“But where there is danger, there grows also what saves.” Friedrich Hölderlin Attention is our most limited resource. William James proposed…
I remember some time ago standing outside a video shop and watching a mother with her twin daughters inside. The woman was chatting to the video shop owner while her daughters, drifting aimlessly behind her back, had turned to face a television set elevated on a wall. A flat screen projected a common Hollywood scene of two men fighting to the death.
I mentally conjured up a re-enactment of this same scene, but this time in real life. So we have a mother quietly comparing DVD options while behind her two grown men punch, kick, headbutt, and bash each other.
Now had this happened in real life, we could fairly well predict a mother’s reaction to finding her treasured children inside this house of horror: she would desperately whisk them away to safety. Perhaps later, she’d ask them to relate back the experience just to ensure they weren’t experiencing some form of post traumatic stress. No mother wants her nine-year-old daughters to carry around that sort of experience for life.
Blinds closed, lights off, easy chairs pulled close to the box, I often think about the billions plonked in front of their television sets (or more recently computer screens) at night. Others trot off to public viewing houses, like the cinema, to get their fare of sex, murders, mutilation and whatnot. But, what has frequently stumped me is this: were these exact events enacted in real life these very same folk would voice all manner of complaints – “voyeuristic,” “sordid”, and “violent”. They’d priggishly turn their gaze away from the sex scenes; they’d gasp at the massacres and cruelty, clutching their pearls in indignation. But when the scene is on a screen, these people classify their viewing experience as “informative”, “entertaining”, even “art”.
The general consensus seems to be that events played out on a screen are somehow different to those we witness in real life. For starters, in real life you can act upon something you witness. If there’s an attempted murder outside your home then you could, and probably should, do something about it. When two men fight each other to the death in a video shop, then your duty of care as parent is to get your children out of harm’s way.
In 1919, psychoanalyst Dr Viktor Tausk wrote On the Origin of the ‘Influencing Machine’ in Schizophrenia, in which he details the experience of a number of his schizophrenic patients. Tausk’s schizophrenic patients were convinced that their problems were caused by an “influencing machine”, or “small black box” that was capable of imprinting flat images into their brain. According to the patients, the “influencing machine” could produce thoughts and feelings as well as removing their own internally-generated ones.
The difficulty for schizophrenic patients was separating feelings, thoughts and sensations that were personally created, as opposed to those beamed into them by “the machine”. (Of course, their ‘box’ was a figment of their imagination; 99 per cent of households today are relieved of the burden of such creativity.)
Personal memories are the wellspring of creativity, personality, individuality, and character. Our memories, thoughts, and feelings are what make us us. I vividly remember slow rain-filled days in primary school, hundreds of children huddled under tin shelters as the rain descended. The pungent smell of damp woollen jumpers and fermenting lunches still lingers in the cells of my brain, easily recalled – a personal memory of my childhood linking me to the person I’ve become. Today, on rainy days, lazy teachers place children face flat in front of black boxes to watch a DVD. Instead of pondering the rain, children gaze at images on a screen, the likes of fire-breathing dragons and dancing penguins. The children are entertained; they don’t fight it, barely moving, zombie-like, and teachers get a moment of respite from the day’s push and shove. But how do children know how to separate their own thoughts from the images imprinted on their brains by the machine?
One thing’s for sure: we know that the physical body cannot tell the difference. Want to create a champion sportsperson? Then teach her to visualise. Get her to conjure up a successful performance; get her to run through the routine, step by step, in her mind. Get her to visualise her best.
In a 1976 article in Psychology Today, Dr Richard Suinn, describes the method by which he mentally prepared skiers for the Olympics. “I instructed the skiers to practise their athletic skills by using mental imagery,” he wrote. “Jean-Caude Killy, a three-gold-medal skier, reported that his only preparation for one race was to ski it mentally. He was recovering from an injury at the time and couldn’t practise on the slopes. Kelly says the race turned out to be one of his best.”
“During one experiment,” Suinn continues, “I recorded the electromyography responses of an Alpine skier racer as he summoned up a moment-by-moment imagery of a downhill race… Muscle bursts appeared as the skier ‘hit jumps’… His EMG recordings almost mirrored the course itself.”
Research shows that images held in the mind produce physiological responses. In other words, our nervous system responds to the images we carry in our heads.
Until the late 1920s, most images in our heads were our own. Books, indeed, transport us in imagination to different times and places – but the image conjured up and retained in the brain from reading text is owned and controlled by us. We are the directors of the ‘film’ in our mind even though we may not be its narrator.
In the 1930s colour photographs appeared on the scene, however the quality was poor and the technology wasn’t widely available. After the Second World War there was a shift. Powerful image-generators were locked down in homes, manufacturing, second by second, a vast array of images, repetitively, vividly, and seductively for its burgeoning audience. Thanks to television, humans began to carry machine-generated imagery as well as their own internally-produced images around in their heads. And, as we all know, once inside the mind, artificial images – just like the real ones we experience in our lives – remain there for good. Can you wipe the image of a famous person from your mind, or the nightly newsreader, or the main character from a recent movie you watched?
Of course, the mother at that video outlet mightn’t have cared less what her children watched. Indeed, as she probably figured, her children will live to see much, much worse. As flourishing adults, her two daughters will witness on ‘the box’ multiple wars and natural disasters, car and plane crashes, terrorist attacks, rape, kidnapping, assault, and abuse. And over time, the numbness will begin to settle in, washing over them like dust. The sensitive, artistic types may suffer the worst of it – concentration difficulties, hyper-vigilance, irritability, nightmares, and flashbacks – and everyone, to some degree, will experience a loss of interest in the small moments in life.
Back in 1978, author Jerry Mander wrote a polemical book called Four Arguments For the Elimination of Television. Mander writes: “When you are watching TV, you are experiencing mental images… these mental images are not yours. They are someone else’s. Because the rest of your capabilities have been subdued, and the rest of the world dimmed, these images are likely to have an extraordinary degree of influence. Am I to say this is brainwashing or hypnosis or mind-zapping or something like this? Well, there is no question that someone is speaking into your mind and wants you to do something:
First, keep watching.
Second, carry the images around
in your head.
Third, buy something.
Fourth, tune in tomorrow.”
From the ‘technology’ edition of New Philosopher – you can buy a copy from our online store.