Watching television is like doing nothing at all, only more so.
That's essentially the conclusion Memphis psychologists came to after they wired up 31 kids, stuck them in front of a television set, turned on "The Wonder Years" and watched their vital signs plunge."The metabolic rate during television viewing was even lower than it was during rest," the psychologists reported.
So what else is new? Of course television turns you into a vegetable. That's the purpose of television.
You've had a hard day, you don't want to think anymore, you turn on the TV and bingo, you're brain dead. It doesn't matter whether you're watching MacNeil/Lehrer or "Entertainment Tonight," "The Wonder Years" or "Green Acres."
Half an hour in front of the flickering screen will turn you into a zombie and knock 50 points off your IQ.
Many of us feel the need for that kind of escape from time to time. But there's a catch. Television is electronic heroin. Once you start watching, you're hooked for the evening. You might as well call the nearest pizza delivery place, because you're not going anywhere, not until you nod out during Letterman.
The next morning's a different story. You find yourself unable to resist the urge to go out and do something really stupid - like paying $150 for a pair of sneakers that ought to cost $19.95.
"If I owned a pair of those sneakers, I could fly," you say to yourself, subconsciously.
"I'd kill for those sneakers."
There's nothing new about reports that TV puts people in a trance, although, for understandable reasons, it is not a subject that gets much coverage on the network evening news.
In 1978 a man named Jerry Mander wrote a book called "Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television." He pointed out that the fluorescent flickering of the television screen is known to trigger epileptic fits in some non-epileptics. Television epilepsy, it's called. It's fairly rare.
What does TV do to the rest of us, those it doesn't send into epileptic fits?
Mander said it puts us into something very much like a hypnotic state.
Having a subject stare at a flickering light is a standard means of inducing hypnosis.
Also, Mander said, the TV sends out 30 images a second. That's three times too many for the conscious mind to process, so the images shoot directly to the subconscious. There, they gather and fester and cause us to send thousand-dollar money orders to Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, or buy greatest-hits recordings we never play.
Of course, movies flicker too. But, Mander said, when we watch television, we stare unwaveringly at the small screen - at the movies, with a much larger screen, our eyes move around, breaking the trance.
The TV trance, a scientist told Mander, is a response "to the medium, rather than to any of its content. Once the set goes on, the brain waves slow down . . . The longer the set is on, the slower the brain-wave activity."
And the longer people watch television, the stronger their alpha waves become. Alpha waves are associated with trancelike acceptance. Look inside a Moonie's brain and you'll see nothing but alpha waves.
Beta waves, which indicate conscious, rational thought, grow progressively weaker the longer a subject watches television. Eventually, they diminish to the point that people decide that they cannot live without a machine that makes juice out of kiwis.
A brain wave researcher from MIT told Mander: "To really learn anything, you have to interact with the source of the data. With television you don't really think.
You say all this sounds a trifle paranoiac?
Well, as the old saying goes, even paranoids have thousands of enemies. You think people really make a conscious choice to watch Home Shopping Network? Or Phil Donahue?
Could it be that television is a massive worldwide conspiracy to turn us all into zombies? Think about it.
But first, turn off the TV.