Moving images capture us, pull us in.
But the plot keeps us watching.
As television technology advanced so did plot. The intricacies of shows have increased drastically. In Everything Bad is Good for You Johnston contrasts the plot lines for early TV shows with later. Shows in the 70’s like Starsky and Hutch follow a very linear plot line. Each episode contained two characters moving in a linear direction toward a conclusion.
Tv has gotten a lot harder since then. To keep up with an episode of 24 your brain has to keep up with 10 or so plot-lines, and crazy character-relations. It demands our brain pay attention to keep up. Video games are also discussed in the same vein. They force your brain to figure out how to interact with a world with different physics, and each game has different rules. (Gladwel talks about this idea of television making us smarter in The New Yorker).
Hayles talks about the down side of this. Games and TV are training our brain to be hyper-attentive. We have to focus on 10 plot lines, or 10 enemies. Our brains are being trained to multi-task. Reading books is on the decline. The deep-concentration needed to read a book is a learned/trained ability.
Linda Stone goes into a detailed analysis of this societal transition to hyper-attention-minded. At the end she points out that many people in the west are currently experimenting with meditation and yoga. Studies on meditation have shown it actually alters the structure of the brain by “[increasing the] thickness in parts of the brain that deal with attention and processing sensory input.” (Harvard Gazette). Scientists believe meditation activates the anterior cingulate cortex, which is associated with attention deficit disorder. (PsychCentral).
“As a single footstep will not make a path on the earth, so a single thought will not make a pathway in the mind. To make a deep physical path, we walk again and again. To make a deep mental path, we must think over and over the kind of thoughts we wish to dominate our lives.”Henry David Thoreau (1817-1862)
If we do not practice ‘deep-focus’ that part of mind dwindles.
We take it upon ourselves to eat in a balanced way. That makes us healthy. Similarly, we should be aware of the types of media we absorb mentally. The type of cognitive exercise you get from video games and TV are completely different than that of the book. Books give you an in-depth analysis of a subject. There is absolutely no replacement for the mental role it plays. You cannot get around reading books. The same mindset should be displayed towards video games. You should not marginalize the acts of deep-concentration or hyper-attention.
“Being “smart” involves facility in both kinds of thinking—the kind of fluid problem solving that matters in things like video games and I.Q. tests, but also the kind of crystallized knowledge that comes from explicit learning” – New Yorker
Hayles asks what we should do about the generation who’s brains are being primed by media that leads to a hyper-attentive state of mind. They could be medicated into a state of concentration, like fighter pilots, with methamphetamines (Ritalin/Adderall). This type of relation to mind-changing drugs is something we must question as a society. Whats wrong with taking a pill to put you in an incredibly concentrated state? Its refered to as cosmetic neurology – the ability to alter mind states as easily as we alter our appearance with makeup. Its a huge ethical debate. Another option is to study and institutionalize meditation, since it helps develop the section of the brain that is used during deep-concentration.
Whatever the answer, the craziness of todays communication technology is not going to let up. Society is swept up in this hyper-alert mode of operation. Perhaps having an institutionalized ‘downtime’ isn’t a bad idea; thirty minuets of the day to sit and reflect. We need it to help our brain-box’s cope.