Saturday, January 2

Is information overload from electronic visual media driving the human brain crazy?

I want to go back for a moment to the harmonica jam session, and the complaint made by a YouTube viewer about how the jam was filmed. Here's what he wrote; he was clearly addressing the person who filmed the video:
David Dollar I thought this was a great video. Some really good players. It would have been 10 X better if you had just turned the camera (phone) sideways. Then we could have the screen full of the great players. It's called "landscape" mode. Look into it. three thirds of the screen filled instead only one third. Thanks
Someone did actually film it that way, as the video poster pointed out; he provided a link to the other film. The difference is striking. Yeah, you can see more in the other film, but it showed things going on that were extraneous to the jam -- people milling around or trying to film the session, etc. That's because the jam session wasn't planned or staged; clearly it happened on the spur of the moment after a convention had wrapped up for the night. And did David Dollar really want to see more of an empty convention hall?

By using the camera in 'portrait' mode, which cut down on what the viewer could see, and panning to each harp player who was doing a riff, this cut out a lot of distractions that draw the eye and make it harder to focus on the music and the musicians. 

As has been demonstrated again and again by scientists in their attempts to wean people from using mobile phones while driving a vehicle, the human brain is not a multi-tasker.(1)  A question I have is whether there's a cause-and-effect connection between increased visual information via internet and TV mediums and increased mental/brain disorders.

Some scientists might say that the vaunted increase in the disorders is deceptive, that it's actually due to better information-gathering on people with disorders, and to more people recognizing that they have a disorder and seeking help for it. 

I would question that this is the entire explanation, as I'd question any assertion that the percentage of drug addiction tends to remain constant in any population. I'm writing this essay freestyle; i.e.,  without collecting links on statistics, but it's generally known that in the USA an astounding number of people now use at least one prescription psychotropic drug or illicit drug. 

There is the argument that the increase in psychotropic drug use is due to marketing in the mass media, and by physicians who pass out drug prescriptions like they're candy. But again, I am asking whether visual information overload is a significant factor in what seems to be an epidemic of craziness sweeping the USA and other countries.      

There are other explanations: too much sugar in the diet; too much indoor lighting overstimulating the brain, so that the sleep cycle for many people is out of whack. And there are the psychological explanations: increased alienation as much of the population now resides in cities, the breakup of the nuclear family, and so on.  But those situations have been in effect for close to 80 years, at least in highly developed countries. It's only in the last decade that it's become evident there are now a lot of crazy people in this world, and that the number is skyrocketing. 
What's changed in the last decade?  Three big changes are all related to visual information:

1. The internet has gone from being a pretty static medium to one with millions of companies winking and blinking ads at the reader, even in a New York Times hard-news report.

2.  People can now carry all this winking and blinking with them, via mobile devices.

3.  The proliferation of satellite TV channels, all which people can carry with them via smartphones along with the regular broadcast TV reports now routinely available on the intenet.

All this reminds me of an observation made by a chef contestant on Top Chef about a fellow contestant. He said she drove him crazy whenever she was a passenger in the car he was driving. He explained that she was one of those Lookee See car passengers, who keep saying to the driver, "Oh look at that! Look over there!" about whatever they see from the passenger window that strikes them as interesting.  

From his description, she was an out-of-control 'sharer' -- those people who want people around them to share in everything they see that they consider to be noteworthy for 15 seconds.

The chef's observation was one of the reasons I stopped watching television (in July 2013). He made me sharply aware that while TV could be very educational, it was also a prime place to have sharer types inflict on the viewer their ideas of what is interesting, even when it's superfluous.  

Since that time I've noticed that the internet is now also a prime attraction for the sharer types. I can't even read a hard news report anymore without the editor wanting to share with the reader what some Twitter users think of the news event covered in the report. 

This is in addition to all the winking and blinking inserted in the report not only by advertisers but also by the news organization itself:  If you're reading this report you might also be interested in reports we did from six months back on the issue or reports on similar news; here are the links. Which they scatter through the report one is trying to read. 

How many eyes and brains do these web editors think I have? The situation is out of control, which isn't really a criticism of the medium; it's just a simple statement of fact. But I think this statement explains a lot about the polarization of American politics during the past decade, and which gets more extreme, and nuttier, every year.  

The extreme political polarization in the USA is mirrored in 'developing' countries that have seen an incredible proliferation of satellite TV channels -- and the ever-increasing number of people in those countries who can carry the TV channels around with them via smartphones. 

Then people wonder why the entire Middle East seems to have gone crazy. 

On one level the flood of information is a good thing; of course it's always good when people are better informed. But if people can't intellectually process the information, it's a bad thing. And it would be nightmarish if the flood is also creating a kind of brain fever, in which the brain can't process all the visual data but keeps trying anyhow. 

To return to the harp jam session -- again, the 'portrait' type of video filming format that David Dollar didn't like cuts out a great deal of extraneous visual information present in the 'landscape' video, if one's intent is just to listen to the music and watch the musicians at their craft. Television, while focusing the eyes on the screen, also provides a tremendous amount of extraneous visual information. 

This syndrome is particularly noticeable in TV news reporting. Although the camera will often cut in for a close-up on a speaker (e..g., reporter, interviewee),  much of the video reporting fixes the viewers' eyes on visuals that have nothing to do with the news event being reported.  So this isn't actually visual information. It's visual noise, for want of a better term.   

I'd assume there wouldn't be lasting harm to the brain from this kind of noise when taken in small doses, but the problem is that now the dosage is very big. Again, my question is whether this actually harms the brain, in a lasting way, over time, or at least contributes to mental disorders. It's possible the question has already been asked by science but if so, any conclusions haven't worked their way into the mainstream media. 

So I think visual information overload, or visual noise overload, is something to be aware of, as we start a new year. Granted, many people might not consider it noise, in the way David Dollar wanted to see more of the scene around the harmonica players. He didn't consider the scene to be extraneous information. 

Yet I think such people need to ask themselves just how much they would want to engage in the Lookee See syndrome if over time it could be harmful to their brains or mental state.  

There are all kinds of tactics one could deploy to cut down on the visual overload; here are a few:

> Listen to TV news instead of watching it.    

> Switch to radio for the nightly news and news headline updates during the day.  For Americans and Canadians, PBS Newshour, an hour-long weekly TV news report, is also available on the radio at local FM stations that participate in the public broadcasting system. 

>  Find news report aggregator websites that are straight text. 

1) The famous basketball game experiment is ample demonstration of this. I'll assume that someone who's undergone long training in mustering attention, such as a Zen master, could have spotted the oddity about the game without being told what to look for. But even if you've been told beforehand and start trying to focus on the oddity, this would mean you'd take have to sacrifice attention to carrying out the counting instruction you're given before being shown the video of the basketball game. 

In short, you can't do both: try to count how many basketball passes one team makes plus notice the woman in a black witch costume slowly walking straight through the action on the basketball court. 

Without being forewarned to look for her, the witch is absolutely invisible to most people's eyes even though they're staring straight at the basketball game. Yet she's wearing a large peaked black hat. Can't miss it -- unless you're trying to execute a counting task involving fast-moving people in the same space.

There are many other demonstrations of the brain's inability to multi-task. For example, any vice squad detective could attest that snatch thieves and pickpockets depend on the mark being distracted. To the point where gangs will have some members set up a distraction before they strike; e.g, a loud argument or other kind of commotion. 

Magicians also depend on the audience being distracted -- the famous 'stage business.' The eyes tend to focus on the stage business created by the magician's assistant rather than the magician's hands.


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