Sunday, June 17, 2007

Sensory confusion

Television's mighty grasp on the eyeballs of the viewer is partly due to the human body's inability to react to the transmitted programming. Images from the glowing, pulsing TV screen are simulating, however the nature of the medium does not permit the body to respond appropriately. The body wants to react to the barrage of images, but cannot. This sensory disorientation - the TV watcher is visually and aurally simulated while remaining physically passive - confuses the mind. These conflicting messages and feelings succeed in creating an almost hypnotic trance in the viewer.

In his book, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, Jerry Mander described how many avid TV watchers described the experience of sitting in front of the tube:

  • "I feel hypnotized when I watch television."
  • "Television sucks my energy."
  • "I feel like it's brainwashing me."
  • "I feel like a vegetable when I'm stuck there at the tube."
  • "Television spaces me out."
  • "My kids look like zombies when they're watching."
  • "I feel mesmerized by it."
  • "If a television is on, I just can't keep my eyes off it."
Anyone who has spent time watching television should agree with some, if not all, of these statements. Mander clarifies the comments by mentioning that not all the perceptions were negative. "Often the people who described themselves as 'spaced out' liked the experience. They said it helped them forget about their otherwise too busy lives," writes Mander. "Others found it 'relaxing,' saying that it helped them 'forget about the world.' Some who used terms like 'brainwashed' or 'addicted' nonetheless felt that television provided them with good information or entertainment, although there was no one who felt television lived up to its 'potential.'"

Mander's book was published in 1978 yet the experience of watching TV has not changed. Television is still a passive medium -- one that requires the watcher to remain silent and still. Unlike any other leisure time activity, watching TV is completely physically passive. (The only other comparison would be going to watch a movie, however one must actually travel to the theater, and buy a ticket, popcorn, etc. Going to watch a movie is an actual experience or event unlike watching TV, whose hours and hours of inactivity blend into each other.) The inactive nature of TV viewing creates in interesting psychological paradox - the more people watch, the worse they feel and, in turn, the more they watch.

The most complete study of TV habit and addiction comes from researchers Robert Kubey, a professor at Rutgers University and director of the Center for Media Studies, and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Professor of Psychology at Claremont Graduate University. In the article "Television Addiction Is No Mere Metaphor," (Scientific American, February 2002) Kubey and Csikszentmihalyi describe their experiment and results.

"As one might expect, people who were watching TV when we beeped them reported feeling relaxed and passive.

"What is more surprising is that the sense of relaxation ends when the set is turned off, but the feelings of passivity and lowered alertness continue. Survey participants commonly reflect that television has somehow absorbed or sucked out their energy, leaving them depleted. They say they have more difficulty concentrating after viewing than before. In contrast, they rarely indicate such difficulty after reading. After playing sports or engaging in hobbies, people report improvements in mood. After watching TV, people's moods are about the same or worse than before.

"Thus, the irony of TV: people watch a great deal longer than they plan to, even though prolonged viewing is less rewarding. In our ESM studies the longer people sat in front of the set, the less satisfaction they said they derived from it. When signaled, heavy viewers (those who consistently watch more than four hours a day) tended to report on their ESM sheets that they enjoy TV less than light viewers did (less than two hours a day)."

In a paper entitled "Television Dependence, Diagnosis, and Prevention," Professor Kubey describes a cyclical effect of watching television. Heavy TV watchers tend to be people who feel anxious or lonely and watching TV provides a break from negative thoughts or ruminations. Providing a pseudo-social media experience, the television creates a virtual connection between the watcher and other people, however this does nothing to help the real feelings of loneliness or boredom.

Kubey explains that "the possibility of a vicious circle wherein the experience of negative moods and thoughts when alone and when unstructured may interact with the ease with which people can quickly escape these feelings by viewing. As a result of many hours spent viewing television over many years, some people may become unpracticed in spending time alone, entertaining themselves, or even in directing their own attention."

Watching TV can never be a true substitute for real-life experiences. Kubey explains that his research shows that heavy viewers get trapped watching TV. "In short, a television viewing habit may be self-perpetuating," writes Kubey. "Viewing may lead to more viewing and may elicit what has been called 'attentional inertia,' i.e., 'the longer people look at television, the greater is the probability that they will continue to look.' Discomfort in noncommitted, or solitary time, can lead to viewing, but after years of such behavior and a thousand hours or more of viewing each year, it seems quite possible that an ingrained television habit could cause some people to feel uncomfortable when left with 'nothing to do,' or alone, and not viewing."

Kubey's conclusion makes perfect logical sense. Television watching is not an "experience" but instead it replaces experiences. So TV watchers exchange the real world for the virtual one behind the screen. The cultural pressure and acceptance of heavy TV watching combined with the habitual nature of the medium can produce an unholy marriage between one's inactivity and boredom.

Breaking the addiction
Psychological research suggests that TV can certainly become addictive and that heavy TV watchers display all the symptoms of a non-substance behavioral addiction. Breaking free of TV, and any addiction, is not an easy task. The difficulty in replacing television images with different (and more substantial) activities is the greatest obstacle breaking the addiction.

There is a basic theory in cognitive psychology called structuralism. Most closely associated with the work of Cornell psychology professor Edward Titchener, this theory contends that the mind breaks down life experiences into groups or concepts. Much like a chemist defines complex structures through its smaller parts and elements, the structural approach breaks down experiences and cultural identity into specific perceptions, notions, and thoughts. Titchener believed that the complex world was made clear in the brain through an ordered thought process that included a vast array of individual parts.

Related to this is John Anderson's Adaptive Control of Thought (ACT) model. The ACT model breaks down elements of thought into nodes. These nodes contain a person's concepts and propositions and are put together in a person's head in order to make sense of the world. Anderson's model says that when people think of the past (long term memory), they recall the essence of the experience and fill in the details with nodes of memory.

Breaking a television addiction involves replacing the virtual TV experience with real experiences. This is a choice. Choosing not to watch television and deciding to do something else with one's time and money is not life changing, only experience changing. Moderate and heavy TV watchers are creating nodes of experience in the mind filled with images and lifestyles proposed by the world of television. The addiction of watching TV is not physical, but behavioral. Moving away from the addiction requires the physical acts of turning off the tube and walking away from the set, but the choice is entirely cognitive.

The television addict is someone who rejects opportunities for interpersonal or active experiences and instead chooses to watch TV. In terms of one's cognitive development, this could be viewed as a harmful mode of activity. If we consider the ACT theory, one cannot truly make sense of the world without previous experiences (nodes of thought) with which the mind can call upon. If one's previous experiences are someone else's, such as the characters portrayed on the TV screen, then what is established as real life parallels life on the TV screen. Reality TV is NOT reality. Television only mimics reality and in most cases portrays the world in wild exaggerations.

A moderate or heavy watcher will probably never move down to 0 viewing and totally remove him/herself from the experience of television. After many years of TV viewing, "going cold turkey" is not realistic. However, it is possible to fill TV time with other activities and use the TV as a tool for relaxation rather than continue the subservience to habit.

“There are several things that lead us to the conclusion that entertainment television is lethal to social connection," explains Harvard professor Robert Putnam in a radio interview after the release of his book, "Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community."

"Part of it is the more entertainment television you watch, the less civically engaged you are. People watch Friends rather than having friends. And of course, you don’t know which caused which, whether people decided to drop out and were left with television or they started watching television and then dropped out. The circumstantial evidence is pretty clear that television is actually the cause of this. There was a really fascinating study in a couple of towns in Canada were the sociologists got to the towns before television did and they were able to do before and after measurements of the effects of television -- and as I would have expected, once television arrived in these towns, civic activity slumped substantially.” [NPR, All Things Considered, May 31, 2000]

Breaking the television addiction requires making a choice. The famous Ellen Parr quote goes: "The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity." Watching TV fills the mind with the images and creativity of others . . . not watching TV fills the mind with freedom.

Click here for original article. Published on this blog with permission from Ron Kaufman.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Attention Span in Children

Kids today face immense pressure to succeed at school and in other activities as well. This pressure is further intensified by the fact that their minds and bodies are ruined due to excessive television viewing.

For instance, according to one study conducted in a group of 7 year olds it was discovered that a child cannot focus on studying for a minimum of 1 ½ to 3 hours after watching television.

In most families it has become customary to switch off the television and put the child to studying. It is not surprising that children are often scolded and needlessly punished and humiliated when they are unable to focus on the study material.

Their mind wanders just like that of a child suffering from ADHD except that the problem is television.

Previous entries on this blog have already explained the "orienting response" and the involuntary reactions it induces in the viewer. Children are especially sensitive to these reactions.

A child that has been watching television for 5 minutes needs a minimum of 1 ½ hours for his brain to come back to a state of normalcy where concentration is possible.

Within that period any act of studying is just a placebo for the parent that "my child is studying" when in reality the child's mind is not absorbing nor learning anything.

Television not only hampers concentration but it also creates problems with memory. This happens when a child finishes a study period and then immediately begins watching television.

The same scrambling process that occurs during pre-study viewing that prevents absorption of knowledge now scrambles the child's mind post-study and replaces recently acquired memories and supplants them with television memories.

This is because television creates a sense of urgency and panic, forcing the mind to forget everything else and focus all attention on the images on television.

It might be argued that showing educational programs might be helpful in this case.

Unfortunately, television memories are all "stress memories". Half an hour of television means anywhere from 2-6 hours of stress for the child.

After genetics, stress is the biggest worldwide cause for diabetes and hypertension. This is too big a price to pay to educate a child.

For heavy viewers, more than 2 hours of television per day, memory and concentration problems snowball and get worse with time. With advancing years the child's academic performance deteriorates increasingly.

In India parents are no longer able to educate their children and children are no longer able to learn on their own (there are exceptions of course). Most of this is blamed on the fact that the curriculum is getting too advanced. What is not taken into consideration is that no curriculum is too advanced for the generation for which it is created.

The problem is that lifestyle options like television that are made out of ignorance of its dangers are slowly dumbing down the whole country one generation at a time.

The United States today is the laughing stock of the world. In this era of television no one can be bothered to read history and see for themselves that America's problem began with television and worsened as viewing hours and viewing choices increased.

The pressures children face today are immense and yet the modern lifestyle is such that these very children are rendered incapable of coping with the challenges they must face. All this because their parents have some reason (fear of appearing socially backward, "You don't have a TV?", self induced fear of not having a TV, incapability or unwillingness to spend time with children or do chores, or anything else) that justifies the presence of a television in the house.

In Indian families it can be noticed that within a family, siblings separated by a few years during the emergence of 24-hour TV show marked difference in academic performance. Those who had achieved the age of 10-12 before TV became a perpetual household time pass seldom require extensive supervision or tutelage outside of school and home. Those born into the TV culture find it difficult to cope with academic life and tend to be slower in dealing with other aspects. They not only require additional tutelage but that tutelage is often ineffective in terms of practical help. It serves merely as a placebo for parents that they are doing their duty though the truth is that the child needs a healthier growing environment rather than a private tutor.

That is not to say that there are no smart children among the TV viewing population but they are now the minority. The intellectual demographic is being sharply divided like money in America. A small proportion is extremely brilliant while the rest just get along as best as they can.

The trouble with TV is that even 5 minutes of viewing means you lose your attention span, ability to focus, remember data, and analyze situations for well over two hours.

The attention span, concentration power, memorizing ability of these children is shot to hell and no one cares. Should this problem have occurred through any other medium besides television the entire household would be in an uproar but since it is due to television and ignorance of the side effects of watching that contraption these maladies are accepted a little too casually.

It is amazing how parents will concede that the child is not "bright" while remaining ignorant of the fact that perhaps it is not the child that is "dull" but the adults around the child that have made an addict out of the child and all other children besides.

When a family suffers from something it needs to take some action. However, when the adults in the family themselves are addicted to an electronic drug that has nothing to offer but endless suffering then there can be no hope for the generation they birth.

The east makes plenty of fun of the west and their dumbness but does not realize that everyone is getting dumb. In a few years Indians will be as dumb as Americans but we will not realize it because Americans will be dumber than they are now.

If your child's academic performance is unsatisfactory then do not assume the child to be dull. Check his/her viewing habits and do the following.

  • No television 2 hours before studying.
  • No television 2 hours after studying.
  • No television ½ hour before meals.
  • No television during meals.
  • No television 2 ½ hours after meals.
  • No television 4 hours before sleep time.
Digestion and sleep are crucial components to memory and concentration power. Most families eat in front of the television, which is where television addiction typically starts.

The human brain needs at least 2 hours or REM sleep to stay healthy. If your child wakes up at 6 then he/she must be asleep by 10pm. Not go to bed by 10pm but be asleep. So if it takes ½ hour to sleep then tuck the child in bed before 9:30pm.

A brain recently exposed to television is under tremendous stress and will refuse to go to sleep, a preliminary indication of insomnia, so give 3-4 hours clearance before the child's bedtime. Engage the child in physical activity to induce fatigue and if that does not suit you then read to the child.

Reading requires the child to imagine what the words represent and this acts like exercise for the mind, creativity, imagination, and constructive skills. Television does the reverse and fills the mind with nonsense images that blunt the child's intellect and imagination.

Television disrupts the child's sleep cycle. In most households this is because "busy" adults will stay up late to watch television and in crowded families this becomes a serious problem.

Switch to a healthier lifestyle for your children's sake. If you cannot live without your electronic drug then at least learn to control it.

Alternative Reality

The rules of psychology say that whenever we are faced with a situation that seems impossible we seek an escape.

This escape could be in the form of a joke, becoming a prankster, alcoholism, drug abuse, suicide, or any other form of retreating from reality and escaping into a private world.

In India, where divorce has not yet achieved the "normal" status from society and a divorced woman is often seen as dysfunctional and avoided by all men once her status becomes known, this creates a unique problem that profits the television industry.

Whether living alone or in a joint family, the married Indian woman, at least of the previous generation, had no choice but to continue doing that till death. Divorce was no better than sacrificing children (which incidentally most women with televisions do anyway).

There are no perfect couples and post-marriage friction is inevitable. For the married woman in India there is often no escape. Curiously enough, the more pliable the woman the better she copes.

The toughest situation is for women with egos or stiff attitudes that refuses to compromise with their in-laws. They might not like their husbands but must pretend they do. They might not like anyone in their in-laws but must pretend they do.

A human being cannot live an entire life with such pretense unless he/she is unethical at heart, in which case they are undeserving of a family anyway.

Enter the television
If you ever speak to Indian women that watch the soaps targeted at them you will discover that they speak of television's fictional characters just like they were real.

  • There is deep concern regarding the uncertainty in the lives of the characters.
  • There is a terrible foreboding if an episode is missed.
  • A tragedy in fiction becomes downright appalling in real life.
  • An affair between fictional characters becomes the seed for real life gossip.
  • The bad women (curiously there are hardly any good ones) are bad mouthed.
  • Unsavory characters are cursed.
  • There have been instances where people actually pray for the well being of their favorite fictional characters.
Women gather in flocks to discuss the various serials going on as if they were real life documentaries instead of a money generating tales of fiction.

The reason for this is simple.

These women, curiously enough you will be hard pressed to find a bachelorette, seek an escape in choosing alternative relatives to their real ones.

Their ego problem is clearly indicative here because the television gives them an illusion of absolute control over the lives of the characters they wish were their true relatives.

Their obsession is made clear through their viewing habits where they had rather watch a meaningless episode than tend to the needs of their children or husband.

The worst of it all
The reason why they talk as if those characters were real is because they sincerely believe them to be so.

Since the television creates a hypnotic-suggestive state where the mind accepts everything without question, the brain has no distinction between reality and fiction, everything is real.

The worst part is the behavior modification that follows from viewing such trash.

Even a decent woman with a mild interest in these serials runs the risk of eventually, and subconsciously, modeling her own behavior based on what she sees in these television programs.

That in itself is not so bad if the characters were all half as decent as a bunch of whores.

A family television serial without conflict would never be seen because these women are seeking conflicts that are not their own and which they can control with a remote. The result is a television program where every character is busy plotting, lying, cheating, defrauding, insulting, humiliating, and in general behaving in every outrageous and immoral manner against another set of characters.

You would not want anyone like that in your family because it means ruin.

Yet, these very characters are what keeps these serials going. The sense of control a woman feels eventually fades through familiarity and then the subconscious suggestion begins to take hold.

The women begin to believe that that is the right way to live. That plotting, scheming, lying, causing rift among family members, cutting off those you do not like, deliberately doing what others may not like, is the right and proper way to run a family.

It is not possible to fix this problem because the woman is not choosing this consciously. It is not her fault really. The suggestion is planted and replanted over the years through constant trash viewing on the television until the woman is unable to distinguish between good and bad.

Questioning her conduct will create instant hostility because no one questions what is seen on television and real life questioning is seen as a violation of some obscure law they apply to their real life behavior.

The entire process is summed up in the following steps.
  1. The woman rejects reality by refusing to work on getting on with her in laws.
  2. She instead recedes into the alternative reality of television and builds "real" relationships with fictional characters.
  3. Eventually the fictional characters gain equal prominence and then become more important than her real life relatives, even her own husband and children must take a back seat to her fictional relatives.
  4. The woman can no longer live without her fictional relatives though the absence of her husband and children does not bother her.
  5. The woman will fight to retain her right to access to her fictional relatives and no amount of persuasion or force can change her mind about it.
  6. The entire family suffers because the woman is making decisions that have no bearing on reality.
This is but another interesting psychological fallout of television addiction.

That television causes behavior modification is undeniable because the human brain is not smart enough to realize that the television content is fictional.

However, human society being what it is continues to stay blind to this menace and countless families are destroyed because of greedy producers that deliberately create bad family value engendering television content for its addicts.