My blog contains a large number of posts. A few are included in various other publications, or as attached stories and chronicles in my emails; many more are found on loose leaves, while some are written carelessly in margins and blank spaces of my notebooks. Of the last sort most are nonsense, now often unintelligible even when legible, or half-remembered fragments. Enjoy responsibly.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Wired for Distraction by William Kanapaux

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 visual images.

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 to concentrate?

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 surroundings.

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 to concentrate?

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 us.

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.


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