The Neuroscience of the Spectocracy
What happens to our brains when we spend our days looking at screens? Might this explain why Americans have gone berserk? Part III of an exposition by Adam Garfinkle.
By Adam Garfinkle
Part II: Spectacle defined and illustrated
Spending more than seven hours a day mostly alone, entertained by a screen, may well lock the brain into a vulnerable and impressionable la-la-land, ripe for any ideological entrepreneur who comes along.
Brainwave frequencies, measured using electroencephalography, are patterns of neural activity in the brain. They are typically categorized into five bands based on their range in cycles per second (Hz). Each is associated with specific mental states and cognitive functions. These frequencies may operate simultaneously in different regions of the brain, but one frequency tends to be dominant depending on the subject’s mental state or activity.
Delta waves (0.5-4 Hz) are the slowest brainwaves, usually observed during unconsciousness or deep, dreamless sleep. They dominate our brains during our first year of life. When delta dominates, we have almost no awareness of the outside world, but we can access stored information. Delta waves appear to play a key role in memory organization by consolidating newly acquired information, pruning unnecessary synaptic connections, replaying memories for reinforcement, and processing emotions associated with those memories.
Theta waves (4-8 Hz) are associated with light sleep, deep relaxation, prayer, hypnosis, and meditative states. This is slow brain activity compared to alpha, beta, and gamma, but it isn’t boring; it’s associated with dreaming during sleep, and when awake, with creativity, imagination, intuition, pattern recognition, deep memory, and emotional arousal. Theta-dominance is rare in wide-awake adults, but it is the normal state of a child engaged in typical imaginative play. Typically, when adults are in a theta-dominant state, they are seated or lying down. Their eyes don’t actively move and scan the scene.
Alpha waves (8-12 Hz) are associated with relaxed wakefulness. This is the default state of the waking adult brain. They’re our normal, get-it-done frequency, characteristic of a calm, alert, and receptive state of mind. When alpha dominates, our mood is even, we’re reasonably relaxed, we take in the world and respond to cues, we move our bodies, and our eyes scan the scene and shift visual focus.
Beta waves (12-30 Hz) are associated with active thinking, problem-solving, and focused attention. When performing cognitive tasks that require attention, memory, and reasoning, beta-wave activity increases, as it does when we’re anxious, stressed, or excited. In this state, the object of our attention may be external—a predator, say—or internal, as when we recall the distinction between an average value and a mean. In high beta, we are very alert and focused, and we may feel a certain amount of agitation or stress, as when we’re solving a problem for a clear and immediate purpose.
Gamma waves (30-100 Hz) are the rarest brainwaves, related to high-level cognition and intense concentration. Here the brain is not just thinking but integrating and synthesizing knowledge and information at a high level. In this state, unlike others, every part of the brain registers at or above 30Hz. Gamma states tend to be of medium length: We don’t slip into them for just a few moments, and rarely do we have the energy to stay there for more than a few hours.
Our brainwave state responds to our environment. A busy urban area that confronts us with novelty induces high-alpha and low-beta brain waves. If we take a walk in the woods, however, our brains will typically be in low-alpha, tending to theta. If we must solve a problem that requires creativity and integrating different areas of knowledge on a deadline, our brainwaves shoot up to high beta and sometimes into gamma.
Importantly, the technology we use also induces specific brainwave states. If we watch an entertaining show on a screen in a darkened room, our brains will typically be in low-alpha, tending to theta. If we are addicted to wallowing in social media chatter, Instagram shorts and YouTube feeds on smartphones, that matters, too. The way mediated images affect our brains and our evolving neural pathways is different from the way unmediated images (that is, natural or real images) affect them.
2. The medium really is the message
If, as Arendt theorized, totalitarianism is “organized loneliness,” what society could be more vulnerable than one made up of lonely young semi-literates who spend their days watching images flicker across a screen?
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