RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Taking the Pulse of TV

Writing a column is somewhat like raising a family: You get them started, try to take out the rude and emphasize the positive, then send them off and hope for the best.

When I sent off my column regarding "TV Turn-off Week," I had no idea it would ring a chord with many people. That column suggested turning off the TV for a week, an idea proposed by Adbusters. We did it at our house and survived, and so did thousands of other families, classrooms and individuals. For us, it was a split decision whether to turn the TV on again, but we did. Learn more about the pros and cons of TV turn-off at

After the column ran, an elegantly-written letter arrived from a retired Harvard University professional who said the only televisions she had ever owned were those given to her by sons who compared her TV-less existence to something like that of a Troglodyte. But she said she had no idea how she could fit TV into her busy life, full of friends and activities. Then there was a three-word email, "Television is evil," and a longer email from an articulate 12-year-old who likes to read, but thought reading might be "weird."

And then, most chilling, a forwarded email alert about a patent filed at the US patent office. I had to check it out.

The abstract for patent number 6,506,148 says, in part, "It is ... possible to manipulate the nervous system of a subject by pulsing images displayed on a nearby computer monitor or TV set. For the latter, the image pulsing may be imbedded in the program material, or it may be overlaid ... The image displayed on a computer monitor may be pulsed effectively by a simple computer program ..."

When "manipulated," the nervous system demonstrates "ptosis of the eyelids, relaxation, drowsiness, the feeling of pressure at a centered spot on the lower edge of the brow, seeing moving patterns of dark purple and greenish yellow with the eyes closed, a tonic smile, a tense feeling in the stomach, sudden loose stool" and lots more.

Variations in the brightness of the image, the pulse of the wave, size of the monitor and so forth result in variations of the result, but basically, this inventor claims that the procedure by which monitors send signals can induce response in viewers. The patent application includes a drawing of a woman sitting near a monitor, eyes closed and what we must suppose is a "tonic" smile on her face.

The power of "pulsed images" to affect the mind has been suspected since the 1950s. Researchers and thinkers, including the venerable Marshall McLuhan, have written about the difference between information received on the written page versus information received by storytelling, radio or the screen. He saw the advent of TV as carrying the possibility of creating a "global village."

But here's the difference between philosophy and patent: Once something has been identified and patented, it is owned by the patent-holder. Once it's owned, it's for sale to the highest bidder.

This "pulsed imaging" may sound like subliminal advertising, a strategy that embeds images in advertising, but it's not. Subliminal advertising can be perceived by the viewer and reasoned away. If the advertiser has embedded, say, a sexual image in a soda pop magazine ad, you can locate it. Like, "Hey! There's a drawing of a breast in that ice cube!" -- and the image loses its power.

But this "pulsing image" manipulation is like being slipped a mickey. The viewer can't pick it out. And according to the information in this patent, it can be embedded in any kind of video transmission from chili ads to cartoons to a presidential press conference. The way this knowledge is to be used is up to the patent owner. To help people? To control them?

And there are larger questions, such as, where does the consumer stand in the transaction? Is the woman in the picture coming to the monitor because she wants to relax? Or is she just sitting down to watch a little TV? Are the "pulsing images" part of a positive experience or did she just click into the wrong Web site?

The patent suggests that the images must be specifically manipulated, and I don't know if there's any real general application here. After all, my computer monitor may be brighter than yours, and my power source may change the frequency of pulses. But if researchers find specific pulse and brightness modes that induce not sleepiness but, say, the urge to buy a product or the urge to go to war, shouldn't there be some public discussion?

We live in a time when science and the patent system are delivering wonders and dangers to us every day. Here's a drug that lifts depression. There's a food that keeps a long time on the shelf. Here's a way to choose your next baby's sex. There's a way to choose its eye color.

We learn too late the costs of these wonders, but we can't stop the thundering locomotive of scientific discovery and its applications by industry in our lives. It's time -- high time -- for scientists and entrepreneurs to participate in honest, informed discussion with the public.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email

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