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Is Watching Television Really a Bad Thing?

Television has been blamed for ADHD, declining literacy rates, the destruction of culture, and increasingly unrealistic beauty standards, among other things. When you hear all that, it would almost seem like our desire to watch T.V. is some sort of rapidly progressing death wish! Or maybe I’ve just been watching too many daytime telenovelas …

But is television really a bad thing, or is it how we use it that determines the value it holds?

Your Brain Needs Pictures

The human brain renders an image based on the input it receives from our five senses. Multiple areas of the brain come together to create these images, which are then recorded as memory. Recognition is one of the first steps your brain takes when processing visual information. It scans your memory banks and reshapes itself to situate the new information. The scientific term for this reshaping is Neural Plasticity.

We used to think that the brain only changed throughout our early developmental years, but discoveries made throughout the 20th century have shown us that our brains actually continue to change and shift over the course of our entire lives. When the brain encounters new information, it goes to work reshaping itself as it processes the meaning of this new idea.

How You Use Something Determines the Value it Holds

Everything we do and experience becomes a part of how we interpret the world around us. This feeds back in on itself in a loop: our interpretations determine how we will interpret new information in the future. So, basically, what you watch doesn’t matter as much as how you process what you watch.

And maybe that’s the problem.

Maybe it’s not television. Cognitive thinking relies on reason and logic. We have to be taught how to think well. There has a been a distinct lack of this in the American educational system for more than a decade. Is television the problem, or is it our ability to coherently process a thought.

Are we taking the effect and making it the cause?

Television is often demonized by educational programs and academic studies, all of which seem to share a common idea: watching T.V. is bad for your brain. This concern was raised almost as soon as television sets began appearing in people’s households, and it’s no stranger to the Scifi circuit either. Ray Bradbury’s most famous work, Fahrenheit 457, shows us a society that has banned books but remains enslaved to entertainment—primarily television. If you prefer a more humorous approach to subject, give the movie Idiocracy a watch.

Yes. I just suggested that you watch a movie which gives a futuristic depiction of why watching too many movies is bad for humanity. You see, there’s a real power to story-telling. It has the potential to literally shift the way people think about themselves and the world around them, but not everyone is a strong reader.

Could watching a strong character navigate the pitfalls of life actually help us to do the same?

Can watching historical movies that depict the hardships of history cause us to gain a better sense of empathy and understanding?

Can we learn to love each other simply by becoming used to new cultures through the relatively safe space of a screen?

People are prone to attack what they don’t understand, after all. The brain is geared to recognize the “new” and “unrecognizable” as a potential threat. But new generations live in a much smaller world. Thanks to television and the internet, they have a window that allows instant access to cultures around the world.

By the time they reach adulthood, there isn’t going to be a lot that’s totally new to today’s youth. When they travel the world, their brain will already have a reference point for where they’re going. When they experience a new culture, they will already have a foundation laid to understand and appreciate that culture.

Please Watch Responsibly

So, it would seem that television isn’t bad if it’s used in the right way. If we claim personal responsibility and use television as the tool it could be, then we might actually see that it can be a huge benefit. Perhaps the only reason we don’t see this is because we have always looked at T.V. as a potentially bad thing.

Maybe all we need is a new reference point.

People Learn in Their Own Ways

There are five main styles of learning: Visual, Logical, Verbal, and Aural. Everyone learns using a unique combination of these styles. For a person inclined to learning visually, television could prove to be a huge benefit. These people have vivid imaginations, an excellent sense of spatial relations, and they often think in pictures and images. It is also easier for them to understand something when it is represented pictorially.

Visual learners aren’t necessarily bad at reading, though some of them may find it tedious. Visual readers—a facet of visual learning—are actually very strong readers. The idea isn’t that visual learners can only learn from television, it’s that using television in combination with other styles could enhance their learning experience.

Bring On the Movies

If the brain reshapes itself when it is presented with new visual information, then couldn’t watching T.V. actually prove to be a benefit? Think about it. We can instantly see new things, hear new accents, experience new cultures, and even take a trip into fantastik worlds that don’t actually exist.

We can walk down the streets of Victorian London, or take a trip to the moon, just by watching something. We can experience a thing without ever actually experiencing it. Isn’t that the point of a good story?

Isn’t the whole point of stories to pass down information, world views, and ideas?

Story Therapy and Television

In Bradbury Therapy and the Healing Power of Stories, we talked about how books can help people to shift their inner narrative. This shift can heal emotional traumas, curtail unproductive behaviors and thoughts, and generally improve a person’s life. As we take in the stories, we’re reshaping our brains and changing how they process things.

This brings me to a deep question: can we heal ourselves through the movies and television shows we watch and share with one another? Is it possible that when someone nerds out over a show, it’s because there’s an element to it that actually has mental health benefits?


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