Television and the human brain: a healthy combination?

Television: love it or hate it, it is here to stay. I was therefore intrigued to read psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Norman Doidge’s discussion of how “the square box” is definitely¬†changing the way the human brain operates. Whether you see these changes as good or bad will depend on your perspective. Check out the following quotes from Doidge’s book The Brain that Changes Itself, then decide for yourself . . . .

  • 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 a toddler watched each day, their chances of developing serious attentional difficulties at age seven increased by 10 percent.
  • About 20 years after the spread of TV, teachers of young children began to notice that their students had become more restless and had increasing difficulty paying attention. The educator Jane Healy documented these changes in her book Endangered Minds. . . . When those children entered college, professors complained of having to “dumb down” their courses each new year, for students who were increasingly interested in “sound bites” and intimidated by reading of any length.
  • The Harvard psychiatrist Edward Hallowell, an expert on attention deficit disorder (ADD), which is genetic, has linked the electronic media to the rise of attention deficit traits, which are not genetic, in much of the population.
  • Television, music videos and video games . . . unfold at a much faster pace than real life, and they are getting faster, which causes people to develop an increased appetite for high-speed transitions in those media. . . . [T]he form of the television medium — cuts, edits, zooms, pans and sudden noises — . . . 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 sudden movement. We instinctively interrupt whatever we are doing to turn, pay attention and get our bearings. . . . 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. . . . 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 as reading, complex conversation and listening to lectures become more difficult.

It is inevitable that the dominant media of the day should shape the way we think, act and interact — the same process undoubtedly also occurred with the introduction of the alphabet, the printing press, the radio, etc.

The real question is whether a fast-paced, stimulus-ridden, “always-on” culture a good social change or a bad one. And beyond that, do we even have a choice as to which way the pendulum will swing?

Doidge spends the majority of his book demonstrating how we can consciously rewire brain functioning in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. The brain is a “plastic” and changeable medium; with time, dedication and appropriate exercises, stroke victims can recover lost movement, dementia patients can recover lost memories, people with brain deficiencies can recover lost functions, and the elderly can curtail or even reverse age-related cognitive delcine.

It’s a use-it-or-lose-it brain, Doidge says. The ways you can choose to use it — or let your environment influence it — are endless. Check this book out; it’s worth the read.

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