Suzana Herculano-Houzel

Does the Brain Work While Watching TV?


If you’re one of those people who turn on the television wanting to turn off your brain, I have some bad news for you: your brain continues to function even in the face of the most imbecilic of programs. Of course, there are different ways of watching TV. There’s TV-wallpaper, TV-radio, TV-cinema, TV-newspaper, TV-babysitter, TV-company-for-sleep, TV-don’t-want-to-think-about-anything. They all at least stimulate the senses, even if you fall asleep. There are more interesting and creative ways of doing just that, it’s true. But when you least expect it, TV can also make you think. Newspapers, interviews and other “serious programs” are obvious thought-provokers, invitations to take a personal stand and make criticisms and assessments. In this sense, really filthy programs, the kind that wallow in other people’s DNA, also work: with a bit of luck, your brain will find it offensive and give you the necessary orders to change the channel.But light nonsense also makes your brain work. Recent studies of viewers watching episodes of sitcoms such as Seinfeld and The Simpsons have made it clear that finding humor is hard work for the brain. Appreciating humor requires cognitive effort: before you can enjoy the laughter, you have to understand the joke, or literally find it funny.

Different brain circuits are activated in the process. Finding the funny coincides with the activation of regions on the left side of the brain that normally both process language and resolve contextual ambiguities – like the ironic jokes and situation jokes that abound in American sitcoms. Enjoying fun, on the other hand, involves the intense activation of three regions, on both sides of the brain. One is part of the reward system, that set of structures that take care of giving us pleasure when we do something good. The other two deal with bodily sensations, the basis of emotions: the amygdala (no, not the one in the throat) and the insula (which constantly monitors the state of the body). As a bonus, laughing also improves the body’s immunity. In other words: watching comedies gives both body and brain work and pleasure.Of course, this doesn’t justify spending hours on end in front of the device. But at least you don’t have to feel totally guilty about stopping everything to watch that long-awaited episode of the soap opera…

Originally published on Folha de São Paulo on May 1st, 2006

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