TV: my substance of choice
The fighting stopped only when The Simpsons were on.
Constantly competitive, it was nearly impossible for my brother and I to be in the same room without breaking into a brawl. Yet when the clock struck 6:30pm, we turned the TV to channel 12, where UPN would play reruns of The Simpsons. The moment the iconic theme song started, our fighting stopped — our minds and bodies captivated for the next 30 minutes by America’s favorite family.The Simpsons were such a potent cease-and-desist that my parents bought all 20 or so seasons on DVD, so that when the Simpsons weren’t on air, they could plop in the disk and for a moment, we had peace.
The Simpsons and TV shows like it, provided a moment of reprieve from the constant throes of dysfunctionality — suspending my distress for 30 minute increments, allowing me to regulate my emotions and take a vacation from fight-or-flight. TV has proved a reliable source of comfort, being my constant companion on sleepless nights and helping me return to the present when caught in a dissociative funk. TV’s potential for healing has been alluded to, but we’re now just starting to see the biological impact of screen based entertainment, foreshadowing a future where TV is not just a recreation activity, but an engaging, therapeutic tool.
Dianna Rieger and Gary Bente demonstrated the physiological effects of media, recording in detail the way the body responds to movies and how it can be used for psychophysiological recovery. Rieger and Bente measured the cortisol levels of an audience as they watched 30 minute movie clips (here I consider movie clips to be the same form of media as TV, both being audio-visual formats). They found that movies were able to alter the cortisol levels of the audience, with soothing, calming movies decreasing cortisol levels — lowering arousal and stress in the audience. They concluded “that entertainment media serve recovery experiences by fostering psychological detachment and relaxation”.
Was that what I experienced when my brother and I finally stopped fighting? Turning on The Simpsons worked better than whatever other options were available at the time. In fact, I can’t go anywhere without seeing kids entranced by their favorite characters on screens, finding calm and distraction. Soothing ourselves with our favorite characters and stories is ubiquitous, but how can we know for sure which entertainment will affect us and how?
These days, I manage my mood with the click of a button. No longer do I reach for a substance when I’m overwhelmed. I know which shows and which episodes will help me self-regulate. I recently rediscovered Star Trek: The Next Generation, the show my dad would watch with me as a colicky baby. The moment the theme song starts, my body releases all tension, letting the day’s challenges drift off of me like space dust. My body knows Star Trek TNG better than I do, instantly soothed by Captain Picard’s voice and the predictable plot structure of an episode.
The early Star Trek and Simpsons conditioning has given me a unique advantage, molding my neural pathways with reliable forms of comfort. But beyond drenching my brain in storylines and beloved characters, I see an opportunity for evolution. It’s time to boldly go beyond our conventional approach to entertainment, and fully embrace a future where TV is more than just an outlet for pleasure: it’s a chance to scale healing.
Ari Mostov is a healthcare narrative strategist and principal of WellPlay. A Hollywood veteran, Ari brings her entertainment expertise to healthcare, creating a new narrative for health. Learn more at www.wellplay.world