The corporate media and entertainment industries are successfully
utilizing technology to fill the pleaure centers of your brain,
what’s being driven out?
If it turned out that an everyday household item was capable
of creating permanent changes in the brains of infants and
toddlers, would you keep it or toss it? What if you felt you
couldn’t live without it?
A study appearing in the April issue of the journal Pediatrics
has said what many have probably suspected for some time now:
that TV is essentially rewiring young brains. The flashing
of images, the cutting back and forth, the commercial breaks
all appear to structure the developing brain so that it looks
for and expects rapid-fire patterns.
The study found that for every hour of TV that children from
ages 1 to 3 watched, the odds of having attention problems
later in life increased by 10 percent. About 50 percent of
toddlers watch three or more hours of TV a day, meaning that
they have at least a 30 percent greater chance of suffering
from attention deficit disorders at age 7 than do toddlers
who watch no TV.
Because the human brain continues to develop throughout the
early years, the neurological changes that occur from being
exposed to this barrage of stimuli are thought to be permanent.
By artificial means, the child’s brain is rewired to expect
a higher threshold of stimulation than a book or classroom
could possibly deliver.
The problem seems to have grown over the last 10 years, as
computer technology has allowed for greater manipulation of
But what about those of us who may have escaped childhood
relatively unscathed, at least by today’s standards? Are we
being rewired, too, at some level? Have we lost our ability
The changes to television haven’t occurred in a vacuum but
have developed alongside other advances in personal-entertainment
and communication devices, and it’s difficult to imagine that
our media-saturated, gadget-oriented world hasn’t hurt our
ability to concentrate and interact meaningfully with our
Consider the computer: Computers are often held up as the
antidote to television. Yes, they both involve staring into
a screen, but TV is a passive form of entertainment while
the computer is based on interactivity. We click, we surf,
we view, we send. The user is in control of the experience.
But that experience also encourages quick bursts of attention
and the search for novelty. A user might have four or more
windows opened at once—clicking back and forth among them
while also writing a document (say, a technology column),
checking e-mails and playing a computer game for a quick distraction
from the other distractions.
Unfortunately, multi-tasking doesn’t work all that well, as
anyone who’s ever tried to talk on the phone while playing
solitaire can attest. That’s a skill better left to computers,
which can enhance their efficiency by squeezing out every
possible nanosecond from their CPU when necessary.
Human brains don’t function on binary code. Bits of information
and trains of thought get lost as the mind skips from one
point to the next, never quite able to focus on any given
one. Long-term focus gets lost in a haze of half-formed thoughts.
And that’s the kind of world we’re encouraged to live in.
Even a 30-minute trip to the local lube shop for an oil change
is hardly a respite. Most often a TV blares in the corner.
And with any luck, one of the news channels will be playing—its
ticker tape, scroll bar and other text and graphics competing
with the talking heads for screen space and the viewer’s attention.
The overall effect is one of distraction and insulation from
the people around us. This effect can also be seen with game
consoles such as X-Box and PS2, which demand complete attention
through a steady barrage of sights and sounds. Even when other
people are involved, the main interaction and focus of attention
is with the machine that delivers the medium.
This effect doesn’t stop with TVs and computers. MP3 players
offer the user thousands of music files to choose from. A
person can block out large portions of the outside world with
a never-ending stream of music with no fear that reality will
creep in during a change of cassette or CD. The real world
simply becomes visual imagery for the sounds and rhythms delivered
to the brain.
Cell phones and wireless Internet create even more opportunities
to distract and insulate us from the world that surrounds
us. A trip to the coffee shop becomes a caffeinated Internet
session with slightly different scenery.
So where does it leave us, other than distracted and unable
It’s fairly clear that our minds are quite capable of grasping
new technology and using it to our advantage. But has anything
really changed? We are, after all, the product of billions
of years’ worth of evolution. But because of our technical
prowess, we’re also as close as we’ve ever been to making
our planet uninhabitable.
Global problems are complex and require a high level of attention
to solve. But if as a society we are trained to seek out distraction,
we are far more likely to insulate ourselves with endless
entertainment than we are to engage in the difficult and daunting
task of solving the world’s problems.
At the same time, those who control the source of our distractions,
namely the media conglomerates and the political leaders they
support, will hold greater control over a populace that demands
to be entertained and wants its “information” in digestible
bits. This creates a situation where a large portion of the
population is ripe for manipulation, whether it be for political
gain, financial gain or both.
And yet this manipulation can seem all but invisible to the
one on the receiving end. Take computer games, for instance.
Does a person ever control the game or does the game control
the person? A person can master the game, but only because
that person has mastered the rules of the game, and that game
has a developer who created the rules.
This is not to say that technology in itself is bad. But if
it has the power to shape our brains and our lives, then it
needs to be approached with a certain level of caution. We
are already undergoing an evolution of sorts. In many ways,
technology has primed us for change. We think, perceive and
react differently than the generations who have come before
But the question becomes, to what end? And do we really want
to send the next generation of children headlong into that
world if we’re not even sure what’s in store?
It’s enough to make you want to kill your television, if you
could only remember why.