Journalists’ brains function at a subpar level because they consume too much alcohol, caffeine and sugar, but their love of their work helps them fight through the difficult times, according to a study by neuroscientist Tara Swart.
The research, which was carried out in partnership with the London Press Club, sought to figure out how journalists survive and thrive amid the stress of deadline pressure, low pay, poor job security and high levels of public scrutiny.
Thirty-one journalists were asked to carry out a series of tests, answer a questionnaire and report their eating and drinking habits.
The study concluded that participants’ brains were lacking in the executive functioning department, which encompasses high-level cognitive functions such as emotional control, complex problem-solving, multi-tasking and the ability to suppress biases.
These deficiencies were attributed to “dehydration, self-medicating, and fueling their brains with caffeine and high-sugar foods,” according to a London Press Club release.
Over 40 per cent of participants said they drank 18 or more units of alcohol (180 ml of pure alcohol) per week — the recommended weekly consumption is 14 units (comparable to 1.5 bottles of low-alcohol wine or 4.5 pints of 5.2% ABV beer), according to U.K. guidelines.
“It is likely that the levels of caffeine/alcohol and the lack of water consumed contributed to the low scores recorded for executive functioning because of the severe impact of dehydration on cognitive ability,” the study said.
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However, it wasn’t all grim news. Journalists were found to excel in abstraction, which is the ability to detect and analyze patterns and relationships that aren’t immediately obvious. This indicates a superior capacity to “think outside of the box and make connections where others might not see them.”
Also, most of the journalists surveyed said they enjoyed their jobs and felt their work was worthwhile and important. This enabled them to cope with stress better than people in other high-stress professions, such as lawyers and sales executives, despite their challenges (and apparent shortcomings), the study says.
All things considered, the journalist subjects were found to be about as physically stressed as the average person. Blood tests found that participants’ levels of cortisol — the primary stress hormone — were about normal.
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“It’s been great to see the role that meaning and purpose play in achieving mental resilience,” Dr. Swart said. “I hope this study serves as a useful tool to journalists, but also to anyone who wants to understand how neuroscience can show us how to join up brain and body health, and through that become more mentally resilient.”
Doug Wills, chair of the London Press Club, hailed the study for highlighting “how the integrity and purpose with which journalists imbue their work can help them to rise to the challenge.”
The study also found that older journalists were more adept at enduring stress and recovering from setbacks, suggesting that this is a skill that can be developed over time.