Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Meditation, TV and the Reptillian Brain

I've been meditating on the following excerpts of Interior Castle rather intently for the last few days:

8. I, myself, have sometimes been troubled by this turmoil of thoughts. I learnt by experience, but little more than four years ago, that our thoughts, or it is clearer to call it our imagination, are not the same thing as the understanding...As the understanding is one of the powers of the soul, it puzzled me to see it so sluggish at times, while, as a rule, the imagination takes flight at once, so that God alone can control it by so uniting us to Himself that we seem, in a manner, detached from our bodies. It puzzled me to see that while to all appearance the powers of the soul were occupied with God and recollected in Him, the imagination was wandering elsewhere.

10. Whilst writing this I am thinking of the loud noise in my head which I mentioned in the Introduction, and which has made it almost impossible to obey the command given me to write this. It sounds as if there were a number of rushing waterfalls within my brain, while in other parts, drowned by the sound of the waters, are the voices of birds singing and whistling. This tumult is not in my ears, but in the upper part of my head, where, they say, is placed the superior part of the soul. I have long thought that this must be so because the flight of the spirit seems to take place from this part with great velocity.

 --The 4th Mansion, Ch 1.
Emphasis mine.

Not too many years ago, when I first got into marketing, I had to learn what triggers potential interest in various products. This research led me to, of course, television.  If you want to research this on your own, simply go to your favorite search engine and type the words TELEVISION BRAIN.

The first thing I learned is that there are three areas of the human brain, and that these areas are responsible for different forms of brain activity:

Neocortex, the highest form of brain activity where intellect, reason and imagination reside.

Limbic, the secondary form of brain activity where our feelings and reactions are processed.

Reptillian, the most basic form of brain activity best described as "survival mode".

I hope anyone who is reading or has read Interior Castle just had an A-HA moment when they got to the word "Reptillian".  (Teresa repeatedly refers to creatures living within the castles who would lead us out of prayer as reptiles).

In advertising, the goal is to trigger need for any given product, and essentially it's most desireable to cut through the intellect and emotion and go straight to that Reptillian brain. Television, as it turns out, is a magnificent device for this very goal, because by design TV does exactly this. No joke. It's been studied extensively since the 1960s.

When we're plopped down in front of the old idiot box, we respond to what we see on a very base level. EEG monitoring of brain activity detects a shift of certain thought patterns into a more passive state while watching television, regardless the program.

Other studies theorize a three-view process by which television drills information into our reptillian minds. The first time we see a show, film or commercial, we have a strong physiological response. A second viewing elicits a lesser response, and a third none at all. The second and third viewings reinforce the original response, because we remember the reaction we had when first exposed to the image. With "survival mode" reinforced, we alter our behavior accordingly, often in spite of our intellect. Television, therefore, can play a substantial role in conditioning our actions, beliefs and attitudes. Advertisers have used these theories for years. It's why many of you believe an engagement ring is supposed to cost two months salary.

The neocortex is rarely, if ever, engaged while watching television.

There are other factors thought to be involved as well. The rise in endorphin levels while watching television are compared to those in runners. Next time you watch CSI: Miami or some action film, be mindful of your physiological responses. Migraines are thought to be withdrawl symptoms when TV viewing suddenly decreases. Excessive television viewing has been suggested as a link to the rise of ADD, ADHD, Autism and other neurological disorders. All this before factoring in television content, which is further believed to cause behavioral problems in children and adolescents (read from any of the articles listed here), and intensifies conditions ranging from chronic depression to anger management issues in adults.

(Note: I found only one document refuting commonly held findings regarding TV's effects on the human brain, and surprise, it was produced from within the television industry. The Children's Television Network document titled "Television and the Brain: A Review" by Katherine V. Fite, contains little more than glorified "nuh-uh's" and a few creative spins on EEG results. I also found it rather disturbing that Fite chose to cite findings on adult subjects to disprove television's negative effects on the still-developing minds of children.)


Review the excerpts from Interior Castle I posted at the beginning of this post. Teresa of Avila, Doctor of the Church, describes the mind in prayer as using imagination and very high thought. She even discusses the physical location of our soul's activity as being in the front of the brain, which is where we find the neocortex. Prayer and meditation in the Catholic sense requires our intellect, imagination and ability to reason. While praying a Rosary, for example, we meditate on the life of Christ: we recall specific events, think about corresponding Scripture, try to imagine the details, and find meaning in these events for our own lives. Another example is Lectio Divinia, where we meditate on the meaning of a word, sentence or section of Scripture in many contexts order to fully understand what we've read. This kind of meditation requires the activity of the neocortex.

What can happen to my ability to pray if I'm spending 4 to 6 hours in front of the television, not using my neocortex, the very part of the brain that St. Teresa relies upon in order to experience Sweetness in Prayer (the title, by the way, of the chapter I quoted above)?

Think again about television being a delivery method of information into our reptilian brain. What about programming that exaggerates problems, distorts facts or presents revisionist historical information about faith, religion, our Church, God, Christ, Mary, priests, nuns, Catholics, morality...?

What about other programming? Network TV constantly pushes the morality envelope with content; cable tore through that envelope from the the word go. If our reptilian brain is conditioned to stop reacting to the immoral behavior we're seeing on TV, what happens to our moral compass?

If we don't shut the TV off long enough to intellectually process what we've watched, what will we become?

My husband and I talked about drastically limiting our television viewing as a Lenten sacrifice. The more I process all this information through my neocortex apart from the tube, the more convinced I am that we're on the right track.


Eddie Ray said...

Great insight.........
I never realized how dangerous the television is. It is literally "Mind Control" A good example is when I talked to people who came back from Iraq and looked at the news and said "WOW"....That's nothing like what is really going on. They don't call it the "Boob Tube" for nothing........

Gina said...

Eddie Ray, you're right. I know several myself who said the same thing. People shouldn't use the TV as a resource for information or educational matter. Reading has always been the best way to learn. It engages the neocortex primarily, and you process the information inward.

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