©Arlene R. Taylor PhD

Spend time every day honing your active mental picturing abilities (e.g., actively creating something with your own brain). Reading a book or listening to an audio book is considered more stimulating and challenging to your brain than watching the average movie, video, or television program. 

When you read a book or read a piece of music, your occipital and frontal brain areas are activated. Your brain creates its own internal movie, in effect, which helps to enhance creative intelligent memory; the type of memory that can improve with age. (This as compared to both declarative and non-declarative types of memory that tend to weaken with age.)

In 20/20 Thinking, Greenland-Robinson reported on Cleveland Clinic studies that showed watching television for an average of four hours a day was linked to a higher risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t watch any television. In fact, some studies have recommended watching about an hour a day of carefully selected programming.

Studies concluded that those who watched no television showed outcomes similar to those who watched more than an hour a day. Similar studies with children have shown similar outcomes. Children who watched TV an hour per day did better in school than those who watched none or watched for more than an hour a day.

Emerging research indicates that, in the words of Horstman, “TV addiction is no mere metaphor.” Estimates are that watching television is the world’s most popular leisure activity to the tune of about three hours a day. This is approximately half of available leisure time on a daily basis, more than any other single activity except for work and for sleep.

Percy Tannenbaum of the University of California at Berkeley has written:

Among life’s more embarrassing moments have been countless occasions when I am engaged in conversation in a room while a TV set is on, and I cannot for the life of me stop from periodically glancing over to the screen. This occurs not only during dull conversations but during reasonably interesting ones just as well.

The pull toward television is not about the program content. It has more to do with a person’s neurobiology and the form of presentation. The brain tends to like novelty and variety, and tends to find the unique interesting. It exhibits a distinctive auditory or visual reflex reaction to a change in its environment.

Known as the orienting response, this function likely is part of a survival sensitivity that helps the brain identify potential threats from others (e.g., predators) as well as detect movement. This initial attention to environmental stimuli tends to make the animal or person more sensitive to the stimulation (e.g., the pupil of your eye dilates in response to dim light in the environment).

According to Wikipedia, this phenomenon was first described by Russian physiologist Sechenov in the 1850s in his book Reflexes of the Brain. The term itself was coined by another Russian physiologist, Ivan Pavlov, who observed behavioral changes in dogs that included attention signs such as pricked-up ears, head turned toward the stimulus, and increased muscular tension.

A variety of physiological changes are now associated with the orienting response such as dilation of blood vessels to the brain, constriction of blood vessels to major muscle groups, slowing of heartbeats, and the blocking of brain alpha waves for a few seconds. This tends to quiet the body while the brain focuses its attention on the screen, all of which have implications for television viewing.

Researchers have discovered that features of television such as sudden noises, rapid picture changes, zooms, pans, edits, cuts, and you name it, tend to activate the brain’s orienting response and keep it focused on the screen. It also dulls the brain. EEG studies have shown less mental stimulation during television viewing than during reading. An overly sensitive orienting response has been connected to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Some individuals report signs of withdrawal when they cut back television viewing, a sign of some type of addiction.

Minimize the amount of time you spend in passive-picturing activities (e.g., processing what someone else has created) in favor of activities that hone active mental picturing. Read books, play games, engage in stimulating conversations.

Note: There is even a place for some computer games according to Dr. Richard Restak: those that simulate real experiences such as flying an airplane or driving a racing car. These types of games demand a shift from left to right hemisphere functioning, while many other computer games simply help to hone motor skills.