought scripting, and frame boxing are the three major ways that cognitive deterioration shows up in the aging mind. Of course, there are ways to limit, avoid, and counteract them. Glitching, if it’s serious enough, can be treated with medications and therapies. Scripting and boxing can be side-stepped by thoughtfully making sure to engage in diversified activities, not getting stuck in ruts.

But there are also ways to worsen them.

Which leads to an observation from now-and-then watching Fox News and its prime-time triad, currently Tucker Carlson, Laura Ingraham, and Sean Hannity (not to mention particular Saturday and Sunday hosts). If you don’t care about letting your mind grow older, faster, then watch Fox News, and only Fox News, all the time. More than any other media source, it seems to work away at thought-scripting and brain-boxing.

For decades I’ve heard conservatives say they are for individualism, whereas liberals and progressives are for collectivism. Yet, Fox News seems to work harder than any other news media at constructing collectivized thinking, indeed a rigid cult-like following. It’s one thing to feed your own political bias, but quite another to let your mind be ‘Pavolv-ed and Potemkin-ed’ into scripted, boxed enchantment (to make an oblique reference to those progenitors of Russian information operations — Ivan Pavlov for his psychological work on reflexive “Pavlovian conditioning,” Grigory Potemkin for his deception and disinformation operations that resulted in “Potemkin villages”).

Of course, running reactive and proactive scripts, and trying to frame and box people’s thinking is occurring all around us in these tribalized times, on both the Left and Right. But I’m sure I’m far from alone in wondering about how Fox News in particular may take hold of aging minds.For example, here’s what another observer found and wrote:
“Dozens who responded to my piece talked about the sad lonely twilight of their parents’ or grandparents’ lives, having been spurned by, or having disowned much of their families over political disagreements. Older people, recent studies have shown, are much more likely to share misleading information online, but the anecdotes I was hearing seemed to indicate this behavior wasn’t limited to the internet. Young parents wrote that they don’t want to bring their children to visit aging Fox-brainers. “The worst is when my children go to spend time with their grandparents and come home with Fox News talking points coming out of their mouths,” one told me. “I have to decontaminate them every time.”” (From

[First posted on my FaceBook page, March 20, 2020]