Morris Wolfe - Essays, New & Selected

WATCHING BIG BROTHER

In Jolts (1985), now out of print, I speculated on the implications of living in an increasingly high JPM world.

Tittle is known for certain about the physiology of watching television — exactly what the brain does to and with the material our eyes take in from the TV screen. All one can do is make educated guesses. The model of how the brain works that makes most sense to me is that set forth by Paul MacLean, head of the Laboratory for Brain Evolution and Behaviour at the National Institute for Mental Health in Washington. His view has been elaborated on by Arthur Koestler, among others.

According to the MacLean model, the brain consists of essentially two parts — the neocortex (new brain) and the paleocortex (old brain). The neocortex, the outer layer, is the newest and most highly developed part of the brain. It is the seat of logic and verbal language; it’s the centre of our rational faculties and of voluntary behaviour.

The older and relatively primitive paleocortex, which occupies the large central portion of the brain, has been inherited from our reptilian and mammalian past. (“Speaking allegorically,” says MacLean, “when a psychiatrist bids a patient to lie on the couch, he is asking him to stretch out alongside a horse and a crocodile.”) The paleocortex is compulsive, ritualistic, addicted to precedent. It’s the seat of our feelings, our passions and what Jung called our “collective unconscious.” Our understanding of symbolic (non-verbal) language is centred in the paleocortex, which functions viscerally. It controls our autonomic nervous system — those parts of the body (the glands, for example) that are not usually subject to conscious control.

Central to the paleocortex or old brain is the hippocampus; it collects all our sensations and relays bits and pieces of this information to other parts of the brain. The hippocampus appears to affect all brain activity; it can excite or inhibit our thinking or our emotions. The hippocampus is especially responsive to the content of high JPM television. It “likes” loud sounds, things that move a lot, sexual explicitness and innuendo, physical and verbal acts of aggression. That’s the kind of language the old brain not only understands but thrives on — the language of the hunt. That language, gets our juices flowing and rewards us with pleasurable feelings. But while that’s happening, the higher functions of the brain, those located in the neocortex and involved in cognitive functions — analysis and judgment — are turned off. Which helps explain the mindless, passive appearance we often have when sitting in front of a television set (or a fireplace, for that matter).

The fact is we are dealing here with a reward system that is irrational, not in our best interests as human beings. As Aldous Huxley suggested, our glandular system, which is “admirably well adapted to life in palaeolithic times,” is not at all well suited to life now. We produce far more adrenalin than is good for us. Arthur Koestler’s view is even more gloomy. He believed that the human brain suffered from an evolutionary “design error,” a split between our thought and our feelings, between the human and the animal in us that couldn’t be bridged. The only solution, he felt, was biochemical intervention, a kind of physiological censorship. In Norman Jewison’s film Rollerball, the only outlet for aggression permitted by rulers is rollerball, a savage game which combines the most violent elements of hockey, roller derby, motorcycle racing and the martial arts.

Not only is it possible to become addicted to high JPM television, but many of us do. The amount of time the average person spends watching TV continues to increase. In the U.S. it’s thirty hours a week, about an hour more per day than in Canada. The process, I suspect, is not unlike that which occurs when rats who’ve had electrodes implanted in the pleasure centres of their brains continue to stimulate themselves even at the expense of doing their bodies harm — starving, for example. (In his novel Mind Killer, Spider Robinson projects us into a future world in which people “give themselves over to the ultimate addiction: they stimulate their cerebral pleasure centres directly with pulses of electric current.” In David Cronenberg’s Videodrome, a futurist film about our insatiable appetite for ever more jolts from television, poor people — those who have no TV sets — go to a Cathode Ray Mission. They go not to eat, as poor people of an earlier time might, but to spend time in a private booth with a television set, absorbing their daily doses of high JPM television.)

There are groups — the National Coalition on Television Violence in the U.S., for example — who are convinced that anyone who watches ten to fifteen hours of high JPM television a week “is unconsciously affected in a harmful way. The most common effects,” they write, “are significant increases in anger and irritability and a desensitization towards violence.” (The networks reject this conclusion; they, of course, have done research that proves the contrary.) According to George Gerbner, TV causes those who watch more than four hours a day to find the world more dangerous than those who watch it two hours or less.

Michelle Landsberg has written, echoing Neil Postman’s The Disappearance of Childhood, that “One of the most devastating charges that future generations will be able to hurl against the TV merchandisers is that they stole away the child’s birthright of play. Teachers report that children have lost not only the knowledge of the old games — the rhymes, chants and rules — but even the imaginative power to invent new ones. Parents say that when they limit their children’s TV-watching to a well-chosen half-hour each day, the youngsters’ resilience, energy, good humour, and playfulness come surging back.”

Watching Big Brother, continued > 


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