Emergic: Rajesh Jain's Blog

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Watching TV Makes You Smarter

April 26th, 2005 · No Comments

The New York Times Magazine has an article by Steven Johnson:

For decades, we’ve worked under the assumption that mass culture follows a path declining steadily toward lowest-common-denominator standards, presumably because the ”masses” want dumb, simple pleasures and big media companies try to give the masses what they want. But as that ”24” episode suggests, the exact opposite is happening: the culture is getting more cognitively demanding, not less. To make sense of an episode of ”24,” you have to integrate far more information than you would have a few decades ago watching a comparable show. Beneath the violence and the ethnic stereotypes, another trend appears: to keep up with entertainment like ”24,” you have to pay attention, make inferences, track shifting social relationships. This is what I call the Sleeper Curve: the most debased forms of mass diversion — video games and violent television dramas and juvenile sitcoms — turn out to be nutritional after all.

I believe that the Sleeper Curve is the single most important new force altering the mental development of young people today, and I believe it is largely a force for good: enhancing our cognitive faculties, not dumbing them down. And yet you almost never hear this story in popular accounts of today’s media. Instead, you hear dire tales of addiction, violence, mindless escapism. It’s assumed that shows that promote smoking or gratuitous violence are bad for us, while those that thunder against teen pregnancy or intolerance have a positive role in society. Judged by that morality-play standard, the story of popular culture over the past 50 years — if not 500 — is a story of decline: the morals of the stories have grown darker and more ambiguous, and the antiheroes have multiplied.

But another kind of televised intelligence is on the rise. Think of the cognitive benefits conventionally ascribed to reading: attention, patience, retention, the parsing of narrative threads. Over the last half-century, programming on TV has increased the demands it places on precisely these mental faculties. This growing complexity involves three primary elements: multiple threading, flashing arrows and social networks.

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