(From the point of view of goblin studies, the so-called Opium Wars from the nineteenth century were pretty damn interesting. Over the years, I’ve written fragments of a long story about a guy named Roy Rumpslapper, a TV clown, who comes to believe that, for all practical purposes, the Opium Wars in fact never ended. Roy comes to see the contemporary world playing out the same dynamics that were at work a hundred and fifty years back. In this excerpt, Roy talks with Dr. Shirley, who makes a bit of a speech about frame-based media and human consciousness.)
“Look, Roy,” Dr. Shirley said, “as we sit here talking, my unconscious mind and yours are busy creating memories, dredging up associations, forming provisional conclusions, passing judgments, preparing possible comments, all that stuff and much, much more. In fact, the unconscious mind is normally running at very high speed behind the scenes doing all manner of work. The human unconscious is very busy. That’s the natural way the mind works. Do you understand?”
“I think so,” Roy said.
“Okay, that’s the start” Dr. Shirley said. “Now, consider a person sitting in front of a television or in a movie theater. As you probably know, too, these visual media are what is called frame based. That is, the illusion of motion, of continuous images, is created by flashing anywhere from about thirty to seventy individual still frames per second onto a screen. But we don’t see still pictures. Our brains interpret the changing pictures as continuous motion. You have heard of this?”
“Of course,” Roy said. “That’s how we can pause movies and TV shows, right, because they’re just made up of streams of still pictures?”
“Exactly,” Dr. Shirley said. “Now, a thing called subliminal imaging has been extensively studied. We know that viewers can react to a single, individual frame embedded in normal projections of thousands of images. We know, therefore, that it is the brain itself which is, so to speak, stitching up, the individual frames and sending consciousness the perception of continuous motion. And this brings up an interesting question. A pivotal question. The key question. While the brain is busy transforming still pictures into the perception of continuous motion, is the unconscious mind still able to do all the typical behind the scenes processing that we know a normal, human unconscious mind performs?”
Roy Rumpslapper said nothing.
“Making memories, forming associations, creating conclusions and judgments – if a human being is, so to speak, besieged, by thousands of images every minute, will the brain continue reacting the way a normal human brain reacts? Or does a person watching TV or sitting in a theater become an entirely new kind of consciousness, something different from you and I talking right now?”
Roy Rumpslapper again said nothing.
“There is a final point to consider,” Dr. Shirley said. “In terms of our physical bodies, if we repeat some physical motion many times, our bones and tendons and muscles become grooved to that motion. Literal physical changes take place which facilitate that motion. That’s an actual modification that happens to our physical body. Well, it turns out, mental processes have their own form of change, of adaptation, that is called habituation. Ways of thinking, patterns of functioning, become facilitated as pathways of neural activity become slightly favored due to electrical potentials canalizing certain sequences of neurons. The brain itself makes very real adjustments to the way it works.”
“Normal human brains,” Roy said, “have a lot of unconscious activity going on.”
Dr. Shirley nodded.
“Watching frame based media,” Roy continued, “requires a lot of mental functioning to create the perception of continuous motion out of still images.”
Dr. Shirley nodded, again.
“If the brain is busy turning still pictures into moving pictures, it might not have enough gray matter left over to do the normal, unconscious stuff.”
“That’s right,” Dr. Shirley said. “And when people spend time forcing their brains into this mode of operation, their unconscious becomes habituated to suppression. Such a person will condition their unconscious to stop processing memories, stop making associations and judgements. At least in the normal, behind the scenes way a regular brain functions.”
“You are saying,” Roy finished, “that television and movies –”
“I am saying,” Dr. Shirley said, “that television and movies cause brain damage. Or, more precisely, brain alterations. They are mechanisms for changing human consciousness.”
“It’s unthinkable,” Roy said. “Someone would have noticed this. Someone would have –”
“Of course people noticed,” Dr. Shirley said. “That’s why television and movies have been pushed to the center stage of our culture. Because people have noticed. It’s just like, well, just like the way politicians and businessmen used opium in China last century. They knew what they were doing back then. They know what they are doing now.”
Roy Rumpslapper nodded. He asked, “Who is doing it?”
Dr. Shirley laughed. He said, “Who isn’t?”