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Depression, the Internet and Critical Thinking

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I think the Internet is one of the best inventions of my lifetime. It’s like having the entire world’s libraries at your fingertips. The incredible amount of information and the speed with which we can access it is truly mind-boggling. When I was a child, privileged families had encyclopedias in their homes. I did not belong to one of those families so knowledge came from personal experience, stories from other people, either directly or through other written material, or from the local or school library which generally had the resource of all resources – the Encyclopedia Britannica. I loved the Encyclopedia Britannica. I could, and often did, spend hours reading page after fascinating page and studying the illustrations of everything from exotic animal species to the workings of the human body and diagrams of NASA spacecraft. I thought everything there was to know in the world was contained in that set of books labeled A-Z.

Information, though, is not the same as “truth”. Via the Internet, we now have access to an almost limitless amount of information. That access happened quickly. In the space of a relative few years, people from all over the globe had access to computers at schools and Internet cafes, then portable laptops became more affordable, then smartphones ensured that almost everyone who wanted it could access the Internet from even some of the most remote places on the planet. What did not keep pace with our ability to access information however, was the critical thinking necessary to filter it. Along with the massive amount of factual information we have available, there is a substantial percentage of misinformation. Sometimes recognizing the difference is not easy. Especially when cloaked with headlines that include the word “research”…..”According to Research”, “Research Says”, etc. It is easy to take that at face value and accept the claim as fact. I can’t even guess as what I imagine to be the small percentage of people who actually go and read the study and know how to determine if the study was sound or flawed. This is how we come to accept and believe things that we assume are based on facts that actually are not.

When I wrote, “Cooking to Cure, A Nutritional Approach to Anxiety and Depression” I spent two years intensely researching the connection between nutrients and mental health. It was important to me to present the data that supported the idea that, at least in some cases, deficiencies in certain nutrients can be responsible for the development of anxiety and depression. In addition, correcting those deficiencies can decrease or even reverse the symptoms of anxiety and depression. I included many references to studies I believe to be well designed, published in reputable journals, and that reached reasonable conclusions. Even then, there is a whole other level of investigation regarding who the researchers are, who sponsored the research, and was there an agenda in reporting the outcome? In other words, if we see a study done on the safety of a new drug and then discover that the researchers were hired by the company that manufactures the drug, this should raise a red flag as to the reliability of the reported results.

I admit I’m a stickler for fact-checking. Some would say obnoxiously so. One of the catch phrases I’m probably best known for in my social circles as well as among the college students who take my psychology and sociology classes is, “Cite your sources.” When someone makes a claim of fact, I want to know where they got their information. First, I want to track it to its source. Second, I want the person making the claim to think about how they know, or why they believe, it is true. That is how we engage in critical thinking.

As the legitimate relationship between nutrition and mental health moves further into the spotlight, so do the untested fringe claims of various foods purported to “cure” depression and anxiety. Just as sensational headlines exclaim that lemon juice “obliterates cancer cells”, there are now numerous foods that “work better than Prozac” for curing depression. I’m a bit of a skeptic and am not quick to jump on these bandwagons or forward these posts that come across my Facebook page. I will, however, read the studies they reference and report on them or pass them along if it seems they may be on to something, usually with the disclaimer that it may be premature to draw conclusions from limited research. I feel a level of responsibility for the information I share and always encourage people to do their own homework as well. We are learning some amazing things about natural ways to prevent and treat depression. But don’t be too quick to believe everything you read. There is no substitute for critical thinking.

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