It’s not that brain activity completely decreases when we watch cable TV, but rather, it shifts.
Plenty of conspiracy theories and “save our children” websites will teach us that this shift in brain activity while watching television is habit-forming and a subtle method of mind control, but claims like this have yet to be substantiated by any study conducted since the Civil Rights era. On the other hand, we do know that right-brain activity – which tends to be more unstructured and creative – increases during TV watching, and that left-brain activity – which is more logical and reason‒focused – goes baseline. Additionally, the brainwaves present during activities like doodling disappear and more evolutionarily ancient ones take their place. The details of these trends are interesting but more scholarly than we need for this article, so to summarize their findings you’ll need to remember that TV shifts activity to the right side of our brain and activates brainwaves in a subtle fight-or-flight response.
Just so we have the full picture: related studies examining the adage that “TV rots your brain,” show that television can either benefit or interfere with learning and brain development based on the quality of the programming and whether it’s a part a diversified lifestyle or the sole means of recreation and entertainment in an individual’s life. Because this evidence is inconclusive, we won’t include it in our quest for an answer.
Now that we understand what happens in our head during our favorite programs, how does it affect our response to ads?
As far as I can tell, nobody knows. Or at least, no one’s attempted to discover whether or not there’s a connection between our primal response to television and the success rate of commercials. That being the case, we have the rare opportunity to propose logical – but totally unscientific and speculative – explanations for what the link between the two may be.
Normally, both hemispheres of our brain share the burden of keeping us going throughout the day. When we watch TV, however, the left hemisphere defers major processing to the right side. This move represents a shift from the ordered aspects of our character – linear reasoning, grammar, and vocabulary – to the dynamic ones – spatial manipulation, facial recognition, and creative ability. The left hemisphere processes routine or well-rehearsed events, while the right manages novel situations and, as it turns out, interprets most visual cues. Because the lateralization of brain function is extensive and boring, just remember that the easiest way to picture what these hemispheres do is to picture your left brain as a stuffy Englishmen in his 50’s and your right brain as a brilliant, but somewhat savage, hippie swinger.
Scientists theorize that television activates the Englishman-hippie transition because our programs inundate viewers with novel, visual stimuli. Every screen wipe, commercial break, and special news report represents an abrupt shift in scenery, a shift that appeals almost exclusively to our right hemisphere. Now, the impact of a commercial on someone who’s shut the ordered side of their brain down could go one of two ways.
- One way TV advertising affects us is that the products which might normally appeal to us get a boost of positive perception, thanks to the rapid cuts between commercials, partly because our right brain becomes active and is all about impulsive decisions. We see some delicious food or funny commercial and suddenly we have an overwhelming desire to head to Buffalo Wild Wings. Our left brain isn’t there to tell us that we always get sewered after hot wings, so we call up a few friends and head out to watch the game and enjoy what we believe will be a tasty snack.
- The second possibility for how television ads affect us ties all the way back to the brainwaves present when we’re watching TV. Remember that the brainwaves we produce while watching TV are similar to fight-or-flight waves, so our usual programming overcomes this subconscious apprehension by being funny, clever, or dramatic. In this case, commercials just upset us. The negative feelings associated with getting bombarded by advertising are compounded. At our core, we either want to punch the voice-over salesman in the face or run away from the ad, which we do by changing the channel. All because our brains are kicked into a basic instinct mode of processing.
So, does our brain’s reaction to watching television affect our reaction to the advertisements we see? Not necessarily, though a more scientific study could prove otherwise. For now, don’t fear the ads.