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Critical Thinking and Beyond:
Using Sensemaking to Navigate the Media Landscape

Using Sensemaking to Navigate the Media Landscape

"The Pioneer," Artwork by Mark Henson

To explore our 10 tips for making sense of the media landscape, skip to this section now.

Like the air we breathe and the water we drink, information is a public good that helps us make wise and responsible choices for ourselves and our community. However, many of our readers in the PEERS community are aware of the significant challenges facing our news media systems. In this message, we'll explore useful ways we can better navigate the media landscape.

This comes at a crucial time where society is rapidly changing, and the ongoing cultural political wars fuel imbalanced reporting, censorship, and sophisticated propaganda techniques. A recent Gallup poll revealed that half of Americans believe news organizations deceive the public. This may not come as a surprise. Our political systems seem to increasingly feel like a theatrical show or a confusing game of charades. Our choices and voices may feel irrelevant compared to the choices and voices of those in power shaping our world and the mainstream narrative. Who or what do we trust?

Meanwhile, our ability to understand each other, talk to each other, and work together seems dangerously degraded. People cluster to media organizations that fit their belief, and dismiss other outlets. The internet, once thought to open the world up to all the information possible and bring people together, has instead drawn people into their own corners.

Cognitive scientist and psychologist Dr. John Vervaeke calls this the Meaning Crisis, the pervasive feeling of alienation and disconnection from the world and from each other. Vervaeke explains that a lack of meaning in life occurs when people become stuck in a rut, paralyzed by suboptimal assessments of the world such that they no longer feel like they fit into it well. A lack of meaning makes it challenging to see beyond the boxes of our own limited thoughts and beliefs.

Each of us has the responsibility to face the world and make meaning of it in constructive ways. Destabilization, apparent chaos, and change may initiate deeper questions that could help us uncover what’s really going on. Enough events are happening in our world that are sending people on a search for meaning, whether that’s from listening to podcasts, creating alternative communities, to adopting new ideas and ways of thinking. It seems as though any societal shift begins with a consciousness shift in how we think and relate to ourselves, others, and the world.

The Weaving of Good Critical Thinking and Sensemaking

Navigating Our Media Systems With Sensemaking Skills

To make better sense of the information landscape, we begin by reducing the noise inside and around us.

Our society has a lot of noise. Endless opinions and biases flood both corporate and independent media platforms. Outrageous headlines and polarizing narratives weaponize our emotions, manipulating the public to take a certain side on a complex issue. Eroding quality of life makes it challenging to feel and think well, due to the degradation of our environmental, economic, and social systems fueled by corporate interests and captured government agencies. This noise discourages our ability to emotionally regulate, see things clearly, and listen to each other.

In psychophysics, the Weber-Fechner Law states that the more noise in an environment, the less signal you hear. A signal serves as a guiding force that gets us closer to a felt sense of truth about how something works. Yet to hear the signal, we can't just rely on our intellectual capacities.

The signal is the integration of two forms of human knowledge: critical thinking and our body-based knowing. Embodiment coach and author Philip Shepherd says there are two basic modes of intelligence: mind (details, ideas, compare/contrast) and body (felt senses, intuition, subjectivity). Some of us may find that we often "feel" truth, not just think truth. Many call this a "gut feeling" where we sense that something carries truth or something feels off in what we're doing, even if we may not have logical information to prove it.

This isn't just a metaphor. Scientists now recognize that we have two brains. In addition to the familiar cerebral brain in the head, there is a “second brain” in the gut that is home to the enteric nervous system, a complex network of over 100 million nerve cells lining the gastrointestinal tract. This brain, operating independently from the rest of the nervous system, sends constant, updated sensory information of our internal states to the brain via the vagus nerve, which is responsible for modulating mood, relaxing tension, and maintaining homeostasis.

[Our culture] tells us that the head should be in charge, because it knows the answers, and the body is little more than a vehicle for transporting the head to its next engagement. It tells us that doing is the primary value, while being is secondary. It shapes our perceptions, actions, and experiences of life. It separates us from the sensations of the body and alienates us from the world. These cultural differences point out that we have lost some choice in how we experience ourselves.

Our culture doesn’t recognize that hub in the belly, and most of us don’t trust it enough to come to rest there. And so we are stuck in the cranium, unable to open the door to the body and join its thinking. The best we can do is put our ear to the imaginary wall separating us from it and “listen to the body,” a phrase that means well but actually keeps us in the head, gathering information from the outside. But the body is not outside. The body is you. We are missing the experience of our own being.

My work is not about “listening to the body.” It’s about listening to the world through the body. — Philip Shepherd

Almost every important decision you've made was based on what you felt about it. Consider the friends you choose, the people you fall in love with, the values you prioritize, or even choosing a color to paint with. Our intuition and felt sense of things are often more powerful than reason. Maya Angelou's classic quote speaks precisely to this, where she says that we will often forget what others say or do, but we won't ever forget how we felt around them.

Although our thoughts are responsible for solving the real problems we face, we often feel things in our bodies first. This can be an important signal if we pay attention to it. Our instinctual felt sense of things is like a muscle we can strengthen with intentional practice.  When the head gets too involved, so often do the reactive defense systems as well, which rely on conditioned patterns that hinder us from thinking outside of the box. In a society that's diverse and rapidly changing, the ability to hold space for differences and complexity is vital to our collective future.

So how do we apply this to our current media landscape?

Everywhere you look, political bias infects much of mainstream and alternative media platforms. Instead of engaging in balanced inquiry about issues where we look at all sides and perspectives, we often only get one side of the story that we're told is accurate information (i.e. the rise of "trust the science" memes and fact-checking programs). Yet Shepherd articulates that our culture misunderstands what information is:

We are addicted to “digital” information. I don’t mean literally information that comes to us through digital sources, but rather information that, like a digital signal, is made up of bits and pieces broken off from the whole. We think that’s real information.

Ideas are seductive in their certainty and simplicity, but because any idea is a static construct, it stands independent of the present. To give your allegiance to an idea is to turn away from the connected intelligence of your being. I think the most dangerous people in the world are those who feel their ideas about the world more keenly than they feel the world itself, because they will be disconnected from what is in front of them and can act only out of their fantasy. Holding fast to an idea, because it’s frozen, also promises to excuse you from having to change. But harmony requires us to change along with the whole. If you open yourself to the hum of the world — if you live in the present rather than in your idea of it — it will change you.

Whether it's buying a product or voting for a candidate, the media is always selling us on an idea, and often in polarizing ways. How do we think for ourselves and integrate the best of any message, along with our own ways of understanding?

To navigate the media landscape, we have two tools: good critical thinking and sensemaking. Sensemaking involves the weaving of body-based intelligence that reduces our defenses, maintains emotional regulation, stays open to different ways of perceiving the world, and holds conflicting feelings while navigating the complex information we're getting from our media systems.

Deborah Ancona, founder of the MIT Leadership Center, defines sensemaking as creating space for listening, reflection and allowing different framings, stories and viewpoints to be shared and collectively explored.” The synthesis of different perspectives can create a more integrative worldview that doesn't seek to exclude or cancel any perspective. When we practice sensemaking in our media systems, we strive to find signal in any perspective, whether it confirms our biases or challenges them. Possibilities emerge for calm and open thinking, new insights, and effective communication.

To more easily detect the signal and reduce the noise,
here are 10 approaches that weave critical thought and sensemaking.

1. Slow down and breathe. Noticing where and why we get defensive or emotionally activated can greatly reduce the noise. The more regulated our nervous system is, the less we're pulled into the divisive, emotional narratives and dramas flooding our media systems. The Pulse, an independent news media platform by Collective Evolution, invites readers to "set your pulse" and take a breath before reading. Read their brilliant write-up on why this supports our ability to synthesize information into meaningful practice, solutions, and actions steps.

2. Read, view, and listen to a diverse range of news sources to expand your media diet. Notice what resonates with you without getting stuck in any echo chamber. A healthy diet is a diverse one; any one food eaten exclusively creates imbalance.

3. Foreground curiosity and inquiry. Instead of fixating on answers, notice something you haven't noticed before in yourself or what you're listening to. Asking questions builds connections and relationships where there were none, and increases the signal in all perspectives. Exploring conflicting views only adds, not subtracts, to the bigger picture. As David Rumelhart says, "all knowledge is in the connections."

4. Become more comfortable with looking at perspectives you may not agree with. It’s not our differences that divide us; it’s the judgments about our differences that do. Judgment alone narrows our thinking. Instead of shutting down, we slow things down to bring greater, humble awareness of how our own biases and emotional states cloud our capacity to sit with conflicting information. As Philip Shepherd notes, "When you stand back to look at something, there are always details that are hidden from you."

5. Follow the money and power in corporate media. Six corporations control 90 percent of what we see, hear, and read. Becoming aware of the special interests driving what gets covered (or not) on mainstream platforms can help us navigate censorship, propaganda and mis/disinformation campaigns that serve corporate interests over open, democratic debate.

6. Support independent journalism. Independent media platforms that aren’t owned or influenced by corporate interests often provide ample opportunities to access a broad spectrum of perspectives and voices. Click here for a comprehensive list of independent media sources.

7. Be mindful of the overuse of the negativity bias. The human nervous system has been evolving for 600 million years to avoid hazards and stay alive. This biological and psychological response is known as the "negativity bias" in which our minds and behavior are shaped by threats, real or unreal.  Media narratives, often influenced by government and corporate special interests, can use powerful emotions of fear and anger to manipulate the public for their own benefit by: 1) highlighting concern about a problem to help sell a remedy that they can profit from, or 2) aligning a dissenting message with something to be feared. Propagandists often use loaded words and name-calling to disparage any opposition to their message and sway public opinion (i.e. derogatory labels, discrediting or scapegoating those who question their narrative).

8. Take in the good. Teilhard de Chardin states that “the future belongs to those who give the next generation reason for hope.” Just as our negativity bias has helped us survive, foregrounding stories and news that inspire remind us of human goodness, and fosters collaboration and collective power. Emphasizing the good can literally rewire our brain to internalize positive experiences and heal negative ones, thus enhancing our resilience in the face of societal challenges.

9. Integrate the arts, whether on a self-care or activist level. Art stimulates all of our senses and sparks full-body participation, shifting our role from passive participant into active creator. Activism moves the material world, while art moves the heart, body and soul. A touching article explores how jazz helped fuel the civil rights movement, bringing people of all skin colors to engage together on the dance floor without effort or force. From reviving singing in social movements to designing safer streets with art, art is inherently nonviolent and emphasizes creativity, play, and community.

10. Invite respectful dialogue. We can't make sense of our times alone. Sensemaking usually involves more than one person. Others may have views that open up different insights, and each of us can serve as that person for others too in reducing groupthink and conformity occurring on all sides of the political spectrum. As French political and social scientist Jacques Ellul says, "propaganda ends where simple dialogue begins."

With faith in a transforming world,
Amber Yang for PEERS and

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