Think you’re a free thinker? Think again, says Dr. Aric Sigman in this excerpt from his newly released book Remotely Controlled.
BBC Ten O’clock News, 27 October 2004: And the headlines: the Arabic television station Al-Jazeera has broadcast a new video of aid worker Margaret Hassan, who was kidnapped in Iraq last week. The video showed Mrs Hassan asking for British troops to be pulled out of Iraq. The BBC has decided not to show moving images of the video.
The BBC1 news report continues with a still photograph of Mrs Hassan. Why are the BBC mandarins so concerned about the effect of moving as opposed to still images?
Above and beyond the rights and wrongs of the war in Iraq is a postmortem on the role of television images as a weapon. In the new warfare the power of television images works both ways. One thing the West failed to understand was the power of the ultimate smart weapon — the flimsy portable television image. With a blindfold and a cheap compact video camera, your enemy can wreak an emotional warfare quite different from the disinformation and propaganda of previous wars. Now everyone can be their own producer and director. Even al-Qaida has gone on a media training course.
The September 11 Effect
The September 11 attacks are considered by psychologists as ‘psychologically special’, because of their televisual value. In the age of spectacle, the growing link between seeing attacks like this on television and traumatic stress symptoms remains a cause for serious concern. A special report by ten scientists in the New England Journal of Medicine found that ‘People who are not present at a traumatic event may experience stress reactions. Forty-four per cent of adults reported one or more substantial symptoms of stress; 90 per cent had one or more symptoms to at least some degree.’
While the American Psychiatric Association measured the increase in psychotropic drug use after September 11, 2001. ‘The attacks were unprecedented in scope, and Americans viewed them over and over again on television.’ There was a significant rise in new prescriptions for antidepressants, antipsychotics and benzodiazepine tranquillisers. ‘Thus it appears that even the indirect experience of a stressful event — on television and in other media — can produce significant symptoms of stress.’
And as far afield as New Zealand, these television images had extraordinary effects. The medical journal Tobacco Control. reported that ‘Events of 11 September 2001 significantly reduced calls to New Zealand Quitline: There was an overall 35 per cent drop in the total number of new callers per week. It appears that quitting “dropped off the personal agenda” for some New Zealand smokers. It seems likely that at this time of increased media publicity of global security threats, the quitting plans of smokers were eclipsed by other concerns. This was despite the fact that New Zealand is an island nation that is very far removed from international trouble spots. It was also despite the fact that international terrorism has historically posed only a tiny risk of death to the general public relative to that from smoking (which kills half of long-term smokers).’
Looking at it another way, have you ever noticed that in almost any given coup d’etat or foreign invasion, the first place the tanks roll up to is the main television station? Why? Because rebels and invaders know that we believe what we see on television, and if we see a new military order appear on our screen, we believe they are in charge, thereby making the whole takeover process so much easier.
Television as tranquilliser
Are you aware that the UK prison service has been involved in a secret ‘in-cell television project’? As budgets and staff are cut and overcrowding rises, television’s tranquillising effects have been discussed at the highest levels of the prison service as the cheapest and most effective way to subdue the prison population. The General Secretary of the Prison Governors’ Association has been revealed as saying, ‘It’s the best control mechanism you can think of. You know what the British are like; shove them in front of the television and you won’t hear a peep out of them.’
Television is being used to make gorillas more passive too. The Dallas Zoo reports that their gorillas each have their favourite television shows. They all like Disney cartoons; The Little Mermaid, The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast are their favourites. The zoo explained that ‘They don’t follow the story of course, they like the music, the colour and the movement.’
For man or beast, moving pictures have the most powerful emotional, physiological and political effects imaginable. But how and why does this work? What is the medium’s allure? Do terms such as neo-opiate of the masses, the enemy in the corner, the plug-in drug, chewing gum for the eyes, the culture of the disinherited, have any substance beyond a general dislike of the values conveyed through television? Television is an interesting tool with which to re-examine our concept of free will.
Hypnosis sheds an oblique light on human autonomy. Part voodoo and part placebo, it occupies a unique position, straddling the divide between the empirical and the esoteric, the rational and the intuitive, the voluntary and the involuntary, the conscious and subconscious. Hypnosis offers us one of the few opportunities for a guided journey into our primitive animal ancestry whilst sitting comfortably.
What exactly is hypnosis? A form of sleep or sleepwalking, an altered state of consciousness, one mind dominating another — the hypnotist’s ‘will’ replacing that of the patient? One common feature of hypnotic induction methods is to urge your subject to focus their attention, to diminish their peripheral awareness. The rhythmic monotony of a pencil tapping or hypnotist counting backwards can be spellbindingly effective in changing your subject’s attentional focus.
There are some striking similarities between the act of watching television and hypnosis. In fact, when someone asks what exactly hypnosis is, one explanation describes the situation of being deeply engrossed in watching a television drama and unaware of the noises out in the street. But what is going on neurologically? At Imperial College School of Medicine in London, John Gruzelier, Professor of Psychology, has been carrying out research into the effects of hypnosis on the brain. I asked him how he defines hypnosis:
‘It’s a condition of highly focused attention, where once you have become focused you become more responsive to suggestions given to you by the practitioner. And as a result there are alterations in brain function … Our studies have been going on since the 1970s. We’ve had consistent results — interesting alterations in the frontal lobes, which become less connected to the rest of the brain and aspects become repressed. This makes perfect sense because the hypnotist is specifically asking you to stop analysing everything critically and go with the flow. Your frontal lobes are parts of the brain for critical analysis, and basically he’s asking you to switch these off. My interpretation of hypnosis is that this is a clever way of achieving this … As a consequence, the organisation of the brain is altered, and there are shifts in the activity from one side to the other. We are mostly left hemispheric, and we shift into right hemispheric, but it depends on what you are asked to do when hypnotised.’
Changes in Brain Function
A similar thing seems to happen when we watch television. Research by Professor Herbert Krugman found that within 30 seconds of turning on the television, our brain becomes neurologically less able to make judgements about what we see and hear on the screen. Our brain treats incoming information uncritically. Our brain waves switch to predominantly alpha waves, indicating an unfocused, receptive lack of attention.
What surprised Krugman, however, was how rapidly this state emerged. Further research revealed that our brain’s left hemisphere, which processes information logically and analytically, tunes out while we are watching television. This tuning-out allows the right hemisphere of our brain, which processes information emotionally and uncritically, to function unimpeded. ‘It appears,’ wrote Krugman, ‘the basic electrical response of the brain is clearly to the medium. Television is a communication medium that effortlessly transmits huge quantities of information not thought about at the time of exposure.’
This was a long-winded way of saying that the medium of television brainwashes you.
The advertising industry immediately ordered copies of this report by the truckload.
If watching television or hypnosis causes a shift in brain activity from our left to our right hemisphere we should be aware of what this means for ‘free will’ in everyday intellectual terms. Michael Gazzaniga has spent at least 40 years studying this very difference between left and right brain, and recently described this dichotomy. ‘The left hemisphere has proved quite dominant for major cognitive activities, such as problem solving … The right hemisphere, meanwhile, is severely deficient in difficult problem solving.’ Gazzaniga has found that the left hemisphere is always hard at work, seeking the meaning of events, constantly looking for order and reason and explanations. He believes, ‘Although both hemispheres can be viewed as conscious, the left brain’s consciousness far surpasses that of the right.’
It’s very interesting that these left hemispheric qualities — such as problem solving and the persistent search for meaning, order and reason, along with the general ability to sustain attention — are affected when television arrives in a society for the first time. A classic naturalistic experiment was carried out in a remote Canadian mountain community in British Columbia that previously had no television. When cable television was introduced the researchers recorded how things changed. Over time it was found that both adults and children became less creative in problem solving and were less able to persevere at tasks.
Television protagonists argue that this description of viewers is demeaning, reducing them to passive recipients remotely controlled by television. But again this focuses on the content and overlooks the effect of the medium itself.
We may prefer to think of ourselves as free thinkers but we’re not. A British study, ‘Right about others, wrong about ourselves?’ shows how very pompous we are. Researchers at Keele University investigated the third-person effect — the belief that others are more influenced than ourselves by media messages. They found that while we are fairly accurate at estimating how much others are persuaded by media messages, we’re in denial about our own autonomy. We report that attitude change occurs in others, but not in ourselves. The authors see this conceited disposition as our ‘motive to maintain positive self-esteem and a feeling of control over negative influence’.
And like hypnosis, watching television is also thought to subdue the involvement of the most sophisticated part of our brain — the frontal lobe. This is the brain’s executive control system, responsible for planning, organising and sequencing behaviour for self-control, moral judgement and attention. Again, both hypnosis and television reduce our ability to analyse critically what we are being told or what we see. For example, adding single digit numbers uses areas throughout the left and right frontal lobes. Watching a television screen doesn’t.
Adding single digit numbers is a very mundane task that doesn’t sound like it requires much of your brain. So, if television uses even less of your brain than this simple task, then imagine how much less of the brain is being used than during more complex activities such as socially interacting with your peers — that is, living. Most worrying of all is that the frontal lobe, which continues to develop until the age of about 20, may be damaged by watching a lot of television. It is imperative that children and young adults do things which thicken the fibres connecting neurons in this part of the brain, and the more the person is stimulated, the more the fibres will thicken. Doing simple arithmetic or reading out loud, for example, are very effective in activating the frontal lobe. Television may literally idle this brain area and then stunt its development.
The frontal lobe has an important role to play in keeping an individual’s behaviour in check. Whenever you use self-control to refrain from lashing out or doing something you should not, the frontal lobe is hard at work. Children often do things they shouldn’t because their frontal lobes are under-developed. A study reported in The World Federation of Neurology expresses great concern over the way visual electronic media is affecting children by ‘… halting the process of frontal lobe development and affecting their ability to control potentially antisocial elements of their behaviour… the implications are very serious … children should also be encouraged to play outside with other children, interact and communicate with others as much as possible’. The more work done to thicken the fibres connecting the neurons in this part of the brain, the better the child’s ability will be to control their behaviour.
Psychosurgery was first devised by a Portuguese politician, the Foreign Minister, Egas Moniz. After attending a neurological conference in London, in 1935, Moniz heard how the destruction of the prefrontal brain area of monkeys and chimpanzees produced a number of deficits in problem-solving tasks. But what seemed to impress Moniz most was the observation that some of the more excitable members of the lower orders became much calmer following surgery.
It was hardly a coincidence that only a few months later he looked further up the evolutionary ladder as he sharpened his scalpel.
Psychosurgery is surgery performed on the normal brain tissue to change or control a person’s emotions or behaviour. It has been described as ‘therapy by impairment’. I found that neurosurgeons and psychiatrists did not really know why or how some psychosurgery actually worked. However, a common theme in their explanations of the rationale behind the operations was increasing the separation of thought from emotion. Some patients ‘think too much’ and this leads to emotional distress while the selective reduction in too much of a certain type of thinking ‘permits the patient to function in a more effective and less troubled way’. But it was also felt that psychosurgery might reduce the probability of using certain intellectual capacities and persistence in achieving goals in everyday life.
And so again, as with hypnosis research, I’ve seen some common themes between the effects of watching television and the processes thought to lie behind frontal lobe psychosurgery: the reduction in critical thinking, less motivated and creative problem solving and a lack of perseverance with solving a problem (as in the isolated Canadian community above), and greater separation of thought from emotion. Obviously the act of watching television is not the same as undergoing a bilateral stereotactic sub-caudate tractotomy. However, given the concern that current levels of television viewing may literally idle frontal lobe activity and then stunt its development in younger viewers thereby changing their thinking and behaviour, there are some unfortunate similarities. Opponents of psychosurgery saw it as the use of a medical procedure to achieve social goals. Television too is used to achieve social goals.
Is television relaxing?
But one of the main reasons we watch television is ‘to relax’. Yet again, when you actually take a closer look, you find that things aren’t what they seem. While watching television does indeed dull your attentional and neurological state, eliciting less electrical brain activity than reading, this is not the same as ‘chilling out’.
One major study from Scientific American involved people watching television at home as normal. Each viewer had a beeper and they were signalled six to eight times a day, at random, over the period of a week; whenever they heard the beep, they wrote down what they were doing and how they were feeling using a standardised scorecard.
People who were watching television when they were beeped reported feeling relaxed and passive. And EEG studies also showed less mental stimulation, as measured by alpha brain wave production, during watching television than during reading. However, in their own words the scientists observed:
‘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.’
It seems that within moments of sitting or lying down and pressing the ‘ON’ button, we report feeling more relaxed. But because the relaxation occurs quickly, we are conditioned to associate viewing with rest and lack of tension. And because we remain relaxed throughout viewing, this deceptive association is positively reinforced.
Why television is addictive
In the study, once the screen goes blank again they observed ‘stress and dysphoric rumination [feelings of depression and unrest] occurs’. They point out that a similar thing happens when you use habit-forming drugs. You’re far more likely to become dependent on a tranquilliser that leaves your body quickly than one that leaves slowly, precisely because you’re more conscious that the tranquilliser’s effects are wearing off.
In the same way, television viewers have subconsciously learned that they will feel less relaxed if they stop watching, and this may be a key factor in determining why they don’t turn the television off. Yet, many people like to think of themselves as ‘selective viewers’. They typically say they sat down just to watch X, but they’re still watching Y and Z three hours later.
And so the Scientific American study describes the term television addiction as ‘imprecise and laden with value judgments, but it captures the essence of a very real phenomenon’. The mental health profession considers substance dependence a disorder which involves spending a great deal of time using the substance; using it more often than you intend to; thinking about reducing your use or making repeated unsuccessful attempts to reduce your use; giving up important social, family or work activities to use it; and experiencing withdrawal symptoms when you stop using it. All these symptoms can apply to people who view a lot of television. ‘Excessive cravings do not necessarily involve physical substances. Gambling can become compulsive, sex can become obsessive. One activity, however, stands out for its prominence and ubiquity — the world’s most popular leisure activity, television.’
In the hands of Big Brother
As a modern Western culture we need to learn to, in the right context, relinquish control, let go, become less rational and overly analytical, to become more ‘right brain’. But watching television is neither an effective nor a healthy way to do this.
Aside from the issue of television and attentional damage, for those whose brains are still developing — including young adults spending increasing hours per day in front of a screen — this unusual daily alteration in brain function may be causing permanent changes in the way their brain finally develops and functions. For any young person, watching hours of television every day is likely to exact its influence. And television’s influence is strong.
As with hypnosis, watching television enhances your capacity for receiving ideas without all the bother of reality-testing. Suspending our disbelief, television slips under our neurological and intellectual radar. Watching a television screen is akin to putting yourself in the hands of an unqualified hypnotherapist whose main interest is to keep you coming back to him for longer and longer sessions, a form of ratings-driven professional conduct.
This article has merely provided a neurological account of what Aldous Huxley foresaw over 80 years ago in Brave New World. We in Western liberal democracies have been ever vigilant to those who would infringe our human rights. But in looking for Big Brother, we’ve failed to see him in ourselves.
In his book 1984, George Orwell warns that in the classic Hitlerian tradition we will be oppressed by political forces from the outside. But Huxley saw it as being a far simpler affair, taking place much closer to home. In order to erode our autonomy, no enforcer or Big Brother is needed at all. By merely using distraction and the arresting of our attention, as opposed to starting all those unnecessary bonfires and burning all those unwieldy books, we’ll come to love our oppression, to adore the technologies that undo our capacities to think critically. A technological determinism will prevail.
As Huxley observed in Brave New World Revisited, those who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny failed to consider man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions. In Brave New World, people are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In the poignantly entitled book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman concluded ‘Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.’
Published in Kindred, Issue 22, June 07
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