Does TV really rot your brain? Here’s what science says

Most of us have either heard or said that famous adage ‘too much TV will rot your brain’. But is this actually the case?

Australian researchers found that watching television may increase your risk of death from heart disease, strokes and even cancer.

“Every hour spent watching television each day increases the risk of dying from heart disease by almost a fifth”, says Professor David Dunstan, from the Baker IDI Heart and Diabetes Institute in Victoria, Australia.

“Even if someone has a healthy body weight, sitting for long periods of time still has an unhealthy influence on their blood sugar and blood fats.”

According to some studies, people who sat in front of the box for more than four hours a day were 80 per cent more likely to die from heart and artery disease-related conditions.

But does it rot your brain?

Melissa Chu, in an essay she penned for Medium, investigated what science says about television and books, and how each affects your brain.

She based her findings on a wide range of studies and reports and found that, perhaps unsurprisingly, reading books is better for you than watching television.

“Reading keeps your mind alert and delays cognitive decline in elders. Research even found that Alzheimer’s is 2.5 times less likely to appear in elderly people who read regularly, while TV was presented as a risk factor,” she wrote.

“Six minutes of reading can reduce stress levels by 68 per cent, according to researchers at the University of Sussex. Reading beat out other relaxing activities, including listening to music (61 per cent), drinking tea or coffee (54 per cent), and taking a walk (42 per cent).”

So, score one (or many) for books, but back to our original question: does TV rot your brain?

It doesn’t ‘rot’ your brain, as such, but studies suggest there is a definite negative effect.

Studies using brain imaging on a child’s neural circuits suggest that watching television for prolonged periods changes the anatomical structure of the brain. The parts of their brain associated with higher arousal and aggression levels became thicker, as did the frontal lobe, which lowers verbal abilities. There is also evidence of higher rates of antisocial behaviour and mental health problems in conjunction in connection to watching excessive TV.

A University College London study analysed data from 3662 adults aged 50 and over and found that watching TV for more than three-and-a-half hours a day was associated with a decline in memory of words and language over the following six years.

Television is designed to make a watcher passive. You can just sit back and watch everything unfold without effort on your part. Your brain goes into a type of stasis as it’s force-fed images and dialogue designed to keep you engrossed.

There is evidence, though, that watching TV and talking about it is not as bad as sitting and watching in silence.

Watching television can easily become a habit. If you’re surrounded by people always talking about television, chances are you’ll watch more television. See the remote when you get home and you’re likely to turn on the TV without even thinking about it. Habit. Sit down to dinner and turn on the TV every night? Habit.

A habit that can quickly turn into an addiction.

So, how do you break a TV habit?

Have a chat with a friend, your partner, family member, neighbour, or – pick up a book.

But make sure it’s a paper book. E-readers may be convenient, but they share some of the negative effects of TV and other screen-based devices. Electronic devices can interfere with your sleep patterns and are linked to higher stress and depression levels.

Books, as you read earlier (ironically, on a screen-based device), actually reduce stress and engage your brain.

Need some suggestions? Try almost anything by Cormac McCarthy, Elmore Leonard, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, William Gibson, Phillip Chandler, Haruki Murakami, Yukio Mishima or Kurt Vonnegut.

Check out Corrie Perkin’s book club for more updated suggestions or read anything off any greatest books of all-time list.

If I don’t know an author, I pick up the book, read the first page, then flick about halfway in and read a few lines of dialogue. If I’m hooked after a quick scan, chances are the book will suit my taste. But don’t be afraid to give a book a chance. You’re not exactly doing yourself any harm by reading and not liking a book.

Most of all, relax and enjoy!

Do you think you might watch too much TV? How many books do you read each year? Should you be reading more?

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Written by Leon Della Bosca

Leon Della Bosca is a voracious reader who loves words. You'll often find him spending time in galleries, writing, designing, painting, drawing, or photographing and documenting street art. He has a publishing and graphic design background and loves movies and music, but then, who doesn’t?
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