Sept 14, 2021, 10:20
Until now, claims that television makes you stupid have only been backed up by anecdotal evidence. True, at a certain point it does seem that people who watch vast amounts of TV do become so intellectually impaired that they start involuntarily clapping along to theme tunes like imprisoned sea lions performing for fish, but that isn’t anything you could write a medical paper about.
Now, sadly, science has trundled along to back it up. According to Dr Ryan Dougherty, from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, the more television you watch in middle age, the lower your volume in grey matter. Examining the viewing habits of 599 American adults between 1990 and 2011, Dougherty found that those who watched an above average amount of television showed reduced volume in their frontal cortex and entorhinal cortex. Basically, your mum was right: TV really does rot your brain.
To make matters worse, Dougherty goes out of his way to suggest other sedentary activities that are better for your brain. Horrifically these include board games. Which raises the question: would you rather lower your IQ by watching the defining cultural art form of the 21st century, or stay clever for ever by joylessly prodding counters around a backgammon board?
Look, I’ll admit this study provoked a moment of worry in me. I have written about television for 12 years now, and have probably watched a considerably higher amount of it than the average viewer. Have I been doing this at the cost of my intellect? I spent a full day last week watching the entire new season of The Morning Show. Is that why I forgot the date of my car’s MOT this morning? I’ve watched Lost, all the way through, three times in my life. Most people bailed after two series. Is this why they can remember their internet banking password and I can’t?
But you know what? I think we’re fine. Because, unless I’m mistaken, I don’t think the study made any distinction about the type of TV the guinea pigs watched, and I suspect this is a big variable. If people, for instance, watched four hours of inane, shiny-floored entertainment shows every day, of course they’re going to lose brain function. It’s like being spoon-fed ice-cream every day then realising you can’t fit into your trousers any more.
We’re different, though. I’m assuming behaviour based on the fact that you’re reading a piece on the television section of a broadsheet newspaper, but I suspect you’re like me. You only watch the good stuff. You enjoy television that challenges you, that makes you question things, that makes you hunt for meaning. You still, 14 years after the fact, spend a great deal of time wondering if David Chase’s editing decisions in Made in America contained a hidden meaning about the fate of Tony Soprano. You agonise over the motivation of character choices in The Wire. You’re so used to overthinking television that you recently arrived at a grand unified theory about the logistics of policing on Paw Patrol. To you, television isn’t a passive activity. It’s an obsession. Your brain isn’t rotting; it’s glowing red with theories and questions and excitement.
I have to believe this. We all do. The moment we give in, and let ourselves believe that our devotion to television is hurting our capacity to think, we’re admitting defeat. We’re admitting that those smug people who boast about not owning a TV really are as superior as they think they are. Well, I’m not having it. Intact brains or not, those people are still missing out on huge moments of cultural unity. The savagery of Succession. The slow emotional destruction of Mare of Easttown. The fast-twitch social commentary of The White Lotus. This is important stuff, and I refuse to give it up because a fancy doctor says the shiny box makes your brain go bad.
That said, I probably do need a contingency of sorts. So, please, tell my children I love them. Strictly Come Dancing starts soon, and I doubt I’ll be able to remember their names afterwards.