Stretching your mind

Television as a training device for the brain

The Olympic Games has been an amazing festival of physical excellence.  And the Paralympics will be too: many of the athletes use wheelchairs to get about. but have athletically advanced upper limbs or lungs and stamina.  So how did they get so strong?  You sense that they use their disability as a lever to drive themselves forward – it provokes them into action… something to push against.

Charles Atlas: Strong like a lion

Here’s another question.  The recent case of the lion-like cat in Essex raised a question of two:  Lions and cats seem to spend nearly all of their time asleep.  So how come lions are so strong?  The only exercise they seem to manage is the occasional stretch.

Charles Atlas is said to have observed an elderly lion in a zoo and asked himself the same question.  “Does this old gentleman have any barbells, any exercisers?…And it came over me….He’s been pitting one muscle against another!”  In other words, it’s the stretching – the pulling and pushing process for the muscles – that gives the lion the strength.

How does this apply to television?  A few days ago we looked at whether TV was making us smarter. It does, but perhaps not in the way you expect.  It does it by making us think, in the dynamic environment of a living room, rather than just by telling us something.  So a news bulletin, or a documentary, that challenges our opinions, will have more effect than one which confirms our opinion – which is why devoted viewers in the US to Fox News, or MSNBC, are less likely to develop than one watching something that challenges their point of view – such as  BBC report from another country.  Dramas which give you the space to put yourself in the position of the protagonist are more effective than ones which run along too quickly.  One reason why Ridley Scott’s films may be more beloved than those of his brother may be that his films – especially Blade Runner – seem to have a slowness that is more satisfying than the more adrenaline fuelled movies associated with  his brother Tony.

And there’s something about exercising the power of thought while in a room with other people, sharing what you are seeing that increases the effect – it becomes problem solving rather than merely absorbing.  It involves the brain muscles in the room working together, like a lion stretching.

In their recent The Face To Face Book, Ed Keller and Brad Fay argue that advertising works not when it is shocking or surprising – the interruptive model – but when it gets people talking.  There’s something very powerful here.  They say, when you advertise a clear message to people who already like your product, you can give them a language they can use themselves – you help them to articulate what they might already feel but had never thought to put into words – ‘preach to the choir, providing them with a melody that can, in turn, help them persuade their friends and family to join your flock of customers’.

For television, sometimes it’s worth looking at the spaces within the rhythm for the real power… the moments when you can think of something, and then turn to your neighbour…


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