The Evolution of the Couch Potato

Humans and animals share a similar trait, that of sensory attraction to environmental stimuli. This keeps us alert and aware, ready to respond to any danger or unexpected occurrence. Our attraction to television stems from our biological “orienting response.” In 1927, the great psychologist Ivan Pavlov explained that the orienting response is part of our evolutionary heritage. We are attracted to any sudden or novel visual or auditory stimulus. This is a built-in sensitivity to movement and to potential predatory threats.

Some of the reactions typical of the orienting response include dilation of the blood vessels in the brain, slowing of the heart rate, and constriction of the blood vessels to the major muscle groups. The body remains motionless while the brain focuses its attention on gathering information.

How Television Works its magic.

In 1986, Byron Reeves of Stanford University and Esther Thorson of the University of Missouri studied whether the formula used by television to attract and hold viewers – cuts, edits, zooms, pans, sudden noises – activated the orienting response, holding viewers’ attention to the screen. They found that in ads, action sequences, and music videos, orienting features come at a rate of one per second.

Researchers have questioned whether it was the hyper kinetic (constant shifting of scenes and sound) form of TV, more than the content, that prompted aggression. Dorothy and Jerome Singer at Yale further found that even innocuous programs like the
quick-cutting “Sesame Street” or variety and game shows were so stimulating that they prompted aggression.

It is these rapid and constant changes on the screen that mimic real-life response to new situations and enriched environments. The stylistic tricks used by television producers and movie directors mimic not just new situations, but our evolutionary response to detecting movement, integrating information, and assessing danger. “It is the form, not the content that makes television so unique,” say the Yale researchers.

Keep it Coming

Endorphins are triggered in response to any new or novel stimulus. It follows that there is a direct correlation between endorphins and the orienting response. It is the constant new visual and audio stimuli of television that trigger endorphin release and bind us so strongly to the screen. The more rapidly assimilated the events and stimuli, the more short-lived enkephalins are triggered rather than longer-lasting endorphins. Annie Lang at the University of Indiana found that after an orienting stimulus, heart rate decreased for four to six seconds. This is very similar to the length of time an enkephalin lives in the body. Where enkephalins are at work, constant reinforcement is necessary to keep the flow going.

Television Simulating Life

Many people are now using television as a substitute for life. The content of television – with its cuts, edits, zooms, pans, and sudden noises – mimics, although poorly, real life interaction. The temptation is to substitute watching programs for participation in life’s events. The brain is easily fooled by this counterfeit simulation of the real thing.

Researchers say that people lose their ability and confidence to interact socially after heavy viewing. Statistically it has been found that television has the following negative effects:

1) The couch potato factor: It takes away the time and incentive to exercise. Individuals watching TV use even fewer calories than when sleeping! Studies have found that heavy viewers are less likely to participate in community activities and sports and are more likely to be obese.

2) Less social interaction: television poorly mimics interpersonal relationships, lessening the need and the ability to interact. Introversion can result.

3) Snack attack: The foods people choose while watching TV have been found to directly correlate with the advertising messages of the sponsors. 41% of the foods portrayed on TV are snack foods. These foods contain high amounts of fats and sugars, which stimulate the appetite center and do not signal the brain that we are full.

4) Vicarious experience: Watching others engage in new experiences drains the motivation of viewers to go out into the real world. The mind becomes used to letting a source outside of itself give it data for conclusions. Curiosity, intellectual questioning, and learning from one’s own experiences are slowed down when television watching is increased.

5) Watching television does not put one in touch with other people, or even with ourselves. Instead, it bombards the individual with the agenda and values of the TV programmers and advertisers. Spending a lot of time in front of the TV feeds loneliness. It encourages viewers to let someone else decide what’s interesting.

Television as a Drug

One determination as to whether a substance or a behavior is an addiction lies in whether the individual experiences withdrawal symptoms. Substances that are addictive involve the triggering of a reaction and a subsequent cessation.

In the 1960’s, Gary A. Steiner of the University of Chicago followed families whose TV sets had broken. “The family,” he recounted, “walked around the house like chickens without heads.” He related some of the comments by those involved in the study: “It was terrible. We did nothing – my husband and I screamed constantly. Children bothered me; my nerves were on edge. Tried to interest them in games, but impossible.”

In experiments, families have volunteered to stop watching TV. Many of them could not complete the short period of self-restraint. Charles Winick of the City University of New York concluded that, just as with chemical dependence, the first three or four days of withdrawal from TV were the worst. In over half the households, during those first few days, regular routines were disrupted and family members had difficulty adjusting; anxiety and aggression were expressed. People living alone tended to be bored and irritated. People had lost the inner resources to entertain themselves.

Living a Vicarious Existence

Television enables you to live your life through others: sporting events, sitcoms, movies, extreme behaviors. You high-five when your team scores or wins, you feel happy when you see others laugh and do stupid things, you cry when you see someone else succeed or fail. Your life is going by while you life yours through others on TV or in the magazines that cover the stars. TV touches on your most basic emotions to make you feel alive, but it is someone else’s life. You are not the hero, the lover, the winner, the chosen. You are an observer of someone and something else. Nothing has changed in 2000 years. The Roman emperors used the gladiators and chariot races to satiate the people’s lust for action, blood, heroes. The Greeks used the Olympic to have people root for and relate to their favorites.

Impediment to new skills and jobs

Technology is projected to benefit only those workers whose salaries place them in the top 10-20% of the income spectrum. 40% of all jobs below these projections will be lost to technology: computers, robots, and things yet unforeseen. Only those continuing their educations into computer and technological literacy will find themselves marketable commodities. The rest will be under employed, unemployable, unemployed.

You may want to consider putting down the graphic novel. The play station joy stick, the TV remote, the romance or sci-fi novel, discussing the winner of “The Voice,” “The biggest looser,” ‘Survivor” and signing up for on-line courses at the hundreds of universities now available.

In the information age you are either dispensable or indispensible.

“The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” Alan Kay.

To Sum Up

Television watching increases passivity in human behavior by developing reliance on vicarious experiencing. People interact less with each other and more with the “electronic babysitter.”

TV promotes avoidance of movement and exercise and encourages overeating. Dr. John Foreyt, obesity expert at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston has said that the strongest predictor of obesity, especially childhood obesity, is the number of hours spent in front of a television.

The constant visual and auditory stimulation coming from the TV set is addictive. Knowing that TV is, in fact, a drug, can help us combat its deleterious effects. Like any drug, the first hit, or in the case of TV, the first program, leads to watching more. One sitcom turns into another…until the evening is gone, and with it the opportunity to interact with loved ones, build interpersonal relationships, communicate with children, exercise, take up a new hobby, or take an adult education course at school.

Artificial stimuli, such as those coming at us from television, trigger the release of enkephalin (short-lived endorphins) but just as quickly spur the need for renewed release. Natural endorphin triggers (from exercise, sharing love, new behaviors, interacting with enriched environments) last longer and do not require constant replenishment.

Be a participant in life, not just a viewer. We have the capacity to choose. Knowing what those choices are, brings us that much closer to regaining control of our lives and making good use of our time. Television is insidious. It plays six major roles that used to be reserved for the family – cultural mentor, sexual advisor, hero, family manager, arbitrator, and friend. The TV has now supplanted these positions. It’s not just a half hour that is gone by; it’s your life that’s going by.

I really hope you see this because time is running out…for you and your country.

Under enlightened political leadership, television cane be turned into a tool promoting social and humanitarian causes.

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