Buzzell, Keith. Children of Cyclops: Association of Waldorf Schools of North America Publications, 1998.

This book focuses not on the potential effects of viewing particular types of programming content, but rather on TV viewing as a neurobiological event. Buzzell's ultimate message is that numerous physiological aspects of watching TV could potentially be problematic for children, and this is a generally neglected issue that warrants more research.

Buzzell's arguments are based on Paul MacLean's three-part model of the brain, which includes the reptilian (core or r-brain), limbic, and neomammalian (neocortex) brain. These exist in a hierarchy, with the lower levels being much faster to activate but also much more simplistic in their reaction to stimuli. An advantage to having a brain that has evolved into such levels is that lower mental functions can happen automatically, without our higher functions even having to become aware of them. This saves our neocortex (what one might think of as our "conscious brain") from having to process all of the lower-level activities. I need not consciously decide whether to notice a sudden flash of light, for example, since my lower perceptual functions will automatically draw my attention to it. Despite the advantages of such a structure, Buzzell argues that the "price [for the r-brain and limbic brain] is that the images must be taken as real." Our symbolic and limbic processing capabilities cannot, in themselves, distinguish between the real and synthetic. Paying attention to stimuli, believing them as true and perceiving them as "wholes" (rather than as constituent parts) are hardwired into our low-level neural functions.

Such a distinction must occur through our cortex, which requires a sort of filtering of the stimuli up to our conscious attention. All human symbol systems (literature, painting, sculpture, etc.) throughout history have exploited this fact that our initial response to an image is to accept it. This is particularly true of TV, however, since it so actively engages many of our lower-level perceptual functions.

Buzzell points out that a great strength of our brain is the ability to maintain both focus and context in all of our senses. Increased meaning is gained through harmonization of the two, i.e. bringing something to our attention while also supporting our understanding of its surrounding context. Problems can arise, however, when a technology such as TV presents us with very focused stimuli that are relatively devoid of real world context.

Neurobiological effects are particularly important for children, since the growing brain has specific windows of development, with most of the significant windows being closed by about age 10. If TV has a tendency to stunt components of cognitive development, the most significant implications of such findings would be for young children. Buzzell is generally concerned that early experiences for children should be as perceptually and cognitively rich as possible. TV has a tendency to present artificially fragmented experiences to children, which could rob them of the holistic environment they need to adequately develop. This has the potential to manifest itself in several ways:

Other concerns relate to the sort of stimulation that TV imposes on the brain:

One final argument worth noting is that TV imposes images on the viewer, rather than calling on her to visualize on her own. Since children are learning how to form their own internal mechanisms for imagery, imagination and prioritizing of perceptions, reliance on an external source could stunt important development.


Given the tone of his comments, we believe that Joseph Chilton Pearce's introduction to this book warrants a brief description of its own. Pearce emphasizes the main thrust of Buzzell's argument that an investigation of the effects of TV on children should include not simply the programming content, but also "the instrument itself."

He suggests that one possible reason for the relative apathy in our society toward the risks of technologies such as TV is the nature of the media themselves, in that "television produces a mind-set almost incapable of critical evaluation of what the device does to the mind."

Pearce points out that Paul MacLean identified a "family triad" of survival needs in the developing brain: nurturing, communication and play. All three of these should be carried out between the child and other people (especially the parents) through things like story telling and family talk. A danger of TV is that it substitutes for and prevents all three from taking place.

He goes on to state, "Of all the damages wrought by TV, impairment of internal imagery may be the most serious." Rather than allowing children to create, TV simply imposes. "TV entertains the mind, and entertainment is not play." Though Pearce does a nice job using approachable language to foreshadow a number of Buzzell's explanations, he often falls into almost comical claims. We are warned, for example, of TV viewing leading to an "insensitivity to all human values." Such unsubstantiated hyperbole unfortunately detracts from the Buzzell's scientific claims that follow.


When evaluating Buzzell's claims, it is important to note that the clear divisions he draws between both the two hemispheres and three functional levels of the brain are by no means universally accepted within psychology and neurobiology. There are numerous competing models of how the mind functions, and many of them reject the notion of a strict hierarchy, with a single conscious processor that only activates when lower-level functions are filtered up to our attention. Many of Buzzell's arguments also appear to rest on the assumption that each sensory system forms a discrete "image" of external reality, which it then processes in a variety of ways. This seems quite problematic, given what we know from cognitive science about how numerous mental functions cooperate to form perceptual and conceptual representations.

Also open to debate is the degree to which TV viewing is passive. Buzzell states, "A very large portion of television viewing takes places with the viewer in a physically and mentally passive state. By this we mean to emphasize that under most circumstances one does not sit down to watch TV with an aim to intellectually explore, evaluate, criticize, compare, or come to a fuller understanding of. We sit down to be entertained. We are passive participants, with no recognition of any need to be vigilant, cautious, or alert to small changes. This passivity of the brain sets the stage for all the neurophysiological events that follow."

Buzzell provides no data to support the image of a child couch potato, perceptually isolated from the rest of the world for long stretches of time. Anecdotal evidence would actually seem to indicate quite a different scenario. Many children watch television with friends, often while also engaging in other types of play. Given the attention span of small children, it also seems unlikely that they often sit for more than a few minutes as passive viewers.

This is also a point at which Buzzell seems to falling into the arena that he promises not to enter: critique of the content of TV programming. Buzell provides to support for the assumption that TV is some inherently about entertainment. One likely response to his book is that educational program that is designed appropriately will call on the child to continuously make use of higher mental functions in order to "participate" in the experience. No one would argue that MTV is an appropriate replacement for childhood play, but this again, is an argument about content, which is explicitly outside the scope of Buzzell's book.

Overall, we believe Buzzell raises a number of issues that warrant further scientific exploration. Such research should ideally not be overly wedded to one specific model of the brain, however, and could benefit from more recent data from related work (Buzzell's references to recent sources is quite limited). Given that millions of adults now seem to be functioning, productive members of society, after often having grown up in environments of almost ubiquitous television exposure, the burden of proof would also seem to lie on the part of the researcher to demonstrate actual long-term negative effects. Buzzell points to a number of (sometimes disturbing) hypothetical problems, but it is still not clear which of these problems have become real.

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