Listen to an interview with someone who’s highly accomplished in anything, anything at all. Anybody. Watch a dozen of these interviews and the same exchange is going to come up at least a few times:
Interviewer: How do you find time to get so much done?
Interviewee: Well, for starters, I don’t watch The Television.
TV’s the great reducer of life’s possibilities, but that’s an old complaint and isn’t my sticking point.
If I need to write I have to avoid TV and my laptop. I’ve found that if I browser-surf or channel-flick and then try to write, I can’t get a clear sentence out, and several hours are spent trying to bring a flow back through my head.
Watch too much TV or stay on the laptop too long and your head gets foggy slow. I read somewhere that the rates at which screens flash (or the glow of the screens) cause the brain to slip into Alpha waves, which normally only happens when the person is about to fall asleep, or has just fallen asleep. But I think there’s more to it.
When you’re watching TV you’re perceiving visuals and audio. Scenes and voices move quickly, and all you can do is passively absorb – you observe, with little time to understand at a level deeper than This Is What’s Happening Right At This Moment. It is a constant stream of information you can only absorb without time to process.
The same applies for the internet, observing memes, videos, GIFs, ads, pics. Even if you’re reading an article on the astrophysical import of the Higgs Boson, chances are your mind is still passively absorbing ads, links, pictures… endless information inundating your brain from the peripheries of the article.
Passive observation of screens is cognitively different than reading a book (Hey, I write fiction, let me defend, man). When you read literature you don’t observe the information on the page, and you do much more than absorb the information – you process the information. You absorb the page’s information at a pace that allows you time to process and to actively imagine the sights, sounds, voices, and to understand the contexts, metaphors, themes, meanings.
Compared to cinema and GIF-ery, literature engages a much deeper part of the brain because it requires the reader to do far more than observe and absorb. Literature, even The Notebook and Twilight, requires the reader to think.
I think it’s much more difficult to process the information we get from TV’s and webpages because we are being given so much information, quickly and all at once – the always-moving images and voices on TV or the plethora of ads and links and pictures on a webpage. TV and the internet inundate people with information they have no time to process at a level any deeper than passive observation.
And that’s why I can’t watch How I Met Your Mother or get lost on Tumblr – it shuts off the deeper parts of the brain that produce creativity and higher thought.
Further thought: If the information age has brought about information overload, where we are constantly bombarded with information to absorb, what does this mean about our ability to process information, to sit down and take time to ponder? Do we have time to ponder? Can we sit and think when the flow of information never ceases?
Put down Heidegger (who?), your buddy just posted selfies with Kim Kardashian’s ass at a Patriot’s game.