Journalists’ brains apparently show a lower level of executive functioning, which means a below average ability to regulate their emotions, suppress biases, solve complex problems, switch between tasks, and show creative and flexible thinking.
The research was conducted over seven months, where the participants took part in simple tests relating to their lifestyle, health, and behaviour.
It was launched in association with the London Press Club, and the main objective was to determine how journalists are wired to be able to thrive under stress.
Each subject completed a blood test, wore a heart-rate monitor for three days, kept a food and drink diary for a week, and completed a brain profile questionnaire.
The results showed that journalists’ brains were operating at a lower level than the average population, particularly due to dehydration and their tendency to self-medicate with alcohol, caffeine, and high-sugar foods.
41% of the subjects said they drank 18 or more units of alcohol a week, which is four units above the recommended weekly allowance. Less than 5% of them drank enough water, and some admitted to drinking none at all.
However, in interviews conducted in combination with the brain profile results, the participants indicated they felt their jobs had a lot of meaning and purpose, and they showed high mental resilience. Swart suggested this gave them an advantage over people in other professions to deal with the work pressure of tight deadlines.
Journalists scored pretty high on:
- Abstraction — This is the ability to deal with ideas rather than events, and relates to the part of the brain where the most sophisticated problem solving takes place. In other words, it highlights the ability to think outside the box, and make connections where others might not see them.
- Value Tagging — This is the ability to assign values to different sensory cues, such as whether something is a priority or has meaning. Scoring highly in this area indicated a good ability to sift through information and pick out what’s important.
Journalists scored particularly low on:
- Executive Function — As well as the traits mentioned above, low scores for executive function also suggest poor sleep, nutrition, exercise, and mindfulness. Many participants reported they had no time for breaks while working.
- Silencing the Mind — This relates to being able to have thoughts without getting distracted by them, or having a powerful ability to focus. Low scores indicate the opposite, suggesting journalists have a hard time preventing themselves from worrying about the future or regretting the past.
Compared to bankers, traders, or salespeople, journalists showed they were more able to cope with pressure. Traits that make journalism a particularly stressful professions are deadlines, accountability to the public, unpredictable and heavy workloads, public scrutiny, repercussions on social media, and poor pay.
The results, however, showed that on average, the journalist participants were no more physically stressed than the average person is. The blood tests revealed that the levels of cortisol — known as the stress hormone — were mostly normal.
“The headline conclusion reached is that journalists are undoubtedly subject to a range of pressures at work and home, but the meaning and purpose they attribute to their work contributes to helping them remain mentally resilient despite this,” the study reads.
“Nevertheless, there are areas for improvement, including drinking more water and reducing alcohol and caffeine consumption to increase executive functioning and improve recovery during sleep.”