Does TV fill a spiritual hole?

It might not have been immediately apparent, but I recently emptied the backlog of books I’ve read – I’ve been running a couple of months behind until the New Year – it wasn’t exactly a resolution, but I rattled through the rest of the queue at the start of January (it takes a lot less time to write a few hundred words on Infinite Jest than it does to read the damn thing), and now I don’t have anything finished to write about.

So, instead, I’ve decided to write a bit about something that struck me while reading my current book (which is The Origin of Our Species by Chris Stringer). The book is about the evolution of humans from our closest primate ancestors, and it summarises the latest thinking and theories (Stringer is apparently quite well known in the field).

In one of the chapters (don’t make me get the book out) he talks about cave paintings, and what they might have been used for by early humans. He notes that some of them appear in hard-to-reach spaces, and the obvious fact that these places are dark means that they would have been lit by torchlight. So it’s quite possible that young adults/initiates (if that’s the word I’m looking for) could have been led through dark passages, before being exposed to a brightly lit cave covered in representations of hunts and other adventures, possibly accompanied by chanting, dancing, music and so on.

He also describes the function of the shaman-type in the society, who might go into trances, maybe under the influence of hallucinogens, praying for assistance and/or guidance from the spirit world, which world was represented and reached by the paintings on the wall.

Both of these would be spiritual and deeply affecting processes, and if they were indeed an important part of our evolution, it’s possible that the mechanisms which made them work – flickering images sending people into trances (could early shamans have been photo-sensitive epileptics?) – is coded into our genes, and that every time we watch TV we’re getting a dose of something that’s supposed to be a community ritual or deep spiritual experience. Because we’re exposed to it all the time, we don’t notice, perhaps, but it is always difficult to ignore the TV screen in the corner of a room, no matter what else is going on around.

Perhaps some of this is touched on by Infinite Jest (the film in the book, and the book itself) which is why it occurred to me now. Something to think about when you’re watching Dancing On Ice or Splash! next…


3 thoughts on “Does TV fill a spiritual hole?”

  1. Hmm, seems a pretty big leap from “our ancestors might have viewed cave paintings by torchlight” to “being transfixed by flickering images is coded into our genes”…

    Is the implication that the trait (being transfixed…) is somehow advantageous in terms of survival / reproduction? Is there a suggested means by which that trait could have an advantage in this way?

    1. Well, the next chapter, or the chapter after that suggests that in order for long-term human survival and development of technologies and culture, it was important for groups of early humans to stay together and interact, exchange ideas and so on. Rituals involving cave paintings and trances (proto-religion?) might have been a mechanism by which this cohesion was achieved. On a physical/neurological level, there is a hint that around the time of the advent of modern humans, there was a change in the brain which altered dopamine receptivity.

      I’m not saying it’s not a big leap, but there have been studies (probably not a great example here: on how film editing affects the brain – it seems like something might be going on.

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