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Watching faces on TV in the morning may cure depression

Seth Roberts did some self-experimentation several years ago and found that watching faces on TV in the morning improved his mood (see here for a link to his article on this research along with some of my thoughts). Several years ago, I email-interviewed Seth on this. The interview never appeared anywhere and we just dug it up, so I’m posting it here. (Seth will also post it on his blog, which has many of his thoughts on self-experimentation.)

Andrew Gelman: Why don’t you start by describing your method of using TV watching to cure depression?

Seth Roberts: To feel better, you watch faces on TV in the morning and avoid faces (televised and real) at night. TV faces are beneficial in the morning and harmful at night only if they resemble what you would see during an ordinary conversation. The TV faces must be looking at the camera (both eyes visible) and close to life-size. (My experiments usually use a 27-inch TV.) Your eyes should be about three feet from the screen. Time of day is critical–if you see the TV faces too early or late they will have no effect. The crucial time of day depends on when you are exposed to sunlight but figuring out the best time of day is mainly trial and error right now. I usually have subjects start watching around 7 a.m. They watch about 50 minutes of faces each morning, and so do I.

Most mornings I watch little snippets of TV shows with plenty of faces looking at the camera, such as The News Hour with Jim Lehrer (PBS), the Talking Points section of The O’Reilly Factor (Fox News), Washington Journal (C-SPAN), and Larry King Live (CNN), that I taped the day before. I usually fast-forward through the non-big-face portions. The best TV show for this research is Booknotes (C-SPAN), on Sunday, which I watch in pieces throughout the week. My subjects watch tapes of Booknotes.

AG: How did you come up with this idea?

SR: By accident. I was trying to improve my sleep–wake up too early less often. I suspected that the problem (early awakening) was due to a difference between my life and Stone-Age life. I knew that human contact has a big effect on sleep–we tend to be awake at the times of day that we have contact with other people. In the Stone Age, I believed, people usually chatted with their neighbors early in the morning, whereas I lived alone and might work alone all morning. Maybe the lack of morning chit-chat caused early awakening. To test this idea, I took advantage of results suggesting that late-night TV can have the same effect as human contact on our sleep/wake rhythm. I taped the Leno and Letterman monologues and watched them early one Monday morning. This had no obvious effect. I fell back asleep. The rest of the day was normal. On Tuesday, however, I woke up and felt great–cheerful, calm, full of energy. I had never before felt so good early in the morning. Yet the preceding night and day had been ordinary in every way–except for the morning TV.

AG: When I tell my friends about this idea–“I know a guy who says you can cure depression by watching TV in the morning”–it sounds really nutty. Does it sound nutty to you?

SR: No, because I know a few things your friends may not: (a) the effect is produced by seeing faces on TV, not just any TV; (b) when we have contact with other people has a big effect on when we are awake; and (c) there are many connections between depression and circadian rhythms. Depression is closely connected with insomnia, for instance.

AG: I generally think of TV as an evil, addictive presence in American life. Do you think there’s something dangerous about giving TV this “badge of approval” as a medical treatment?

SR: It’s not quite a “badge of approval.” Seeing faces on TV at NIGHT–which of course is when most people watch–is harmful, my research suggests, if the faces are close to life-size. And they often are. Maybe TVs will be made with variable picture sizes–one size for morning, another size for night. When I watch TV at night (very rare), I stay as far away as possible.

AG: I mean, if this method really worked, I could imagine the Depression Network running talk shows in the morning that are basically infomercials for Prozac or whatever. Would you worry about that?

SR: No. I watch faces on TV every morning and would appreciate more choice. I suspect the morning shows would not be Prozac infomercials, however, because the people watching would not be depressed.

AG: One thing that bothers people about your plan is the idea of TV as a substitute for human contact. I think that most of us–even people who spend a lot of time watching TV–find this idea upsetting. It’s like “Brave New World” and virtual reality. Are you at all bothered by recommending to depressed people that they sit inside watching TV?

SR: “Substitute for human contact”? True, but why is that so bad? Reading–which TV critics, many of them writers, seem invariably to like–is also a substitute for human contact, of course. Agriculture is a substitute for hunting and foraging. Vitamin pills substitute for food. Civilization is all about substitutes–about being able to fulfill needs in many ways.

Still, I think watching faces on TV in the morning is only a partial solution to the problem of depression, just as nutritional supplements (e.g., iodized salt, folate added to flour) are only partial solutions to the problems caused by a poor diet. A fuller solution would include changing when most people work. The usual pattern is work (morning and afternoon) then socialize (evening). A better pattern would be socialize (early morning) then work (late morning to early evening)–and go to bed early. I do my little bit for the revolution by inviting friends to brunch rather than dinner. The revolution would also include picture phones with life-size faces.

AG: I heard you say once that depression is ten times as common now as it was 100 years ago. Where do you get that information from?

SR: Many articles have made that point. One of them is: Klerman, G. L, & Weisman, M. M. (1989). Increasing rates of depression. Journal of the American Medical Association, 216, 2229-2235.

AG: If depression is a consequence of modern life, do you think there’s something strange about seeking a technological solution for it? It’s sort of like saying, people are too atomized, so let’s solve the problem with even more solitude?

SR: It is one of many technological solutions to problems caused by “atomization”–people being farther apart. Telephones, air travel, and email are other examples. So it isn’t strange. If my subjects are any guide, watching TV for an hour every morning would not increase the solitude of most depressed persons. They are already alone during that time.

AG: Would listening to the radio be OK?

SR: No. You have to see faces.

AG: Have you ever tried to get your research sponsored by TV stations or networks or, for that matter, a publication like TV Guide?

SR: No, but I once put a “TV is good” ad (ABC) on my bulletin board.

[interview ends]

My thoughts on reading this several years later

Wow, that was really fun to read. I should do more interviews. The back-and-forth of the friendly interview can really get to some points that don’t come up in the usual article format.

I wonder if Seth is still watching faces every morning, also how things are going with the people in his study.

4 Comments

  1. Jeb says:

    Would it be useful to watch things that were not talk shows, like recordings of stargate?

  2. tom s. says:

    Just don't listen to what the faces say.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Why haven’t you talked about Seth’s interview with you on blogging? It is very interesting for your audience to learn how you think of your blog, just like readers would always be curious to have the story behind a book from the author.

  4. sgip says:

    instead of watching faces on TV in the morning, cant we watch faces every morning on the streets, tram, train and bus?….there are full of real life size human faces when we are on the way to work, school, home…vero? non?