In the struggle to solve the environmental problems we have created, the most precious tool we have is imagination. If we seek to heal the wounds of this planet, this can only be done on the basis of an effort to understand the ecological realities in which we are embedded.
Ecosystems, however, cannot be experimentally taken apart, they can only be known whole. Ultimately such an act of knowing can only be performed by the use of imagination.
For the future, therefore, it is essential that we have as many people as possible with an intact imagination, and that we recognise that anything undermining its integrity must be regarded as an environmental threat as serious as the worst of pollutants.
Television, when it encroaches on the lives of young children, is one such threat (yes, even the nature programmes). To understand why this is so we need to look—strange as it may at first seem—at the components of our mammalian nature and their morphological relationships to other mammals. There is one major study in which this has been done (Schad 1977), and what I am saying here is based squarely on it.
The morphology of mammals is an expression of the interpenetration of three main organ systems. Though unified, these three systems are clearly distinguishable and each has its bodily centre:
the metabolic-reproductive system is centred in the abdomen
the respiratory-circulatory system in the chest
the neuro-sensory system in the head.
The upright human figure gives a perfectly balanced picture of this 3-fold structure, a state of affairs that appears to be unique to humans, for in all other mammals one of the systems is dominant. The pattern of dominance corresponds very exactly to each of the three main mammalian groups; the ungulates, the carnivores and the rodents. If you think of the difference between a cow, a lion and a mouse you get a clear idea of what is meant.
In the mouse (rodent) nerve-sense activity is dominant; in the lion (carnivore) the perfect rhythmic fitness of breathing and circulation dominates; while the cow (ungulate) is a vast barrel of digestive processes with a head that is all but asleep.
It is obvious that in these differences of dominance there lie other qualitative differences. The one I want to focus on is the vitality gradient. To put it simply, a mouse has a much more slender hold on life than a cow. It is quite common for rodents to be frightened to death, but this is not something that ever happens to an ungulate.
In other words, this three-fold structure is the expression of a strong polarity, with the neuro-sensory system as the “death pole”, and the metabolic-reproductive as the “life pole”. Transferring this insight to humans we can readily appreciate that the picture fits: the head is at the sparse end of the vitality gradient, while the belly burgeons with unconscious life.
Everything that has been said so far relates to the human adult; in the child the relationships are radically different. The infant is a “cow” being, in spite of the proportionately large head. On the neuro-sensory side of its being it is still asleep, but for that very reason its senses are pulsing with life in a way that they never will again, and it is one with its surroundings, which makes it extremely vulnerable to any influences they contain. It is through this radical openness that the processes of the head gradually take hold in the first years of life.
If we imagine two triangles apex to apex, (Diagram A) with one directly above the other, the lower one is the physical, metabolic child, the upper one the still-sleeping “head”. Through the first five or six years of life the “head” will gradually “grow down” until its apex touches the base of the triangle representing the physical child (Diagram C). Once this is complete we have a harmonious picture of the three systems I began with.
In this growing down process the child is going through the primary experiences by which the neuro-sensory pathways it will use for the rest of its life are engraved in the infant brain. This is a process that happens first of all through the intimacies of breastfeeding, and then through play.
Play is the supreme learning process by which the child acquires the arts of walking, speaking, and ultimately feeling and thinking.
It is nothing less that the formation of the embryonic soul, complete with its own image-making ability and inventory of verbal concepts that render the world intelligible.
Built into this process there are certain time thresholds, beyond which the learning of a certain skill will be very much more difficult, if not impossible. Missing any of these deadlines will result in a skewed development (Diagram B). For instance, if the capacity to create internal images is not formed and exercised by play and the hearing of stories by the age of about 7, it will never take shape in a properly integrated way. “Use it or lose it” is nature’s dictum (Pearce 1998). In terms of our triangles, it would mean that the one growing down would not “touch base”, but would be skewed to right or left.
Enough has been said to make clear that the formation of the embryonic soul is a delicate, vulnerable and critical phase in the life of an individual. Whereas we take great pains to protect the biological embryo inside its mother, we are by no means so careful with this psychological embryo, for into the (7-9-year long) phase of its formation we introduce television (I’m using this word to designate all the wizardries of electronic visual display).
What is television?
In terms of the context established here, the answer is relatively simple. Television is a technological externalisation of the visual aspect of the neuro-sensory system. I have characterised this system as being the “death pole” of the human organism. In normal adult life, nerve-sense activities constantly disturb the unconscious life of our “cow” nature. They are arhythmic and thus bring the regularities of the body’s life processes into disarray.
The rhythmic circulatory system tries to hold the balance, but every day fails to do so; the by-products of neural activity build up to such an extent that we “shut down”, i.e. we fall asleep. During sleep a metabolic renewal takes place, then we wake up and the whole cycle begins again.
So, normal waking consciousness is a “death” process, that must be interrupted periodically, and while the adult soul might be able to accommodate extra disruption from a completely dead externalisation of this (i.e. television), it is not at all likely that the embryonic soul would be able to tolerate such a burden. The embryonic soul is busy enough coping with its own incipient death process without the added disruption of an externalised version of the adult one. No wonder television viewing sends young children into a (widely reported) catatonic stupor.
In view of all this, I think it is not too far-fetched to say that placing a very young child in front of a TV set (of any kind) is tantamount to creating a grotesque two-headed being – the child with its half-awakened head mesmerically united with an externalised adult “head”.
For the child this must be a very bewildering experience; but it will use what it has learned from its own awakening head to make sense of the other one; and to the extent that it makes sense of this, it will begin being conditioned into premature adulthood, but a diminished form of adulthood in that it carries the expectation that there are machines to make images for you.
It must be emphasised that this effect is induced primarily by the form of television. It will happen regardless of the content, but the tendency to premature adulthood will also be re-enforced by the content, for television, as Neil Postman points out (Postman 1994), is a “total disclosure medium”. Willy-nilly the child will be exposed, out of context, to “inappropriate material”. This applies as much to nature films as anything else. How is the embryonic soul to cope, for instance, with the time-lapse and infra-red tricks that are now routine in such programmes?
Television, with its early emphasis on the neuro-sensory, may create premature adults, but these cheated children will be adults with holes. These perforations in the human soul are legion, but I will limit myself to two of the most serious.
The first is the fact that television replaces play with entertainment. Play is the source of all learning. It is the process by which the three systems of the human organism become harmoniously integrated and it prefigures many of the cognitive and artistic feats that will be performed later in life. It is an active process, by which physical, mental and affective skills are co-ordinated and refined. It leads ultimately to autonomy and individual creativity.
Entertainment, by contrast, inculcates passivity. It is a perfect medium for tailoring future consumerist expectations, and is used as such (Pearce quotes an MTV executive as saying: “We don’t influence the 14-year-olds, we own them”). At best it leads to false expectations, at worst to addiction.
If this first “hole” has to do with content, the second is its form aspect. The fact is that television short-circuits the image-making capacity that will later become imagination. When a child is listening to a story it will be actively creating its own internal pictures of the situations and characters.
The story stimulates, and the embryonic soul exercises its need to make images. Joseph Chilton Pearse says that every time this happens it creates a new neural pathway, thus increasing the child’s mental flexibility (Pearce 1998).
What television does is to stimulate the child’s image-making tendency, but then interrupt its response by also providing the image; and the sheer sophistication and fascination of the given televisual image is guaranteed to over-ride the child’s own (probably rudimentary) image.
The child soon learns not to exercise its image-making tendency, but to relinquish it, and so no new neural pathways are laid down, and instead of playing the child increasingly expects to be entertained. Thus are potentially free, creative individuals turned into passive image-consumers.
A population of prematurely adult image-consumers may well be just what is wanted by multi-national corporations and the governments they control, but it will not meet the urgent needs of the planet. What the planet needs are individuals whose embryonic souls have unfolded into the full power of creative imagination. It is clear that exposing young children to television radically jeopardizes this.
Substances that cause physical deformities carry warnings and are kept well away from children. Surely, then, electronic devices that turn them into two-headed monsters should be completely unthinkable. Let your children grow their own heads in peace and keep the electronic one well away.
One head is better than two. Less is more. ?
Pearce, Joseph Chilton – “The Instrument Itself: Chlidren’s Development and Television” from “Pathways of Healthy Child Development”, Spring Valley 1998.
Postman, Neil – The Disappearance of Childhood. Vintage, New York 1994
Schad, Wolfgang – Man and Mammals. Adelphi University, NY 1977.