See also Brainwaves & TV

  TV & Brainwaves Published Studies

from the textbook

The Neuropsychology of Everyday Life: Issues in Development and Rehabilitation

December 31, 1990

Edited by David E. Tupper and Keith D. Cicerone

Chapter 4 "Cognition and Watching Television"

written by John J. Burns and Daniel R. Anderson

Note: References listed on pages 106-108

Note: To download the chapter "Cognition and Watching Television"



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Reading the chapter "Cognition and Watching Television" by Burns and Anderson, it becomes very clear that the authors do not believe that reading elicits faster brain waves than watching television. They believe that any slowing (or quickening) of the brain waves would be due to content rather than the medium.

"Despite the evidence of different patterns of EEG when comparing television viewing to other cognitive activities such as reading, this difference does not necessarily mean television is cognitively less demanding than reading. The fact that only one study effectively varied content differences across media points to a major deficit in much of the research comparing TV viewing to other activities. In fact, the most important finding may simply be that different kinds of content have different cognitive demand. " - From page 105

Unfortunately there are very few studies looking at EEG brain wave patterns of television viewing compared to other activities. Of the 5 studies that have been done (as described in this chapter), three did find greater amounts of fast brain wave activity while reading than while watching television. One study found no appreciable difference, and one study found that complex TV content elicited more fast brain waves than simple reading content.

The authors concluded that the three studies finding slower brainwaves during TV watching were flawed. The one study that found little difference was not criticized. And the only study, Radlick (1980), which found that content mattered much more than medium, was lauded as a excellent, defining study. Note: All the studies were published except for the Radlick study which was an unpublished doctoral dissertation (later on it was published as a book, not in a peer-reviewed journal).

But to the vast and amazing credit of Burns and Anderson, what they did do was to publish descriptions of these studies comparing the EEG brain waves of people reading versus watching TV. They were willing to do this despite the fact that 3 of the 5 studies discovered results that Burns and Anderson do not agree with. This is a prime example of intellectual honesty.

Personally, I agree with the authors of the article "Television Addiction Is No Mere Metaphor" - Scientific American (Feb 2002) and Full Text. It is the frequency of the "Formal Features" (the camera cuts, pans, zooms), that trigger the "orienting response" that effect brain wave activity not complexity of content. Note, regarding the one study that found hardly any EEG difference between TV and reading, perhaps the experimenters picked TV shows or video that contained very few "formal features", which would explain the lack of difference. Or it could be that they only looked at alpha and beta waves (where the differences between TV watch and reading are minor) and did not look at the very fast hi-beta and gamma waves where the drop-off while TV watching is quite large.

Here are excerpts from their chapter, describing the experiments:

Krugman (1971)  -  The Experiment - Page 99

"Early comparisons between EEG while watching TV and EEG while reading were based on the popular as well as academic belief that TV viewing is passive. Based on William James' conceptualization of duel attention systems (voluntary and involuntary attention), Krugman (1971) posited that whereas reading involved a series of successive efforts to attend (demanded voluntary attention), TV viewing involved little or no voluntary effort. Using an EEG measure from the occipetal area, Krugman found a preponderance of slow waves (alpha, delta and theta frequencies) whereas the corresponding characteristic response for EEG during reading involved little slow wave activity and considerable high-frequency or beta activity. He interpreted these findings as supporting the idea that the two media are processed differently, consistent with James' idea of two attentional systems."

- Krugman, H. (1971). Brainwave measures of media involvement. Journal of Advertising Research 11, 3-9.   Also reprinted in the book How Advertising Works

Weinstein, Appel, and Weinstein (1980)   -  The Experiment - Page 99

"These hypotheses were expanded and examined in detail by Weinstein, Appel, and Weinstein (1980). The authors hypothesized that looking at magazine ads would generate more overall beta wave activity, as well as more left hemisphere beta wave activity, than would looking at television ads. They further hypothesized that advertisements that generated more beta wave activity would also generate higher levels of brand recall. Based on data from 30 women, they found support for their hypothesis that magazine ads generate more beta wave activity, but support for their hypothesis that magazine ads would generate more left brain beta wave activity and greater brand recall was less impressive."

- Appel, V., Weinstein, S., & Weinstein, C. (1979). "Brain activity and recall of TV."  Journal of Advertising Research 19, 7-15.  APA PsycNet (June 1980)  and  UCSF (June 1980)

Note: this study only looked at Alpha and Beta brain waves. Gamma brain waves were not looked at.

Featherman et al. (1979)  -  The Experiment - Page 100

"The idea that television viewing may require less effortful processing than reading was directly examined by Featherman and colleagues (1979). They speculated that since the majority of people view TV to relax, this activity would involve a reduction in the frequency of saccades. They also hypothesized that, when compared with reading, television viewing would result in reduced levels of cortical activation in the occipital region. Decreased cortical activation was operationalized as increased alpha along with decreased beta and theta activity. In an effort to minimize the environmental differences between the two activities Featherman et al. (1979) displayed reading material on a television screen."

"Featherman et al. (1979) found a significant decrease in both theta and beta activity during television when compared to reading.  However, while television did produce a higher level of alpha than reading, this difference is not significant."

- Featherman, G., Frieser, D., Greenspun, D., Harris, B., Shulman, D., & Crown, P. (1979).  "Electroencephalographic and electrooculographic correlates of television viewing."  Final Technical Report: National Science Foundation Student-Oriented Studies (Grant No. SP178-03698). Hampshire College; Amhurst, MA.  WorldCat  and  Amazon  and  Google Books

Note: this study only looked at Alpha and Beta brain waves. Gamma brain waves were not looked at.

Walker (1980)  -  The Experiment - Page 100

"Walker (1980) had a group of university students engage in a variety of more or less demanding cognitive tasks, including resting with eyes closed, counting backwards, reading and viewing television. Walker recorded EEG during these activities, giving special attention to levels of beta and alpha. His results indicated that reading and television viewing were associated with the highest levels of beta and lowest levels of alpha. Comparisons between reading and television viewing revealed that although reading was characterized by slightly higher levels of beta and slightly lower levels of alpha, these differences were not statistically significant. The general pattern of results from these studies are slight, often non significant, differences between the media."

  "Changes in EEG rhythms during television viewing; Preliminary comparisons with reading and other tasks." Perceptual and Motor Skills 51, 255-261.  APA PsychNet (1980)  and  Ammons Scientific (1980)  and  Eric (1980)

Note: this study only looked at Alpha and Beta brain waves. Gamma brain waves were not looked at.

Radlick (1980)  -  The Experiment - Page 100

"In a similar vein, Radlick (1980) used EEG recordings in an attempt to determine if television viewing could be characterized as different in terms of processing demands when compared to reading and resting. To assess the possible effects of within-activity complexity, however, Radlick included four television stimuli varying in terms of content complexity as well as visual and auditory complexity. Radlick's results indicated that while reading produced more depth of processing, mental effort, and left hemisphere activation than the less complex television segments, the more complex television segments produced more depth of processing, mental effort, and left hemisphere activation than reading. This result indicates that content complexity is the determining factor in the EEG Studies comparing media. In most of the studies content was not controlled. Like Krugman (1971) and Weinstein et al. (1980), Radlick interpreted decreased alpha and increased beta as reflecting increased cognitive processing. Radlick also concluded that the rapid pace of visual or auditory television stimuli did not produce reduced attention or arousal."

- Radlick, M.S. (1980). "The processing demands of television: Neurological correlates of television viewing." doctoral dissertation, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY.  Google Books  (note: it was published as a book, not in a peer-reviewed journal)

Burns and Anderson's Criticisms of 3 of the 5 studies:

Krugman (1971)  -  The Criticism - Page 99

"Krugman's widely publicized findings were based on EEG recordings of one subject who was told to first look at several magazine ads, then to watch three commercials. The subject spent 15 minutes looking through the magazines before viewing the commercials, which were repeated several times. Though his findings are interesting, the use of a single subject limits their generalizability."

Weinstein, Appel, and Weinstein (1980)   -  The Criticism - Page 99

"While Weinstein and colleagues provide justification for acceptance of the hypothesis that looking at magazine ads produce more beta, subsequent interpretations and manipulations of the data used in assessing their remaining hypothesis are open to question. For example, they based their conclusions on data based on 18 of the original 30 subjects, those 18 subjects selected in order to maximize differences between conditions. In addition, the authors contended that since beta waves are indicative of increased attention, the magazine ads were more close attended to than the television ads. It is relevant to note that although there was some effort made to control for content differences in the two media by matching print ads with their corresponding TV ads, this manipulation does not eliminate the possibility that content differences accounted for their findings. A difference in task difficulty as a function of content may explain why subjects exhibited proportionally more beta wave activity when looking at magazine ads than when looking at TV ads."

Note: this study only looked at Alpha and Beta brain waves. Gamma brain waves were not looked at.

Featherman et al. (1979)  -  The Criticism - Page 100

"With regards to saccades, these authors found that the frequency was somewhat reduced during television viewing when compared to reading. They pointed out, however, that these results may be confounded because content differences within TV viewing and between media viewing conditions were not controlled. These latter results are, in many respects, similar to those obtained by Krugman (1971) and Weinstein et al. (1980)."

Note: this study only looked at Alpha and Beta brain waves. Gamma brain waves were not looked at.

When they wrote this chapter, Burns and Anderson were quite skeptical of the published experiments showing that the brain waves of people watching TV are slower than the brain waves of those same people while reading. Similarly, I am quite skeptical of the published study showing hardly any difference. And I am especially skeptical of the unpublished study finding that content is all-important.

The reason I am skeptical of these 2 studies, is that I have done the experiment numerous times myself and have consistently found that reading a novel elicits much greater amounts of hi-beta and gamma brainwaves than watching TV (especially TV with frequent "formal features"). Drawing and playing guitar elicited even more hi-beta and gamma brain waves than reading or watching TV.

All these published studies were done before 1980, back when computing power was very expensive, and only scientists and doctors had access to EEG machines. But now, amazingly powerful personal computers are available to anyone, and EEG machines have also come down in price. That is, anyone with access to an EEG machine can do the experiment for themselves. Just 10 minutes of TV watching, compared to 10 minutes of reading, compared to 10 minutes of whatever mental activity of your choice. Most importantly compare the hi-beta and gamma brainwave results. Then, I would most appreciate it if you were to email me the results at terry at or post at Comments and Feedback or anywhere else on my blog:

These scientific studies were done before the rise of the internet, which is one reason why it is almost impossible to find descriptions of these studies. It is very important for scientists to do well-designed versions of these experiments, using up-to-date equipment, and publish the results.  Scientific results would provide an objective basis for people to decide for themselves whether TV is a mentally stimulating and engaging medium or just an effective way to zone out and relax. Also, results would provide a rational basis for deciding which, from a brain development point-of-view, is the better show, "Mr. Rogers" (few formal features) or "Sesame Street" (frequent formal features).

"But why does television have such a negative effect on children of this age? "We believe that one reason is the fact that it exposes children to flashing lights, scene changes, quick edits and auditory cuts which may be over stimulating to developing brains" says Professor Christakis. "TV also replaces other more important and appropriate activities like playing or interacting with parents." - Scientific Blogging (Jan 2009)

Note: scientists have done a large number of EEG studies, looking at what makes a commercial more effective. On the other hand, scientists have only completed 4 published studies comparing the brain waves of people watching TV compared to them reading or some other common activity. Considering the huge amount of TV that young children watch, this oversight is mind-boggling and disgraceful.

For example:

- "Attention and Brain Activity While Watching Television: Components of Viewer Engagement"

- "Brain scans are helping advertisers find out how to light up customers' brains, reports Paul Bray"

- ""This is the next generation in market research," said Hans Lee, chief technology officer for EmSense Corp. The San Francisco startup also is using electro encephalograph, or EEG, technology to correlate brain activity with physiological cues such as skin temperature or eye movement to gauge how people react to ads, computer games, even presidential candidates.

Note, if we take voluntary attention as an indication of brainwave speed, then this study provides more evidence that fast-edit television reduces voluntary attention, and thus brain wave speed:

"Conditioning attentional skills: examining the effects of the pace of television editing on children's attention"

"Methods: School children (aged 4–7 years) were randomly assigned to one of two groups. Each group was presented with either a fast- or slow-edit 3.5-min film of a narrator reading a children's story. Immediately following film presentation, both groups were presented with a continuous test of attention."

"Results: Performance varied according to experimental group and age. In particular, we found that children's orienting networks and error rates can be affected by a very short exposure to television."

"Conclusion: Just 3.5 min of watching television can have a differential effect on the viewer depending on the pacing of the film editing. These findings highlight the potential of experimentally manipulating television exposure in children and emphasize the need for more research in this previously under-explored topic."

- Cooper et al. (2009)  Acta Pædiatrica (June 2009)

Other Relevant Published Studies

 "Gamma-band response was linked to voluntary shifts of attention, but not to the involuntary capture of attention. The presence of increased gamma responses for the voluntary allocation of attention, and its absence in cases of involuntary capture suggests that the neural mechanisms governing these two types of attention are different." - The Journal of Neuroscience (Oct 2007)

"Subsequent work by Malach and colleagues has found that, when we're engaged in intense "sensorimotor processing" - and nothing is more intense than staring at a massive screen with Dolby surround sound while wearing 3-D glasses - we actually inhibit these prefrontal areas. The scientists argue that such "inactivation" allows us to lose ourself in the movie" - Frontal Cortex (Jan 2010)