On the surface, Slow TV sounds like a bizarre, maybe even flat-out awful programming idea. Born in Norway, the real-time broadcasting of boat and train rides that last for hours or, in some cases days, is exactly what its name* promises.
And yet, it has gained a cult following, both in Norway and now in America, where it’s available on Netflix. So we must ask: Why is it appealing, and what is it doing to our brains? Well, there isn’t much in the way of empirical data that can clue us into the neurological, physiological or psychological truth of what happens inside our heads while we watch TV.
“Almost all of it has no basis in rigorous scientific thinking or logical thinking,” says Professor Javid Sadr, “but one thing that is not arguable because it’s definitional about watching TV and movies is voyeurism.”
Sure, our typical experience with “voyeurism” may make this sound shady, but the fact is that what we’re doing is just watching. And often, we’re watching the events of someone’s life unfold before us without requirement or consequence on our part. So while Slow TV doesn’t necessarily follow the same narrative structures that scripted television does, the concept remains the same.
Sadr uses the term “watchfulness” to describe the engrossed state that we enter when we watch television and films closely, and relates it to phenomenology, which examines what it actually feels like to be in this watchful state. He compares the experience of watching a mushroom grow in a nature documentary with the experience of watching a murder mystery. Though they’re vastly different narrative experiences, the internal phenomenon might not be so different.
“What’s common to them is that you’ve decided for these few minutes, you’re not talking, you’re not walking anywhere, you’re not doing anything,” says Sadr. “You’re not going to respond to the things you’re looking at, and you’re just going to directly perceive all of this stuff.
Slow TV may be an extreme example with its trudging, hours-long broadcasts, but films have been employing the kind of scenes that don’t have us thinking too terribly hard about plot twists and characters. Sadr points to Terrance Malick’s The Tree of Life, with its sweeping cosmic scenes, and Wendy and Lucy, which had very little dialogue. The lack of aspects to overthink and analyze pushes us further into this watchful state, and Sadr predicts that if we study this watchful state closely, we’re going to find some very interesting things about how television and films fit into our lives.
“It’s not going to be a psychological state that doesn’t exist naturally and has only been created in the last few years,” says Sadr. “What it’s going to be is something that we’ve had for thousands and thousands of years, but it’s something that people can pay to enter into.”
There’s a good chance that Slow TV could help us hack our way back from overstimulation, accessing a sort of natural state that’s harder and harder to come by when we’re surrounded by the constant stimulus of the modern world that has our thinking minds in a semi-permanent overdrive.
Sadr likens this natural state to the same thing that happens when athletes, musicians and other performers are “in the zone”. Its a state where the brain stops thinking so hard and falls back on instinct and training. That high-performance state forces us to focus on what’s around us and on performing a certain task that doesn’t require or even allow us to overthink and overanalyze.
People who hula-hoop at music festivals are trying to achieve the same thing: the foregrounding of the perceptual system and forcing your conscious mind to take a back seat. Adult coloring books, knitting, some video games, fluff reading, and even singing in the shower get after the same idea. Some call it a “state of flow” some call it meditation, but the states are likely remarkably similar.
“I think that the state is essentially the same kind of thing, which is people are engaged in something, and they’re engaged in something that has a perceptual component to it,” says Sadr. “And what’s consistent across all of them is a turning off of what tends to be called the executive function of the mind — the conscious, verbal part of your mind.”
Sadr uses meditation as an example.
“[Meditation] isn’t completely turning off your mind,” he says. “It definitely isn’t just closing your eyes and just relaxing. It is an engagement with the environment, but it’s an engagement with the environment where your perceptual system is completely turned on, your attentional system is on…but your attention being on the outside world and all of these stimuli and having your perceptual system on and active takes your mind off of your mind.”
For now, there are no real scientific studies that can help us understand what, exactly, is happening inside of our minds when we watch TV, but Sadr wants to change that. He’s interested in finding out how our brains react to television on a physiological and neurological level.
“What if what were doing is putting ourselves into a state where our bodies are restful because our brain stem goes back to controlling our heart rate, our breathing, our blood pressure and so on, and then our body actually regulates, physiologically, very nicely?” says Sadr.
It turns out that our conscious minds aren’t great at the basics. Like, you know, breathing. So, theoretically, if your conscious mind shuts up when you’re in a watchful state, your brain stem might take the reigns and do a much, much better job. “You’re actually in a very restful state because your voluntary mind isn’t good at controlling your breathing,” says Sadr.
The science still remains to be seen, but Sadr believes that not only Slow TV, but television in general helps us achieve a state that feels natural and restorative. And though watching TV doesn’t exactly prepare us to pull a Ledecky, the natural state that focuses on the perceptual system and instinct that feeling of being “in the zone” — may not be radically different.
“The reason it’s so compelling and fascinating to people to be in this state is because it’s a natural state, and I think it’s a state that partly feels good, but also just feels natural, it’s often a turning off of part of this cognitive system.”
While the idea of an hours-long television broadcast of a train ride may sound strange, it just might be one of the most natural things in the world.