American spectator

Note: This essay first appeared in Paleo magazine

You never understood that it ain't no good You shouldn't let other people get your kicks for you.

Bob Dylan Like a Rolling Stone

As we grind our way through another American football season, millions of sports fans will dig in and prepare to go the distance. They’ll get themselves a new flat panel display, make sure the batteries in the remote are all charged up, download a schedule of all the big games and lay in a copious supply of edible, food-like substances. Once fully stocked, the devoted fan will mount his couch, assume the position and lapse into an entertainment coma until the Super Bowl is over.

The fact that this behavior is commonplace and familiar should not distract us from the fact that it’s unhealthy, historically deviant and profoundly dysfunctional. As Erich Fromm once observed, “That millions of people share the same form of mental pathology does not make those people sane.”

It’s simply impossible to calculate the carnage. How many millions of hours of human attention are wasted on television viewing? What is the opportunity cost? What kind of beautiful and creative things might people be doing if they weren’t locked into this kinky electronic embrace?

It would be one thing if TV viewing was a form of rest, but it’s not even that. Authentic rest, as part of a healthy, high-contrast lifestyle, means powering down, way down. It means quiet. It means sleep. It means reducing stimulation to the lowest possible level so the body can enter fully into its tissue-rebuilding, anabolic mode.

In contrast, TV simply sets us up for whatever appears on screen. Sometimes it’s exciting, sometimes it’s romantic, sometimes it’s ridiculous. And of course, in the hands of an impulsive channel switcher, it’s all these things in at random, a psycho-physical mixed message with real neuro-endocrine consequences. The body, unable to understand the nature of the imagery before it, doesn’t know whether to go into “fight-flight” or “feed and breed.” This is a state of autonomic confusion, physiological chaos and ultimately, ill health.

Not only does TV tie us down into a sedentary numbness, it also exposes us to a near-constant stream of exceptional human imagery. In turn, it saps our energy and motivation. Why should I struggle with the challenges of training and learning when I can simply watch the end result on the screen? Why flounder on my bicycle when I can watch the hottest Olympian racer? Why bother with my soft and saggy body when I can watch the latest hard bodies strut their stuff?  Everything’s already being done, better than I could ever hope to do myself. Pass me another beer mate, I’m feeling inadequate.

When TV first appeared on the modern scene, life went from being something we lived to something we watched. For the first time in human history, we developed an expectation that the world should entertain us. And if the world failed to do so, so much the worse for the world. Of course, many of today’s young people do shun TV in favor of computers, but this is hardly an improvement; the inevitable merger of computers with TV will only serve to increase the grip of entertainment on the human mind and spirit.

At this point, it’s essential that we revisit our Paleo experience and remember the power of watching a campfire for the first time. We can easily imagine the scene: a tribe of hunter-gatherers, bellies full from feasting on the day’s kill, gathering round for stories and dancing about the events of the day. Later, as conversation died down and the stars began to appear, people gazed into the fire and began to wonder. Imagination was born.

This may well have been the big bang of human consciousness, the first step in humanity's incredible journey of innovation and exploration. But the campfire was only a spark, as it were. Human minds were fascinated by the dancing flames, but it was the human imagination that was doing the work, not the fire. As our wonder grew, it started a cascade of big questions and big curiosities, feeding back into increased intelligence and sophistication.

There can be no question that the human imagination behaves like a muscle. It responds to training or inversely, atrophies with disuse. When our ancestors gazed into the campfire, they engaged their minds with wonder, pumping “reps” of imagination to build their capacity. In contrast, today’s spectator is spoon-fed a constant stream of artificial imagery, a process that cripples the imagination just as effectively as the couch cripples the muscles of our legs, hips and core.

The obvious lesson: Use the imagination or lose it.

Legend has it that journalist Hunter S. Thompson reportedly fired on his television with his shotgun, blasting it into oblivion.

We might well do the same.