Garbage In, Garbage Out

By Catherine Salgado on July 28, 2019

What you consume becomes a part of you and determines what comes out of you. Any doctor can tell you that about food, but I contend that the statement applies to everything in your life—especially your leisure activities.  Philosophically speaking, whatever you see or hear becomes a permanent part of you, stored forever in your brain, whether you realize it or not. This should impress us with how serious the responsibility is which we have to expose ourselves only to what is good, true, and beautiful—what is likely to make us smarter, better people.

Starting at the most basic level, it seems natural to assume that certain pastimes are generally speaking more valuable and less harmful than others. One of the major areas of concern and debate in the modern world is how technology, particularly television (under which we can class videos and movies) and video games, affects the brain. Technology is neither good nor bad by itself, but it can have serious effects on the brain, and television and video games are two areas which have significant enough impacts that everyone should be educated about those impacts.

Live Science reported in late 2015 on a study which had followed 3,200 people with the average age of 25 for the next 25 years of their lives, charting how watching TV affected their brains. Those who watched more than 3 hours of TV daily on average were far more likely to perform poorly on cognitive tests in middle age than their peers who watched little TV. The study suggested regular physical activity as an aid to maintaining a healthy brain.

The National Institute of Health (NIH) found in 2018 that screen time (no matter what you are doing on the screen) on electronic devices can seriously damage language and reasoning skills in children—more than two hours a day is enough to affect this damage.

Medical News Today reported in 2017 that, while video games do improve certain types of attention and can improve visual and spatial relations skills and types of short term memory, video games also cause harmful addictions and actually change the structure of the brain. A 2017 study published in the Medical News Bulletin stated that games with high amounts of shooting atrophied the hippocampus, an important area of the brain controlling spatial and episodic memory, increasing the likelihood of depression, schizophrenia, PTSD, and Alzheimer’s.

A 2013 study by Tohoku University in Japan studied how the brains of 276 children were affected by watching TV. Children who watched larger amounts of television had lower verbal skills and higher levels of aggression.

On the other hand, a 2013 study at Emory University found that reading a well-written novel (in this case, Pompeii) increased connectivity in the parts of the participants’ brains related to language as well as increased activity in the sensory-motor portion of the brain (participants had similar reactions to characters in the book).  Alzheimer’s is 2.5 times less likely to appear in older people who read a great deal, research suggests, while TV watching presents a risk factor. Research regarding children has shown that TV separates children (and adults) from their fellows. No interaction occurs. Children read to by their parents, on the other hand, have much more communication and interaction with their parents, making even educational TV less valuable. Television is a passive pastime and presents everything at a fast-paced rate, lowering attention span and requiring less effort from the watcher. On the other hand, books are more “proactive” and have more of a facility to describe and examine each character and situation.

Of course, what you watch and what you read is equally important (as the 2013 Emory University Study noted).  Reading books which are not well written or which have high levels of “adult” content (sex, cussing, violence, etc.) or which praise immorality can certainly affect your brain in negative ways while watching movies with moral storylines, good acting, and engaging dialogue can have positive effects. This brings me to my next point: be selective. Just as you should not eat cotton candy and cake all the time, choose your books and movies carefully. Think through and plan everything you read and watch.

I would say that a good way to start is to read the great classics of literature.  Authors such as Homer, Vergil, Augustine of Hippo, Chaucer, Dante, Shakespeare, Charles Perrault, Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, G. K. Chesterton, and C. S. Lewis are among the hundreds of writers throughout history who have produced wonderful stories which even a modern audience can find engaging, exciting, and valuable.  From the Aeneid to Beowulf, from Le Morte D’Arthur to Sense and Sensibility, from Shadows on the Rock to Lord of the Rings, from Song of the Cid to The Scarlet and the Black, from Ivanhoe to Piers Plowman, from King Lear to The Woman Warrior, there are countless choices in every genre.

Read your favorite genres, but read from genres you don’t usually enjoy as well—you may surprise yourself, and in any case, you will expand your world and increase your knowledge and intelligence. Reading the greatest works of civilization will also help you understand and appreciate humans throughout history. Moderns suffer terribly from a disconnect with the past and the resulting loss of identity in the present. Don’t be like Jason Bourne from The Bourne Identity, who forgot his past and thus had no idea where to go in the future!

I am not telling you that you should never engage in lighter reading or that watching cat videos on YouTube or playing Mario Bros. are off-limits. Using technology rightly is one of the great privileges of the modern age. Be purposeful, however, with what you do consume, and keep moderation always in mind. Watch the cat video or the comedy sketch posted on Facebook, but don’t watch the next 50 which are recommended after the first is over. Limit your video game playing on the weekends to a couple of hours. Don’t watch or read something which has little value beyond shocking you or making you laugh guiltily.

Above all, make sure there is a balance in all areas of your life! Interact with friends and family without any screens in between you. Don’t let your TV watching constantly spill over into your exercise time or homework time or cause you to stay up so late that you are barely awake at work in the morning. You are the only person who ultimately decides what becomes a permanent part of you. Remember, garbage in, garbage out!

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