There’s a special category of knowledge for unpleasant things that you know intellectually, discuss openly, and yet cannot fully comprehend on a fundamental level. It’s like when you and your friends pick apart the intricacies of a relationship you all know is doomed, or whenever you read that the only real way to stop looking so tired is to drink water all day long and go to bed at a reasonable hour. This is how my internet use made me feel for a long time: I was aware that it was making me manic and increasingly nihilistic, but I still logged on every day, for 4 to 12 hours, just to see what was up.
It got to the point that I needed refuge from my own consciousness. Having gorged themselves for years at the trough of Twitter trending topics, my thoughts had devolved into tedious anarchy and were rebelling against my self-concept. At best, they seemed to me a horde of large, dull, uninvited guests taking up space in my mind, blinking stupidly and bumping into things. At worst, I felt held hostage by what the internet had wrought: extensive knowledge of vicious feuds between minor celebrities and internet personalities, the full choreography for the “High Hopes” dance devised by Mayor Pete supporters, the looming sense of dread that I would one day know what the Chainsmokers look like. And I had to deal with these horrible interlopers in addition to all the negative thoughts that arise from simply going about one’s day: dispiriting gossip, work-related anxieties, irritation over boring social obligations, that persistent, gnawing sense that you’ve recently done something embarrassing but can’t quite remember what.
A few months ago, I came up with a metaphoric framework that felt uniquely suited to my problem, one that has brought me some degree of serenity: the mind palace. Simply put, a mind palace is a repository for all the thoughts, memories, and observations that bring you joy, fortified against whatever you deem needlessly irritating, depressingly banal, or just a waste of your time. (Google tells me this term is also employed on the BBC’s Sherlock, in a different context available elsewhere, but I cannot be sure, as the BBC’s Sherlock is one of the many things I’ve left stranded outside my palace moat.)
“I welcome this into my mind palace,” I will think upon learning that cows can make best friends with other cows, or ascertaining that Peppa Pig is canonically 7 feet tall. The form and content of one’s palace varies person to person; I envision those of my seductive and literary friends as sumptuously gothic, draped in velvet, and, if I am being fully honest, mine is a bit Grey Gardens–esque … a family of raccoons lounging about in the ruins of my formal education while I fish out various bits of trivia about astrology and sex positions in ancient Rome. Those who lack a rich inner life will have dismal and sterile mind palaces, and particularly nasty and self-absorbed people have nothing in theirs at all.
One of the most chilling symptoms of being too-online is posting about how constant exposure to information that leaves you bored and distressed impacts you, but with an air of ironic detachment — as though it’s a performance or a bit, rather than something that’s quite obviously inflicting psychic damage. Last year, I read that caterpillars turn into a “protein-rich soup” inside of the cocoon, fully digesting themselves before eventually reconstituting into butterflies, and immediately tweeted, “This is what Online is doing to my brain.” I think I knew but did not fully comprehend that, at the rate I was going, my thoughts would never metamorphose out of putrid mush.
It’s been comforting to conceive of my mind as a dignified fortress rather than a heap of festering goo. Since I am obligated by virtue of my job to not log off for good, I find it helpful to picture myself cheerfully drawing up the drawbridge when an essay with an incendiary headline about some Marvel movie crosses my timeline, or a terrible op-ed from someone who’s made a career of writing terrible op-eds, or a viral tweet that’s like, Look at this incredibly annoying 20-part thread written by someone you’ve never heard of. It works in real life as well, like when an acquaintance with decidedly negative energy reaches out to spread rancor and complain about their enemies, or when someone tries to engage me in a conversation about a band that’s just a lot of men with guitars.
This is not to urge non-engagement with issues that are genuinely pressing and compelling, if unpleasant; it’s more about determining which things you truly need and want to devote your time to, and recognizing that not everything warrants your attention. Everyone’s drawbridge operator has different rules and standards — lots of people delight in things I find dreadful, and vice versa, and some see urgency where others see a frustrating, dead-end argument. But everyone’s mind palace is precious. And it should only be sullied by the presence of exquisite garbage of your own choosing.