Television is Plato’s cave.
Plato described the following thought experiment. Suppose some children were taken from their families at birth and set in chains inside a cave. They were bound head and foot, so that they could barely move, and were all set facing the same wall. Behind them, someone lit a fire, so that light was cast on the wall. Insidious conspirators, for unknown nefarious purposes, made a shadow play up on the wall, and the children believed that the shadows they saw on the were was the whole of reality. Their voices echoed off the wall, so they identified themselves with certain shadows, and interacted with the shadows as if they were real.
Now, Plato was trying to make a point similar to the one that Steve Pavlina makes in his series on subjective reality. Some will say that the thought experiment just proves that Plato was the sadistic wacko who got his kicks thinking about torturing little children. But of course, he only thought about it. We actually do it.
Now, wait a minute! You’re trying to say that the wall of the cave is like television.
- Our children don’t watch television all day. So they don’t think it’s real.
- We don’t tie them down and force them to watch it. They like it!
- Watching television is just a pastime like any other; it’s not like it actually hurts you.
- A lot of shows encourage the kids to sing and dance along with the people on the show; it’s almost interactive — it’s not like the kids are hypnotized.
- We make sure they only watch educational programs! Some of these shows are great — they teach the kids all kinds of things — manners, self-esteem, how to read, how to build international space stations, whatever.
- If the kids didn’t watch TV, they’d have trouble relating to the kids in school — they wouldn’t be up on all the latest tv characters and shows.
- The kids would be bored if they didn’t have television to watch.
- Not watching TV is just weird.
- If we tried to take TV away from the kids, they’d go ballistic!
1. You Think It’s Real.
Your kids don’t watch television all day? That’s good. But that doesn’t mean they don’t think it’s real. For that matter, when you watch television, you think it’s real, too.
Most people know that the human brain is composed of several parts. Some of these parts enable rational thought, and they know perfectly well that what is coming out of the little television box is not real. But other parts of your brain are not so smart. These are the older parts of the brain, the parts that allow you to dodge flying objects faster than you can think, trigger the fight or flight response, and make you afraid of snakes and darkness. These parts don’t know that the TV images aren’t real. They evolved at a time when there was no television, and everything seen by the eyes could be trusted.
This part of your brain thinks that when it sees a murder on television, someone has really died. Right in front of you. This is why you have nightmares about it.
Now imagine how it must be for a child aged three, whose experience is almost entirely handled by these lower brain functions, because the rational part of the brain has barely begun to develop. For them, television is real.
A fellow blogger, Erin Pavlina, writes about how much trouble she had with Freddy Krueger. Erin was a teenager when she saw “Nightmare on Elm Street”. At that time she was already an expert lucid dreamer, which meant that she could be “awake” and conscious during her dreams, and control her dream world. But Freddy turned out to be a dream image she couldn’t control. She’d be flying around in her dreams, saving the world from the Clutches of Evil, and suddenly Freddy would appear out of nowhere and kill her. This went on for almost a year, until she was finally able to face down Freddy and deal with him. Why did Freddy give her so much trouble? I asked my wife, who has a degree in cognitive science from MIT. She said, paraphrasing slightly,
“Freddy Krueger is not an image that Erin’s brain developed by itself. It was an image imposed from outside. It was not an image that her brain had control over. Her subconscious didn’t know what Freddy ‘meant’, but it knew that Freddy was a powerful image and that it had to deal with him somehow. This is very different from normal dream images, which are created by the subconscious itself.
“This is one reason why movies and television can be harmful to people, particularly small children. Powerful, realistic images are dropped into the mind, and you’ve got to deal with them — frequently before you’re really ready to.
“If you read a horror story, you can put down the book if it starts to bother you. You read at your own pace, and stop if you must. But when you’re watching television or movies, the images come at you faster than you can digest them — by the time you realize you’re too scared and get up to leave, it’s too late.
“Also, with a book, you create the images in your own mind. Your own self-created images cannot harm you. They can only help you grow. Images from outside the mind can really hurt, because the brain cannot necessarily control them.”
2. It Terrifies You.
Most parents do not tie their children down in front of televisions. We can all be grateful for that. But the reality is that our children are tied down — not by us, but by the television itself.
The way in which television does this is incredibly insidious, and not what you might expect.
Suppose that you’re watching a show in which people are talking. Nothing unusual there. But notice that the screen never just shows the two people facing each other. The scene always goes back and forth between them: first one face, then the other face, back and forth, flash-flash-flash.
Does that happen in real life? No! The lower brain is seeing something absolutely impossible. It thinks that your own body is shifting in space faster than you could ever move. So it freaks out! It’s terrified.
The rest of your body knows that nothing is happening — your inner ear is calm, your muscles are relaxed, your higher brain is thinking about what the people are saying… and this incongruity between unnaturally fast scene changes and the relaxed state of the body makes the lower brain even more confused. Its attention is caught between confusion and terror, and it doesn’t want to look away. It’s too important to ignore.
And that’s just a scene with two people talking. Imagine how your brain feels about swooping and zooming through a car chase scene, blinking at high speed through an MTV-style commercial, and watching computer-generated images appearing out of nowhere.
Of course, television producers do this deliberately. Their research has shown that fast scene changes and unusual camera angles grab the attention. This is why commercials zip from scene to scene even faster than regular television shows.
Don’t think I’m making this up. Just because you don’t know your lower brain is freaking out doesn’t mean it’s not happening. The effect has been observed in brain scans.
This is why a two year old can sit and watch golf for hours, when she can’t sit still at a dinner table for 10 minutes. The scene keeps changing. The child’s brain is trying to figure out why the body is moving at impossible speeds while being completely relaxed.
The television itself binds the child to the chair just by using simple camera tricks.
3. It Makes the World Fuzzy.
Plato’s Cave children at least had one thing going for them that television viewers don’t. They had a whole wall look at.
Watching a tiny flat box filled with false colors doesn’t hurt your eyes (much). But your brain has to work hard to make sense of those fake images, and it’s a big strain — especially if your brain is young and is still trying to work out how to handle this whole “vision” thing.
When you’re watching television, all of your vision is restricted to the little box. Your peripheral vision isn’t used at all. Like everything else, peripheral vision is something that the brain needs to learn to use while its young; if it isn’t used, it doesn’t develop properly. So children who watch too much television end up with poor peripheral vision.
Television also presents a flat image, not a three-dimensional one. Children who watch too much television have poor depth perception. Big surprise.
The radiant light from television doesn’t present the eye with the full range of colors you see in the natural world. The light of the sun, already a much broader spectrum of wavelengths than any television can produce, reflects off the dizzying array of substances and textures in nature to produce an amazing variety of colors. Televisions just don’t do that. Children who watch too much TV can’t see colors as well.
Television images are not continuous. They are made up of a multitude of still images flashed every second. They are flashed so quickly, most television screens can’t show the full image before it starts showing the next one. The result is that you never see one complete image all at once. Instead, your vision centers have to make sense out of a mishmash of tumbling pictures. A developing brain trained to cope with mishmashed half-images has more trouble with real life’s full, continuous images. Children who watch too much television can’t focus as well.
It’s no wonder so many people in this country need glasses.
4. It Hypnotises You, and then Makes You Want Stuff.
In the early part of this century, the United States refused to grant a patent for the new television technology. Why?
Because the patent examiners studied its effects and determined that it was harmful. It had a clearly observable hypnotic effect. At that time, hypnosis had been known to Western science for over 50 years, and the power of hypnotic suggestion was known. The potential for abuse of this technology was too great.
But after World War II, thousands of soldiers came home traumatized by the effects of the fighting. They had depression, nightmares, and violent outbursts. The US government sought some way to alleviate their suffering and forestall widespread unrest. They realized that veterans who watched enough television had a significant reduction in the symptoms of post-traumatic stress syndrome. The government spent heavily to encourage the widespread adoption and use of television.
The 1950s sure was a quiet decade, wasn’t it?
Unfortunately for the government, the hypnotic effect is not as strong for those who have grown up with television. Post-traumatic stress syndrome returned to haunt the children of television who fought in Vietnam and the Gulf War.
5. It’s an Awful Teacher.
If you’re watching television, you’re not doing other things.
You’re not playing outside. You’re not learning a musical instrument. You’re not learning to read, or making friends, or painting, or drawing, or dancing, or counting, or singing, or making things out of clay, or feeding baby animals, or playing make-believe, or working in the garden, or learning to ride a bike. You’re not living.
You can watch people do these things on television, and you can learn a lot that way. But not as much as doing it yourself.
And you’ll learn better if your lower brain isn’t screaming in terror the whole time.
And sure, you can learn to do all this stuff, and watch television couple of hours a day, too. But how much more would you have learned if you had all those hours back?
Again, it hurts children the most. It’s a matter of opportunity cost. Every child has finite time and resources to put toward personal development. If you fill up that time with television, you may learn a little bit from the TV, but not nearly as much as if you’d been living.
Take our children. They watch no television at all. Having more quantity time to spend on their own development means that our children are starting to seriously excel in certain areas they’ve worked on with their own initiative.
Our eldest, who is 7, was never taught to read; but this summer she’s been working on things like Kipling’s Jungle Book, Stevenson’s Treasure Island, and Lewis’s Narnia series. She read three Harry Potter books twice in six days. When she was five, she used to come home from school and read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory cover-to-cover, and still have a couple of hours to play before dinner.
Our next-eldest, who is 5, cannot read — she’s only now beginning to show any interest in it at all. What she does is sing. Gods above, how she sings! She sings with words and without, tunes she’s learned and tunes she’s made up, with words she’s heard and words she’s made up, with varying tempos, with and without vibrato, always perfectly on key. She sings while she’s playing, almost constantly. In kindergarten, she sings completely un-selfconsciously; and when the other children know what she’s singing, they join in, so that the teachers will find the whole class spontaneously singing together. They have been amazed; and as Waldorf teachers, they have a great deal of musical training. They’ve never seen anything like it.
This isn’t stuff you learn from television.
6. It Makes Your Conversation Boring.
Maybe you’re afraid you’ll miss important “cultural references” at the office. What if all your friends have seen the latest episode of “This Show Is a Sorry Excuse for Entertainment” except you? And they say, “Wasn’t such-and-such great?” And you’re left out, because you were doing something else — practicing a musical instrument, writing your novel, starting your own business, playing with your kids, creating a culinary masterpiece…
Be glad you didn’t waste your life on that show. A week later, everyone will have forgotten about it.
7. It Makes Your Life Boring.
Do you think you’ll be bored without television?
If you want to have a life, you have to get reality. Get real, and get a life.
In the past year, I have watched exactly 2.75 hours of television. (Forty-five minutes of Star Trek, and two hours of “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”.) I haven’t been bored!
I moved to a new state and got a new job. I served on the Parent Council at my kids’ school. I wrote half a dozen short stories. I wrote a linguistics paper and presented it at a conference. I visited with family and friends. I played with my children every day. I read dozens of books. I learned to cook (somewhat). I practiced my banjo. I joined a Druid order and started a blog…
Maybe you’re thinking, “Well, I have a life already. I do lots of great stuff. And I watch television, too.”
That’s great. But count up how many hours you watch television each week, — each month! — and imagine how much better your life would be if you spent all that time living.
For more interesting thoughts on the relationship between boredom and television, check out Steve Pavlina’s post on Giving up TV.
8. It Makes You Normal.
Maybe you think it’s just weird to not watch television. It’s not normal, is it?
Personally, I think that if your friends and relatives don’t think you’re weird, then you’re doing something wrong. The whole world is crazy and skewed — everyone knows it, and too few of us are doing anything about it.
Normal people eat too much.
Normal people pollute the air, earth, and water by driving too much, throwing away plastic, and using chemical cleansers without giving it a second thought.
Normal people think what celebrities do is worth their attention.
Normal people say they don’t trust the government or the corporations, but they keep paying taxes and they keep buying things from Wal-Mart.
Normal people don’t like folks that act too smart.
Normal people usually do what they’re told.
The only way to fix the world is for us to act differently. That means acting outside the norm — acting weird. If you’re not acting weird, go out today, find someone who is, and thank them! They’re working hard to pick up your slack.
How To Stop Watching Television
Maybe you think it’s too hard to stop watching television. You enjoy your favorite shows too much to give them up. The children would scream and holler for weeks if you didn’t let them watch any TV. What would we DO if we weren’t watching television?
Well, it’s not that hard. Here’s how you do it:
METHOD 1: COLD TURKEY.
Arrange to be away from television for a few days. Go camping. Go to a park. Do something that will break your TV habit for just two or three days.
On your way out the door, throw the television in the trash (or recycle it, or donate it).
When you get back, you’ll find that your living room consists of a bunch of chairs and couches facing an empty wall. Rearrange it to be a social area instead of a viewing area. Set couches and chairs so that they face each other around a table with books on it. Sit down in them and talk to each other — just like you did while you were camping.
Now find a new habit to replace TV. Just about anything you try, you’ll like better than tv. What is it you like most about TV? Whatever it is, you can find a better way to get it. My wife and I found the perfect substitute: reading to each other. We sit together on the couch or in bed — just like watching TV — and then I read to her while she knits or does something else relaxing. It’s like we’re watching a show, snuggling and enjoying something together, except we’re (a) exercising our imaginations a lot more, (b) getting some quality entertainment or information, (c-y) getting none of the bad effects of tv, and (z) I get to exercise my considerable talents as a thespian.
It actually will be a lot easier than you think. Being away from the TV for a few days will show you that you don’t need the television to entertain you. You’ll be amazed at how fast you adjust.
For children, cold turkey is easier when they’re younger — say until about age five. You have complete control over their television viewing, so you can just take it away. They will complain for a few weeks, but then they’ll almost forget there ever was a TV. We went from 4-5 hrs. per week of TV to zero cold turkey, and dealt with complaints for six weeks. Then it was over… forever.
When the children are older, use weaning:
METHOD 2: WEANING.
Try eliminating one day of television at a time. And when you’ve got it down to just one day per week, start eliminating one show at a time. It’s easier if you eliminate earlier shows first (once you start watching, it’s hard to stop).
The less you watch, the less you’ll want to watch. When we whittled our watching habits down to one show, just one hour per week, we were so annoyed by the commercials we were almost relieved when our show was canceled. (Almost.)
When you get your TV watching down low enough, it actually gets hard to keep going. When you’re not used to television, a single hour of it can have strange effects. Last January my wife and I watched one Star Trek episode before bed. That night, she had a terrible headache, and I couldn’t sleep — which is a problem I NEVER have! We weren’t very eager to turn it on again.
Suppose you have trouble stopping? You watch your one show, and then the television tries to get you to watch the next show. We used to have a lot of trouble with that. The key is to find a replacement habit you really like. If you know you’re about to read the next chapter of Harry Potter and the Major Character Who Dies, it’s a lot easier to turn off the television.
Just about everybody knows TV is bad, but not many people are trying to do anything about it. Here are some resources:
The TV Turnoff Network people in particular have a lot of great resources for helping you kick the addiction.
A lot of information in this blog entry was drawn from Jerry Mander’s Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. I cannot recommend this book enough!
UPDATE Aug. 15 2006: For a somewhat less radical, but nevertheless eye-opening account, check out Steve Pavlina’s 8 Changes I Experienced After Giving Up TV. He gives a nice overview of his experiment with giving up television. He tried cold turkey, but he did it only for himself, not for his whole family. (Needless to say, I hope he succeeds in getting his wife and children to go along with him, for any one of the reasons I list here.) Most of his experience falls under my reason #6 and 7 (IT MAKES YOUR CONVERSATION and LIFE BORING): he engaged with the real world more deeply and powerfully. Definitely check it out.
UPDATE Sept. 5 2006: Also be sure to take a look at Terry’s site, tvsmarter.com. Some of the feedback I’ve gotten on this article suggests that my article is a little weak on the supporting evidence. Terry takes care of that, and more. It’s unbelievable to see how much research is gathered there.
- Fiction and the Shamanic Journey
- Four Small Children, One Long Drive, Zero Televisions
- Do Evil Spirits Exist?
- Thor’s Stroll
- The Source of Human Intelligence
- The Narnian Tarot
- Hearing the Song of the World
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