Do Your Brain a Favor!

Many many years ago when I was taking classes to be an teacher, I took History of Journalism as a prerequisite.  I have no idea what requirement it fulfilled and to be honest, I was not thrilled about taking it, but I learned so much in that class.   A lot of it wasn’t really about journalism but about  how people perceive and process information.

One of the statistics that really stuck with me was about tv.  Neurologists had done a study of brain activity on people who were asleep and people who were watching tv and found that the sleeping subjects had more brain activity than those watching television.  I don’t know why I was so surprised (probably because I was young and naive back then)!

When you sleep, your brain is essentially updating- yes, just like your computer!  Your brain is an organic electrochemical computer.  When you sleep, it’s performing updates and maintenance, ergo your really weird dreams.  This is also why sleep is so important- no sleep, no updates, no maintenance = big brain-computer crash! (Seriously, chronic insomniacs go insane before they die from lack of sleep; the brain simply shuts down permanently!)

When you’re watching tv, the brain is pretty much in download mode.  All it’s doing is receiving information.  Nothing is really being processed.  Nothing else is really going on because it’s downloading the info from the tv.  FYI: this is probably no different than streaming video off YouTube, Netflix, or Hulu.  It’s still download mode for your brain.

I know tv haters and other detractors have always called tv things like the “idiot box,” the “boob tube” and have long been proclaiming that tv is turning our brains to mush.  (Aaaah!!  It’s true! Watching tv is killing my brain!) Really, I don’t know if that true or not, but I do know that the brain, like every other organ we have, needs to be used and gets better with practice.  This is why we have so many “brain game” apps and books and other products on the market these days, a few courtesy of AARP.  As the Baby Boomer generation gets older, we are learning that those who don’t use their head lose their mental sharpness.  (I don’t want to say they become stupid, but…….)

I also don’t want to blast tv out of the water.  it really can be educational.  I watch a lot of History Channel, Discovery, ID, and of course TLC (and Grimm- eye roll).  I’ve learned a lot off tv but I’ve made a few changes to my viewing habits, which includes one really big change after I heard that scary statistic in my journalism.  I try as often as I can to process information from the tv in more than just one way to keep my brain as busy as I can.

One of the other things I learned early on (and pretty much most of us learn this as we go through school, certainly at some point in college) is that our brains process information differently depending on how we take that info in.  In other words, some of us are audial learners, some are visual learners and some are kinesthetic learners.  We all take in information through one of these three modes and our brain has distinct preferences, either because that’s the way we’re wired or that’s how we’ve trained it.  Audial learners learn best through hearing information.  These are the people who do really well learning language listening to the CDs in the car, or listening to lectures or podcasts.  Their brains process information audially (hearing).  My mom is one of those people.  If you read the instructions aloud to her, she gets it right off the bat. If you give her the instructions to read, she gets a little lost.  They’re the same instructions, but her brain is trained to process info she hears quickly and more efficiently.

I on the other hand process information best through kinesthethics (movement or doing).  I remember once when I was moving, I’d gotten some of those cardboard bankers boxes to pack some of the smaller stuff.  I ripped off the plastic, looked at the flat folded up box and started unfolding and folding it and then did the lid, and after it was done, then I looked at the little sheet of instructions.  (I remember I laughed at myself for doing it backwards.) We are those people who can take notes and remember the info without having to re-read the notes before a test.  We write a grocery list and leave it at home but come home with everything on the list because we wrote it down.  If we’ve done a process or procedure once, we tend to remember it better than if someone has told us how to do it or if we’ve read how to do it.

Visual learners are quite obviously the readers.  They read it or see it and it’s stored in their brain and is easily accessed.  They can see it again in their memory.

Most of us have one primary learning method and a secondary method that the brain likes, but all of us process information all three ways.  It’s just which ways are easier for the brain to intake and store the information.  I know for me, my primary method is kinesthetic (movement) and my secondary is visual.  I’m the student who writes down everything the professor puts on the board and I tend to remember it once it’s written.  (As a short aside here, almost everyone remembers things better once they’ve written it down, because the brain takes the information in one way, ie seeing it on the chalkboard, and when we write it down again, we’re forcing the brain to process the same information twice.  It’s not only downloaded it into memory; it’s processed it back out again.  It’s stored in two places, essentially.)

So why does this matter when it comes to watching tv and our brains turning to mush?  Because when we take in so much information passively, we’re not really processing it back out again.  We’re binge-watching The Walking Dead for three hours straight.  What do we do with this “information?”  If we were in the midst of a zombie apocalypse, we might pay more attention and process the information differently. It’s the same for my five hour Grimm-a-thons almost every week: if I were in imminent danger of Skalengeck or Blutbad attack, I might be a little more alert and take a couple of notes, but the sad truth of the matter is that this literally is “brain candy.”  We love it and we gobble it up and go back for more, but really this is the equivalent of our brain lying around on the sofa snarfing potato chips endlessly. (Since this is pretty much what our body is doing too, it’s not good for either one of them!)

So about the same time I learned that my brain gets more activity while I’m sleeping than when I’m watching tv, I turned on the tv’s closed captions.  Almost anyone who has a tv knows that somewhere in its settings is one for closed captions for the hearing impaired.  It’s the same for most DVDs.  I was already interested in them because I was living with my dad, who went to bed at 8:00 p.m. and got up at 5:00 a.m. We had one tv in the living room and since I stayed up later, I was always having to keep the volume low.  I am also a huge fan of PBS and as any Brit will tell you, we may all speak English, but it sure ain’t the same language!  So between the lowered volume and the loverly British accents, it was a little hard to understand what they were saying.  Ergo, I was highly motivated to turn on the closed captions.  Since we’d recently gotten a newer tv, they were standard, and I made use of them.  I’m really not sure if “reading” tv is any better than “watching” it, but I figure if I’m reading, it’s not just passive info download, and it really does help if I’m watching a program with accents or the dialogue is hard to hear.  I’ve also noticed that in some shows, if someone says something in Spanish, about half the time I get a caption that says “speaking Spanish” and half the time they have the actual dialogue in Spanish.  That’s interesting to me because of how I process information: I can usually understand the written Spanish while the spoken Spanish goes right by me.  (It’s really hard for me to process information audially.)

I have also made a concerted effort to boost my audial information processing, meaning I try to learn through listening more than I used to.  I admit, it’s been a bit of struggle, because I have a tendency to zone out in the middle of a podcast if it doesn’t hold my attention tightly or if I have a zillion things going through my head.  I enjoy listening to music, but it’s a different (if also passive) info download. Listening to information is tougher for me to process and I’ve noticed that I have a tendency to visualize words.  When it comes to learning a new language, I do know that I’m hopeless unless I have something I can see.  I need to see and write the words or they just don’t stick in my head.

Regardless of how you learn, your brain needs to keep learning!  I’m sure this is one of the the reasons AARP is promoting the new brain games and puzzle for adults: the baby boomers who are not using their brains are finding they are losing their edge. Most of you reading this blog probably don’t/ won’t have that problem because you’re out on the internet looking things up and looking for things to learn about.  I’m not telling you to throw out your tv or unplug it or even stop watching your favorite shows, but I am reminding you that it’s good to exercise your brain now and then.  Most of us are used to exercising our bodies and we’ve come to realize that the more active we are, the easier it becomes.  The first time we went an hour on the treadmill, we probably felt like our legs weighed a ton each and we were going to collapse and slide off the wretched machine but the more we did it, the easier it got and we found we could go longer with less extra effort.  Our brains are no different.  The more we use them, the easier it is to process the information and the quicker we are at catching new things. Our brains are obviously the most important organ we have- everything else is secondary.  No brain, no person, and if we want to stay as healthy and as fit as we can, we need to make sure the guy up top is in top form! It’s something to keep in mind on those days when you find yourself parked in the recliner watching Nick Burkhardt go up against one more Verrat Hundjager.  Is this really giving your brain a workout? Drop and give me 10 crossword clues!!


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