When you have kids, it’s hard not to notice the correlation between their outputs (behavior, etc.) and their inputs (what they watch on TV, whom they play with, etc.). We don’t watch very much television in our family. When we do watch something, we generally try to use educational programming (for example, a Nova video about lightning.) I found our kids are typically very interested in these types of videos and are engaged and asking questions about what is being said and shown.
However, they are only engaged and interested when they haven’t watched any “entertainment-style” programming. If they have seen a cartoon recently, they aren’t nearly as interested in the educational content. My theory is that when they are only watching educational content, their expectations adjust to expect to learn when they are sitting in front of the television. When they have seen a few hours of entertainment, their brains decide to switch off in front of the TV. The educational content doesn’t keep their attention without the active engagement of their thought processes and they wonder off.
As you can imagine, once we realized what was going on we decided to drastically limit the amount of entertainment programming we show them in order to get most out of the educational content we want them to learn from.
But this post isn’t about children watching television. The experience made me wonder if perhaps the adult mind works the same way. If I feed myself a steady diet of entertainment television, is that going to make me less capable of learning from other experiences?
When I was working on my bachelor’s degree in music, I found that it was much harder for me to memorize music if I had watched a lot of television or movies. As as result, I stopped going to see movies with friends during the periods when I needed to do a lot of memorization.
I’m not saying you shouldn’t watch any TV, but it is probably worth considering how your television watching habits can effect your ability to think clearly. Here are some things to consider:
1. Is your mind engaged?
There are are a lot of different ways to “watch TV.” Some people just like to have the TV on for “background noise.” Others like to “veg” and “channel surf.” Still others like to watch a show and then discuss the plot, moral implications, etc. Obviously there are big differences between these different ways of watching. Personally, I find the less-engaged styles of watching television to be harmful–at least for me. Using a TV for “background” noise isn’t something that seems to be very useful, but perhaps that is because I know I’m bad at multi-tasking.
2. Quantity matters.
The amount of time you are willing to invest in watching television will probably have an impact on how sharp your mind is. How much is too much? There probably aren’t any hard and fast rules, but you should really look for signs that your brain is just shutting off. If you see so much television that you can watch a movie and not remember the basic plot 9 to 12 months later, it is probably a sign that your mind is not engaged.
Now is that bad? What real advantage is there to remembering movie plots? The point isn’t to try to remember the storyline of a movie, but just to see if you are teaching your mind to shut off or remain active. If your mind is shutting off, you should probably be careful to make sure you aren’t developing thinking habits that could have negative effects outside of your entertainment activities.
3. Television and sleep.
Another thing to watch out for when it comes to television is how it affects your sleep. Many people watch television at night before going to bed. Our bodies are wired to get tired when it gets dark. Spending a couple hours staring at bright lights from a television can start messing with your ability to fall asleep when you should and lack of sleep is one of the most common ways people damage their cognitive performance.
Television isn’t necessarily a good or bad thing, but how we utilize it can have a significant impact our our ability to think, concentrate, learn and perform. It is worth taking some time to think through whether we are happy with the entertainment habits we’ve formed or whether an adjustment is in order to steer our mental facilities in a direction we’ll be happier with 5 years down the road.