Katie Couric Interview: Our Brains on Tech and the Power of Empathy in the Digital Age
When I first met Katie Couric last October, I didn’t recognize her. She, her husband John Molner, and I were the first to show up to a cocktail party. I’m not good at milling around by myself so I approached them, thrust out my hand, and struck up a conversation. I spoke mostly to John, remarking on the stifling heat and hike I’d done earlier in the looming Saddleback Mountain. Finally, I got around to asking what brought he and his wife to the conference. “My wife is a journalist,” he replied humbly. “She’s speaking.”
Journalist indeed. Katie Couric, the driving force behind the Today Show, 60 Minutes, and recently the CBS Nightly News, is arguably the greatest journalist of our generation. She’s also hosted the Jay Leno show and famously interviewed Austin Powers. Drive and intelligence propelled her to the top of the news food chain but her warmth as a human kept her there for the past 30 years. She inspires a Gladwellian “Blink”-like charm: upon meeting her, you immediately process her authenticity, empathy and intelligence. You’re not quite sure why, but you like her. At least I did.
Her new series on the National Geographic Channel, America Inside Out, is taking a fresh look at our increasingly divided country. I thought I’d take the opportunity to ask what’s she discovered, but also tap her for some “Blue Zones Insight.” My favorite: her career advice. Read on…
Dan Buettner: Your new series feels like you’re taking us along on a journey of exploration. It feels like participatory journalism, where the viewer is involved in uncovering the story.
Katie Couric: That’s part of the idea of the series — I’m trying to let people explore through me and learn with me on these journeys. When I did the Gender Revolution special for National Geographic, investigating the changing and complex issue of gender, I became better educated myself. Just like with that experience, I wanted people to feel like they were learning right there beside me. It makes these complex subjects extremely accessible, and everyone feels more enlightened and informed at the end.
DB: In the episode on technology, Your Brain on Tech, you revealed that Americans are checking their phones about 150 times a day. What do you think that’s doing to our brains?
KC: It’s doing a lot of things, and none of them are very good. I think it’s making it difficult for us to focus — and there’s a big misconception that multi-tasking is possible. It’s making us more distracted and I think can even hurt our ability to think about anything deeply. It creates anxiety, from constant interruptions to concerns about being connected, and affects overall happiness.
There’s also concern that the blue screen — not the blue zones — are reducing melatonin and increasing cortisol. One doctor scared me when he said he’s seeing higher levels of plaque in kids who are using screens, and that we should be concerned because the plaque is similar to the plaque in Alzheimer’s patients. The thought of people having memory problems in their 30s and 40s is pretty frightening.
DB: You visited Green Bank, West Virginia, the town where almost all technology is completely banned. What was your impression of the teens there?
KC: It was kind of a throwback to different times. People there spend time outside, and spend a lot of time relating to each other and to their families. And the teens I spoke to there were pretty relaxed and not really stressed which is a good thing.
[Editor’s Note: In Green Bank, WV, all wireless devices are forbidden because the town houses the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, which operates the world’s largest radio telescope. Radio, television, and cell phone towers are not allowed, because they send out signals that interfere with the telescope. That means no cellphones, cordless phones, Bluetooth devices, microwaves, remote control toys, and even garage door openers.]
DB: As you explored this topic, did you ever think we should legislate less screen time or that parents should take phones away from kids?
KC: There needs to be moderation, like with anything else. We as parents need to think long and hard about giving kids total access to screens and at what age. A lot of emotional intelligence comes from modeling facial expressions and body language and talking face to face people and seeing how they’re reacting to what you’re saying. If people aren’t doing that and are only texting or not communicating in a real way, I think it’s going to affect our ability to communicate and present ourselves to other people in the wider world.
I’m not trying to preach, but instead I’m saying maybe these are all things we need to think more about — including things happening right now like people having virtual girlfriends and virtual partners.
(Interview continues below full American Inside Out episode below.)
DB: What was the biggest insight you’ve taken away so far while creating this series about understanding a deeply divided America?
KC: I think technology has made us more tribalistic in a negative way, and that there’s no replacement for face-to-face conversations. I had a profound experience while talking to some EMS workers in Johnston, Pennsylvania. I had a conversation with some white workers and an African-American worker about the Black Lives Matter movement and Colin Kaepernick. They had never talked about it together before, but the white workers said that just hearing their co-worker speak about it for five minutes really changed their perspective.
So I think we’d be much better off if we just had a few more face-to-face conversations and tried to understand where other people were coming from. Instead, we are getting our own views reflected back at us from whatever news outlet may best fit our political philosophy. I think that media today sadly, combined with our fast-paced lives, exploits polarization and trades on outrage and on an emotional response to information. I wish we could go back in time where we met people who were different from us with different life experiences and talked and learned from each other.
“We’d be much better off if we just had a few more face-to-face conversations and tried to understand where other people were coming from.”
DB: Do you think there’s anything proactive we can do or any hope on the horizon that we’ll actually do it?
KC: Well, I know that in LA, they had a screening of the “White Anxiety” episode and there were a lot of Trump supporters and also a lot of people who didn’t like Trump there. Apparently afterwards, the different groups of people said they’d learned a lot and had heard a different perspective. Afterwards, they paired up with people to talk about what they just saw and to continue talking and to learn more and so, that was it.
DB: That’s a great example.
KC: It’s hard, and people are busy and exhausted — but I think we’d be better off if we can get out of our comfort zones and try to put ourselves in situations where we’ll meet new and different people and be open to them. I think that’s one way to start, and also maybe consume news from a place that you don’t agree with or get a variety of viewpoints in your media diet. I think just kind of keeping an open mind about experiences and people is the good way to broaden new horizons and I think it’s a good recipe for a successful life, period.
DB: I love it. If only the rest of America could think like that, a lot of our problems would be solved.
KC: I think it’s hard— because it kind of goes against the grain of what we’re being fed and how we’re being directed and, quite frankly, how we’re being manipulated. When I did the White Anxiety piece, my executive producer encouraged us to not only explore the struggles of a lot of these folks in small towns in rural America and the Rust Belt and what they were afraid of, but to also explore what they are fighting for.
There were a lot of positive qualities among people in these towns — they’re much more connected to their families, and I think they feel a much stronger sense of responsibility towards their loved ones. The idea of putting an aging parent in a nursing home, I just don’t think it would happen as often, and some of these things are really quite moving. They have a very strong sense of place in an increasingly transitory world, and I think that’s a really positive thing to have.
DB: It makes me realize that these places in rural America that you’ve just described may look more like a blue zones area than San Francisco or New York does.
KC: You’re probably right.
DB: While doing this series about the state of America right now, what did you discover about yourself?
KC: I learned that it’s intellectually lazy to just follow the crowd and try to out-snark the competition. It’s a much better way to live to be open minded and empathetic to other people, and I think the current culture is so full of anger and rancor and vitriol. You can choose to kind of succumb to that, or you can choose to try to find the good in people, as corny as that sounds. I would just rather go through life thinking that that there’s a lot of good in people that I don’t agree with.
I also learned how important it is to have the humility to never stop learning. I think it’s easy to get a point in your life to feel like you know it all, but we always have something to learn, especially in this ever-changing world. The incoming president of the University of Virginia, my alma mater, did a graduation address at Harvard Medical School that you should really watch, and he wrote a book called, Wait, what? It’s about the importance of taking a step back and asking questions instead of thinking that you always have the answers. I think that’s a great way to go through life and I learned that my propensity for asking questions is probably a good thing because it keeps you humble and it also helps you continue to learn.
DB: What’s the best personal career advice you’ve been given?
KC: A friend told me this when I left the Today Show: “A boat is always safe in the harbor but that’s not what boats are built for.”
So, I guess it’s to take risks, try new things, and to always challenge yourself. It’s not always the easiest way to go through life but it’s definitely the most interesting.
DB: Brilliant. Do you have a favorite healthy food or recipe?
KC: I have a vegetable garden in the summer and I would say my favorite healthy food is eating cherry tomatoes off the vine like candy. I have an herb garden and I love fresh basil and I love rosemary and thyme and mint. I feel like there’s nothing like growing your own stuff and being able to pick it and cook it and eat it. It takes you back to our very primitive roots, and is really satisfying and part of why I love summer.
DB: When I give this talk about blue zones and the common denominators of the longest-lived people in the world, all of them, even into their 80s, 90s, and 100s, continue to garden. In many places, they had two or three growing seasons. I actually argue that gardening is the very best exercise there is for people over 60 or 70, because it’s low-intensity with a wide range of motion, and has been shown to lower cortisol levels. So, while you’re watering and weeding and harvesting, you’re not only getting the best exercise, you emerge from the activity with probably the best food you’ll eat all day.
KC: That’s funny. Yeah, I agree with that.
DB: Thanks for doing this.
KC: Thanks for spreading the word about the series, which is really interesting and I worked really hard on it. You learn a lot while watching it, but it’s also a very engaging and fun way to get a lot of information, broaden your horizons, and to get reacquainted with your empathy muscle.