Television: Tune Into Static

[This article originally appeared in Salient a couple of weeks ago. I’m resisting any temptations to rewrite or expand it.]

Television: Tune Into Static

by Billy the dancing moose (

Do you watch television? Or play Playstation or Xbox on a television set?
Congratulations. You’re a drug addict. But not in the way you may think.

People often tell me they watch television to relax. Of course, given the physiological effects of the medium of television on the human brain – not the content – it is actually impossible not to relax while watching television.

This is Your Brain on Television

Within about 30 seconds, your brain waves change from mostly beta-waves, indicating awareness and alert attention, to mostly alpha-waves, indicating a daydream-like state and a receptive lack of attention. (An activity like reading, by contrast, produces mostly beta-waves.) Further, the left hemisphere of the brain, the logical/analytic centre, tunes out while watching television, and processing switches to the right hemisphere, which deals less with rational processes and more with non-linear emotional processes.

Does this sound like old news? It certainly should, as it has been known for decades. The research covered above is that of Herbert Krugman in 1969. In his words “…the basic electrical response of the brain is clearly to the medium and not to content difference…. [Television is] a communication medium that effortlessly transmits huge quantities of information not thought about at the time of exposure.” (Need I point out that Krugman is one of the pioneers of modern advertising?)

When brain activity switches from the left to right hemisphere, it releases a spike of endorphins, beta-endorphins and enkephalins. Endorphins react on the opioid receptors in the brain – the same receptors as the opiate class of drugs (opium, heroin, morphine, etc) react with. While produced naturally in the body, endorphins are structurally identical to opium and opium derivatives.

Drumroll please… you’re a fucking junkie. If you are a heavy television user and attempt to stop watching television long term, you will experience anxiety, frustration, and depression. (Hey, aren’t these the very sensations you watch television to alleviate, and chill out from?) Studies have shown that TV is tough to kick – especially for the poor (or most of us) – with similar withdrawal symptoms to kicking heroin.

The Engine of Public Manipulation

Watching TV produces an altered state in the viewer, a dissociated chemical trance of the same type as that of extremely addictive and illegal drugs, yet televisions are ubiquitous, and vast numbers of ordinary citizens watch television many hours a day.

Why is this state of affairs allowed? The powers of State which make marijuana, psychedelics, nitrous oxide, and now even party pills illegal, benefit from the populace being hooked on television. And the powers of Commerce benefit from a captive narcotized audience.

Since JFK and Camelot, modern politics is conducted by television.

But when we watch television, the higher brain function regions (midbrain and neocortex) shut down, and we are less able to process information critically. Most activity shifts to lower brain regions, like the limbic system, otherwise known as the reptile brain, the home of our deeply embedded “fight or flight” reactions. These largely operate outside of conscious awareness.

Politicians exploit this by appealing to our base drives. Have you noticed during the ridiculous, impossible, and frankly non-existent “War on Terror”, that we are exhorted to be very very afraid of the boogeyman? (I mean, Islamic Fundamentalist Terrorists.) No matter how demonstrably false and absurd the claims are to reason, the fear message is constantly delivered via television to bypass our reason and draw a response from our reptile brain. This response leaves us helpless to manipulation by our “leaders”. (See “The Power of Nightmares” BBC documentary.)

George Bush would not be possible without a world hooked on television.

Further – the neo-cortex, the part of the brain used in distinguishing fantasy from reality – is switched off while we watch TV. The televisual fantasy is perceived as real and processed outside of our higher conscious functioning, yet we receive a large proportion of our information about the world via this medium.

Speaking of manipulation… have you noticed that the ever present television advertisements often don’t make any sense? That it can be really hard to work out what the product is? This is because advertisers know that they are speaking directly to your unconscious. There is no point in making an appeal to logic, because your logic went to sleep thirty seconds into the experience. Modern advertising is a scarily sophisticated science of persuasion. (Check out the documentary “Century of the Self” if you want to know more.) Images are designed to create emotional associations and manipulate us at the reptile brain level of our consciousness.

And remember, television is funded by the advertising. TV stations sell an unwary captive narcotized audience to advertisers. Nobody involved in television wants you to kick the habit. Television makes the population easier to control for the powers that be, easier to access and influence for the corporate despoilers of the world, and the programmers are merely the middlemen.

What are the long term social effects of mass drug addiction?

Junkies exist in a flat state of numbness. The external world does not matter, only the next fix.

Have you noticed the world seems to be going to hell since the 60’s and widespread adoption of televisual crack throughout the West? We complain of being isolated and unhappy yet struggle to rouse ourselves to give a damn about anything that involves getting off the couch – away from the opium box, away from the pusher. Is there a relationship between modern social malaise and alienation, apathy in the face of oncoming environmental catastrophe, war crimes by Western powers pursuing ceaseless unjustifiable wars, and most people being junkies?

Hell, maybe.

And now a word or two from the late psychedelic visionary guru Terence McKenna on the social effects of television:

“Most unsettling of all is this: the content of television is not a vision but a manufactured data stream that can be sanitized to ‘protect’ or impose cultural values. Thus we are confronted with an addictive and all-pervasive drug that delivers an experience whose message is whatever those who deal the drug wish it to be. Could anything provide a more fertile ground for fostering fascism and totalitarianism than this? In the United States, there are many more televisions than households, the average television set is on six hours a day, and the average person watches more than five hours a day—nearly one-third of their waking time. Aware as we all are of these simple facts, we seem unable to react to their implications. Serious study of the effects of television on health and culture has only begun recently.”

(For instance, recent Otago University findings that heavy television viewing – more than 2 hours a day – in childhood leads to increases in attention problems in adolescence. We gleefully adopt technology without understanding its effects on us.)

“Yet no drug in history has so quickly or completely isolated the entire culture of its users from contact with reality. And no drug in history has so completely succeeded in remaking in its own image the values of the culture that it has infected.
“Television is by nature the dominator drug par excellence. Control of content, uniformity of content, repeatability of content make it inevitably a tool of coercion, brainwashing, and manipulation. Television induces a trance state in the viewer that is the necessary precondition for brainwashing. As with all other drugs and technologies, television’s basic character cannot be changed; television is no more reformable than is the technology that produces automatic assault rifles.”

Ready to turn off your TV yet?

Kicking The Habit

William S. Burroughs, renowned author of Junky and Naked Lunch, and probably the greatest modern writer on addiction, states plainly that the point at which someone quits junk is when they find something better to do that they cannot do while on junk.

In this case, you will stop watching TV when you get a life.

If you are trapped in a cycle of work/school, then home and television, dissatisfied and numb with your lot, then you need something better to do. So what are you gonna do?

Frankly, I don’t think it’s my place to tell you. Maybe go hang with some friends, do something creative, interesting, or exciting, make something, do something, and have a great fucking time. Get involved with your community. There’s a lot that’s fucked up in the world and there’s only us junkies lying around to fix it.

And frankly, the cool people aren’t staying home watching TV. They’re way too busy doing cool stuff.

Tune into static

Here’s one suggestion for something you can do right now. Go to your television, take out the aerial, turn the set on, and leave it on as a reminder. The content does not matter. What it does to your brain does. And personally, I find that static gives a reassuring end-of-the-world ambience that keeps me sharp.

Tune into static. If you’re going to sit around on heroin, know it. When people come to your house and ask, tell them why, drag out this article. Give a damn about yourself and your friends and family.

Remember, the first step in overcoming an addiction is admitting it exists. You cannot free your mind if it is turned off. If your mind is not free, you are not free. If you are not free, you are a slave.

References/Further reading

* Terence McKenna, FOOD OF THE GODS; Bantam, 1992. (p218-220)

For more on social control via appeals to our unconscious minds, go onto Google Video and download both “The Power of Nightmares” and “Century of the Self”, superb BBC documentaries by Adam Curtis. have a great article on this material. Search for “television” on their site.

Some books to start you off:
“The Perfect Machine” by Joyce Nelson
Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television by Jerry Mander.

And you are all doubtless capable, should you turn off your televisions long enough, to Google for the many resources to be found on the web.

[There’s actually a bunch more recent research on this stuff since when I did the research for this… check out Aric Sigman’s “Remotely Controlled”.]

10 Responses to “Television: Tune Into Static”

  1.   Pearce
    October 8th, 2007 | 6:29 pm

    Just out of curiousity, does the computer screen prompt the same sort of brain-wave change as the tv screen? Are we being drugged/hypnotised by the internet? BY THIS VERY BLOG, in fact?

  2.   Maire Smith
    October 8th, 2007 | 8:01 pm

    Man that makes me feel smug.

    I do watch TV. If I’m at a friend’s house and it’s on, I get hooked in, uncomfortably, because I’m out of the habit; and I watch a lot of music videos every week or so; and I watch one or two TV series episodes or movies every couple of months.

    But I don’t watch much.

  3.   Janet
    October 9th, 2007 | 11:52 am

    I think I’m addicted to books. I get anxious, frustrated and depressed when I can’t read. I’m like a junkie needed my next fix.

    OTOH, more than about an hour of television makes me angry and irritable. I can’t watch more than 2 hours at a stretch without getting up to do something else. This seems to affect me with most visual media. Possibly why I’m not a film buff and one reason I will never be holding video marathons at my house.

    Can anyone tell me why watching television on the network is evil but watching the same TV series on DVD is perfectly socially acceptable? Other than the ads, it’s still the same content. And w.r.t. the ads, are they still bad if you either mute the telly and read a book in the ad break or leave the room and do something else e.g make lunch in the ad break?

    Also I wonder if the dancing moose could write something on the cultural connectivity aspects of television. The sheer number of social events I attend where I can’t participate in conversations because they’re about some television programme or movie that I haven’t seen is quite overwhelming.

  4.   Scott A
    October 10th, 2007 | 1:23 pm

    Do you know of any similar research into radio?

  5.   Administrator
    October 11th, 2007 | 2:07 pm

    Pearce: AFAIK they emit different frequencies and thus would have different impacts on the brain. You have way more webtime to Google it than I do.

    ScottA: Nope. Some part of my memory is telling me certain kinds of attention go up when focussing on auditory information; it can be regarded as in some sense “better” or “useful”. Again, you have more Google time than I do.

    Janet: To me the difference is lifestyle programming. Having to conform your life to be at a time and place to perform an action is substantially different from choosing when and where to do that action; watching a season of TV over a weekend is different from being home every week at a certain time. A lesser evil, in the sense of effects of medium. (Some may argue that hasn’t been an issue since the advent of VCRs, but most people still probably can’t/don’t program them…)

    re: “cultural connectivity”; See the Educated White Slave article – I would class that as a conformity pressure. You would probably really enjoy* Howard Bloom’s stuff. Probably “The Lucifer Principle” for this stuff, though “Global Brain” is also incredible. He is still in my top 10 non fiction chart.

    * well, in a terrifying as fuck kind of way

  6.   Janet
    October 12th, 2007 | 1:11 pm

    re:lifestyle programming. Good – because this would seem to be true of movies too – sessions start at a particular time and you have to be at the movie theatre to go. The number of times I have met someone in town and have been unable to hang out as long as we would like because of movie times is a lot. Sure movies have different session times, but within that tend to be quite narrow.

    This also raises a question in relation to hireage of DVDs. Unless you buy the DVD to own yourself (or borrow off a friend who has also bought it to own themself), which creates utilisation of resource and wastage issues, you have to watch the whole thing in 8 days or pay a rental fee again for a DVD which you have to return before taking out again, and may not get straight away thus losing the thread halfway through. This would seem to me to mean having to conform your life to watching a lot of TV in a short time. There are several TV series that I would like to watch, but not over such a short time window, which seems like just as much of a lifestyle programming issue to me.

    Regarding VCRs, the technology perfected just as it became obsolete. We got our video about six months prior to everyone else disposing of theirs, and I’m quite sure an aye-aye or a bushbaby would be capable of programming our video, it’s that straightforward. I don’t know what the case is with DVD recorders and other forms of delayed program watching devices.

  7.   Pearce
    October 13th, 2007 | 9:47 pm

    Admin: my google time is limited to work time, when I have to work, so no.

    But if LCD screens have a different effect, things are changing ’cause cathode ray tubes are well on the way out.

    I can’t stand ads because they are noxious, because they often cut tv shows to fit them in, and because I find the interruptions intrusive with regards to being absorbed by the story. I also like to be able to watch more than one episode at a time if I choose, and like Billy I have no intention of planning my life around a tv schedule. (Yet another reason I don’t follow sports…)

    Janet: For online stores like Fatso, you can hang on to the dvds for as long as you like, you just can’t rent any more until you return the ones you’ve got. That would seem to be perfect for Janet’s situation.

    Personally I quite like watching a whole tv series over the course of about a week, two or three episodes a night. This is like the tv equivalent of reading a longish book, and works really well with shows that have a decent overall story arc.

    How about that tivo thing that we seem incapable of getting here? From what I gather it gathers up everything automatically and removes the ads for you, that would be just as good as dvds for me. I won’t get into the issue of illegal downloads.

  8.   bruce
    October 14th, 2007 | 10:43 pm

    Good article! Nice quote from Burroughs. I hadn’t heard that, came up with the concept independently with regard to some of my habits over the last couple of years.

    When confronted by people who can’t relate to why I don’t watch TV, play computer games, or get into Sport, I always say, “well, I do enjoy that activity, it’s just that there are a bunch of other things that I like even more, so it’s well down on the list.” Seems to mollify them.

  9. April 29th, 2008 | 1:16 pm

    […] Clay Shirky colorfully points out that, putting the amount of human effort to create Wikipedia as about 100 million hours of thought, then about 2000 Wikipedia’s worth of thought would be freed up by stopping watching TV in the US alone. (Previously I’ve commented at length about why doing almost anything other that watching TV is probably a good idea.) […]

  10.   Rich
    July 3rd, 2008 | 1:38 pm

    George Bush would not be possible without a world hooked on television

    But Teddy Roosevelt was pretty much the 19th/early-20th century version of GWB, and there was no telly then.