Graham King

Solvitas perambulum

Television and your brain maps

The Brain That Changes Itself, by Norman Doidge is a fascinating book about brain plasticity, the ability of our brain to re-wire itself to cope with changing conditions. In a chapter about culture’s influence on our brain maps, he says:

Television watching, one of the signature activities of our culture, correlates with brain problems.

How do we know this?

A recent study of more than 2,600 toddlers shows that early exposure to television between the ages of one and three correlates with problems paying attention and controlling impulses later in childhood.

For every hour of TV the toddlers watched each day, their chances of developing serious attentional difficulties at age seven increased by 10%.

Surely this only applies to children? No. Most of the book is about the recent discoveries that adult brains are also plastic, and how that is being used to treat stroke, alzheimer’s, and brain injuries.

Or you might be tempted to think that this applies only to children’s programming, and to MTV. Not so. In the words of Marshall McLuhan, “The medium is the message”:

Most people think that the dangers created by the media are a result of content. [..] Erica Michael and Marcel Just of Carnegie Mellon University did a brain scan study to test whether the medium is indeed the message. They showed that different brain areas are involved in hearing speech and reading it, and different comprehension centers in hearing words and reading them.

The pragmatic implication is that the medium is part of the message. [..] each medium creates a different sensory and semantic experience – and, we might add, develops different circuits in the brain.

Why and how does television alter your brain patterns?

It is the form of the television medium – cuts, edits, zooms, pans, and sudden noises – that alters the brain, by activating what Pavlov called the “orienting response”, which occurs whenever we sense a sudden change in the world around us, especially a sudden movement. We instinctively interrupt whatever we are doing to turn, pay attention, and get our bearings.

The result?

The response is physiological: the heart rate decreases for 4 or 5 seconds.Television triggers this response at a far more rapid rate than we experience it in life, which is why we can’t keep our eyes off the TV screen, even in the middle of an intimate conversation, and why people watch TV a lot longer than they intend.

Because typical music videos, action sequences, and commercials trigger orienting responses at a rate of one per second, watching them puts us into continuous orienting response with no recovery.

No wonder people report feeling drained from watching TV.

Yet we acquire a taste for it and find slower changes boring. The cost is that such activities such as reading, complex conversation, and listening to lectures becomes more difficult.

The Brain That Changes Itself is a fascinating book that will change the way you think about your brain, and how you go about your daily activities.