Note to self: Primetime is getting its act together with engaging, stimulating television that might just do more than entertain viewer. Can TV increase brain activity or provide an outlet for analytical thinking?
We have chosen plenty of American Idols and rejoiced over one too many roses given out by The Bachelor. But have our perceptions become distorted by this mindless and mundane entertainment? Past studies certainly affirm this supposition to be true.
Evidentiary Support Suggests a Shift
In November 1969, Dr. Herbert Krugman performed a study, pertaining to the physiology of watching television, and found that within 30 seconds of TV exposure, his subject’s brain switched from predominantly beta waves – indicating alertness and conscious attention – to predominantly alpha waves, indicating minimal focus. However, when Krugman’s subject turned away from the screen to read a magazine, the beta waves reappeared, revealing that alert attentiveness had replaced the daydreaming state.
While the correlation of physical brain activity with cognitive events has been an unquestionable scientific triumph, many psychologists remain unsatisfied, because neither neuroscientists nor philosophers have adequately explained how such patterns give rise to subjectively felt mental states. Therefore, the puzzle of how these processes transform into individual awareness persists as the cardinal mystery of human existence.
Yet after years of related investigation, Dr. Alison Preston, a professor in the Department of Psychology and section of Neurobiology at the University of Texas, has come to understand the brain as a prediction machine, specializing in detection and recognition, anticipation of threats and storytelling.
Industry Commands Audience Attention
With over 115 million televisions in American households and close to 120 scripted series available, the desire for mentally stimulating shows has never been as prominent.
Around the mid-1970s, the term “quality” began to pass from the trades to public discourse – assuming complex dimensions like artistic excellence, sophisticated subject matter and commercial affectivity – with an educated, affluent audience.
As a result of this expansion, Dr. Elizabeth, an assistant professor at West Virginia University, believes television fans started to seek more thought-provoking programs, hoping to invest in the shows’ continuances.
“I think over the past 20 or 30 years, television has slowly gotten audiences more accustomed to watching shows with such complexity,” Cohen said. “Compared to television in the past, today’s shows thread together multiple narratives, introducing us to more characters and painting better representations of human experiences.”
From brilliant writing to inspired acting, Cohen went on to express why she thinks shows such as Sherlock and The Big Bang Theory continue to captivate viewers.
“[Because] many complex shows offer a lot of excitement, people are finding pleasure in them, just like they might take pleasure from a roller coaster ride,” Cohen said.“In that way, these programs help to make us feel more human.”
They Asked, It Delivered
Although its series finale aired September 29, Breaking Bad endures as a prime example of intelligent television—chronicling one man’s descent from an upstanding citizen to an underworld criminal.
To ‘break bad’ in the American Southwest, means to “let loose, cause trouble or let off steam,” which series creator and executive producer Vince Gilligan felt fully encompassed the show’s offbeat quality.
“This show is ridiculous. A high school chemistry teacher partners with an incorrigible former student to manufacture and sell methamphetamine,” UCLA television professor Richard Walter said. “It’s not the premise that matters, but the story. Breaking Bad tells a great story.”
In the pilot episode, just seconds after being informed he has inoperable lung cancer, chemistry innovator turned high school teacher Walter White, calmly assesses the reality of his situation. The doctor, stunned by White’s lack of emotion, asks if he fully understands what he is being told, to which Walt nonchalantly replies, “Best case scenario, with chemo, I’ll live maybe another couple of years.”
Throughout the show’s five seasons, both White’s life and the story intricately unravel, unveiling a sinister nature spreading within Walter. However, as journalist James Meek suggests in his article, “It’s the Moral Thing to Do,” this evil essence is not due to Walt’s lung cancer. Instead as White’s great personal justifications for his bloody criminality become less meaningful, his essential wickedness, in the form of selfishness and malice, grows at an alarming rate.
Whether Walt is cooking meth, committing murder or causing mischief in Albuquerque, New Mexico, television critic Craig Simpson pro- poses that White’s debauchery provokes more than just the senses.
In his article, “Hurtling Toward Death,” Simpson considers Breaking Bad to be a show about three reactions. There is the chemical, when pseudoephedrine is mixed with iodine crystals and red phosphorus to make crystalline methamphetamine; the physical, where cells in human bodies grow uncontrollably and metastasize into malignant cancers; and the emotional, in the overwhelming feeling of despair after being told you’re going to die.
All of which, Breaking Bad expounds upon, making its presence as a television show so enticing and surprising.
Heisenberg is Born
White’s actions are not those of a desperate man, but are instead the conscious decisions made by one traveling down a criminal path. To supplement this premise, Walter creates a dual identity under the pseudonym, “Heisenberg,” which Entertainment Weekly writer Jeff Jensen readily acknowledges as a metaphor.
“While Breaking Bad is certainly open to many interpretations… Heisenberg was a means to an end. It was Walt’s Mr. Hyde and his hiding place. It was a constructed personality — a part to play — that helped him cope with, and deny, the evil things he was doing,” Jensen said. “Yes, Heisenberg allowed Walt to exercise certain qualities that were essentially Walt. But Heisenberg became a thing unto itself, and Walt increasingly allowed it to take him over.”
Alluding to Werner Heisenberg’s “uncertainty principle,” this relationship ultimately reflects the extent to which White’s life is heavily steeped in the unknown. Like a particle identified in space, where his character is going—the certainty of his future and the direction his life is heading— is impossible to gauge. Thus, on a purely linguistic level, uncertainty is the foundation of Breaking Bad as it prompts audiences to think harder and delve deeper.
According to an Entertainment Weekly article by James Hibberd, the series finale of Breaking Bad shattered records with 10.3 million viewers tuning in to see how the saga of Walter White would end.
Whether it is through a series’ anti-hero who sells meth or simply its multidimensional plot, the future of television appears bright. In the words of Walter White then, “tread lightly,” because at any given moment an “intellivision” show might just grab your attention and utmost devotion.
“Viewers want one and only one thing at the very least, and it has nothing to do with the ‘type’ of show,” Walter said. “They want to be engaged, that is, not bored. At the most they want their lives to be changed forever.”