[Paleopsych] The New Yorker: Brain Candy

Premise Checker checker at panix.com
Thu May 12 00:43:13 UTC 2005

Brain Candy

    Is pop culture dumbing us down or smartening us up?
    Issue of 2005-05-16
    Posted 2005-05-09

    Twenty years ago, a political philosopher named James Flynn uncovered
    a curious fact. Americans--at least, as measured by I.Q. tests--were
    getting smarter. This fact had been obscured for years, because the
    people who give I.Q. tests continually recalibrate the scoring system
    to keep the average at 100. But if you took out the recalibration,
    Flynn found, I.Q. scores showed a steady upward trajectory, rising by
    about three points per decade, which means that a person whose I.Q.
    placed him in the top ten per cent of the American population in 1920
    would today fall in the bottom third. Some of that effect, no doubt,
    is a simple by-product of economic progress: in the surge of
    prosperity during the middle part of the last century, people in the
    West became better fed, better educated, and more familiar with things
    like I.Q. tests. But, even as that wave of change has subsided, test
    scores have continued to rise--not just in America but all over the
    developed world. What's more, the increases have not been confined to
    children who go to enriched day-care centers and private schools. The
    middle part of the curve--the people who have supposedly been
    suffering from a deteriorating public-school system and a steady diet
    of lowest-common-denominator television and mindless pop music--has
    increased just as much. What on earth is happening? In the wonderfully
    entertaining "Everything Bad Is Good for You" (Riverhead; $23.95),
    Steven Johnson proposes that what is making us smarter is precisely
    what we thought was making us dumber: popular culture.

    Johnson is the former editor of the online magazine Feed and the
    author of a number of books on science and technology. There is a
    pleasing eclecticism to his thinking. He is as happy analyzing
    "Finding Nemo" as he is dissecting the intricacies of a piece of
    software, and he's perfectly capable of using Nietzsche's notion of
    eternal recurrence to discuss the new creative rules of television
    shows. Johnson wants to understand popular culture--not in the
    postmodern, academic sense of wondering what "The Dukes of Hazzard"
    tells us about Southern male alienation but in the very practical
    sense of wondering what watching something like "The Dukes of Hazzard"
    does to the way our minds work.

    As Johnson points out, television is very different now from what it
    was thirty years ago. It's harder. A typical episode of "Starsky and
    Hutch," in the nineteen-seventies, followed an essentially linear
    path: two characters, engaged in a single story line, moving toward a
    decisive conclusion. To watch an episode of "Dallas" today is to be
    stunned by its glacial pace--by the arduous attempts to establish
    social relationships, by the excruciating simplicity of the plotline,
    by how obvious it was. A single episode of "The Sopranos," by
    contrast, might follow five narrative threads, involving a dozen
    characters who weave in and out of the plot. Modern television also
    requires the viewer to do a lot of what Johnson calls "filling in," as
    in a "Seinfeld" episode that subtly parodies the Kennedy assassination
    conspiracists, or a typical "Simpsons" episode, which may contain
    numerous allusions to politics or cinema or pop culture. The
    extraordinary amount of money now being made in the television
    aftermarket--DVD sales and syndication--means that the creators of
    television shows now have an incentive to make programming that can
    sustain two or three or four viewings. Even reality shows like
    "Survivor," Johnson argues, engage the viewer in a way that television
    rarely has in the past:

    When we watch these shows, the part of our brain that monitors the
    emotional lives of the people around us--the part that tracks subtle
    shifts in intonation and gesture and facial expression--scrutinizes
    the action on the screen, looking for clues. . . . The phrase
    "Monday-morning quarterbacking" was coined to describe the engaged
    feeling spectators have in relation to games as opposed to stories. We
    absorb stories, but we second-guess games. Reality programming has
    brought that second-guessing to prime time, only the game in question
    revolves around social dexterity rather than the physical kind.

    How can the greater cognitive demands that television makes on us now,
    he wonders, not matter?

    Johnson develops the same argument about video games. Most of the
    people who denounce video games, he says, haven't actually played
    them--at least, not recently. Twenty years ago, games like Tetris or
    Pac-Man were simple exercises in motor coördination and pattern
    recognition. Today's games belong to another realm. Johnson points out
    that one of the "walk-throughs" for "Grand Theft Auto III"--that is,
    the informal guides that break down the games and help players
    navigate their complexities--is fifty-three thousand words long, about
    the length of his book. The contemporary video game involves a fully
    realized imaginary world, dense with detail and levels of complexity.

    Indeed, video games are not games in the sense of those pastimes--like
    Monopoly or gin rummy or chess--which most of us grew up with. They
    don't have a set of unambiguous rules that have to be learned and then
    followed during the course of play. This is why many of us find modern
    video games baffling: we're not used to being in a situation where we
    have to figure out what to do. We think we only have to learn how to
    press the buttons faster. But these games withhold critical
    information from the player. Players have to explore and sort through
    hypotheses in order to make sense of the game's environment, which is
    why a modern video game can take forty hours to complete. Far from
    being engines of instant gratification, as they are often described,
    video games are actually, Johnson writes, "all about delayed
    gratification--sometimes so long delayed that you wonder if the
    gratification is ever going to show."

    At the same time, players are required to manage a dizzying array of
    information and options. The game presents the player with a series of
    puzzles, and you can't succeed at the game simply by solving the
    puzzles one at a time. You have to craft a longer-term strategy, in
    order to juggle and coördinate competing interests. In denigrating the
    video game, Johnson argues, we have confused it with other phenomena
    in teen-age life, like multitasking--simultaneously e-mailing and
    listening to music and talking on the telephone and surfing the
    Internet. Playing a video game is, in fact, an exercise in
    "constructing the proper hierarchy of tasks and moving through the
    tasks in the correct sequence," he writes. "It's about finding order
    and meaning in the world, and making decisions that help create that

    It doesn't seem right, of course, that watching "24" or playing a
    video game could be as important cognitively as reading a book. Isn't
    the extraordinary success of the "Harry Potter" novels better news for
    the culture than the equivalent success of "Grand Theft Auto III"?
    Johnson's response is to imagine what cultural critics might have said
    had video games been invented hundreds of years ago, and only recently
    had something called the book been marketed aggressively to children:

    Reading books chronically understimulates the senses. Unlike the
    longstanding tradition of gameplaying--which engages the child in a
    vivid, three-dimensional world filled with moving images and musical
    sound-scapes, navigated and controlled with complex muscular
    movements--books are simply a barren string of words on the page. . .
    Books are also tragically isolating. While games have for many years
    engaged the young in complex social relationships with their peers,
    building and exploring worlds together, books force the child to
    sequester him or herself in a quiet space, shut off from interaction
    with other children. . . .
    But perhaps the most dangerous property of these books is the fact
    that they follow a fixed linear path. You can't control their
    narratives in any fashion--you simply sit back and have the story
    dictated to you. . . . This risks instilling a general passivity in
    our children, making them feel as though they're powerless to change
    their circumstances. Reading is not an active, participatory process;
    it's a submissive one.

    He's joking, of course, but only in part. The point is that books and
    video games represent two very different kinds of learning. When you
    read a biology textbook, the content of what you read is what matters.
    Reading is a form of explicit learning. When you play a video game,
    the value is in how it makes you think. Video games are an example of
    collateral learning, which is no less important.

    Being "smart" involves facility in both kinds of thinking--the kind of
    fluid problem solving that matters in things like video games and I.Q.
    tests, but also the kind of crystallized knowledge that comes from
    explicit learning. If Johnson's book has a flaw, it is that he
    sometimes speaks of our culture being "smarter" when he's really
    referring just to that fluid problem-solving facility. When it comes
    to the other kind of intelligence, it is not clear at all what kind of
    progress we are making, as anyone who has read, say, the Gettysburg
    Address alongside any Presidential speech from the past twenty years
    can attest. The real question is what the right balance of these two
    forms of intelligence might look like. "Everything Bad Is Good for
    You" doesn't answer that question. But Johnson does something nearly
    as important, which is to remind us that we shouldn't fall into the
    trap of thinking that explicit learning is the only kind of learning
    that matters.

    In recent years, for example, a number of elementary schools have
    phased out or reduced recess and replaced it with extra math or
    English instruction. This is the triumph of the explicit over the
    collateral. After all, recess is "play" for a ten-year-old in
    precisely the sense that Johnson describes video games as play for an
    adolescent: an unstructured environment that requires the child
    actively to intervene, to look for the hidden logic, to find order and
    meaning in chaos.

    One of the ongoing debates in the educational community, similarly, is
    over the value of homework. Meta-analysis of hundreds of studies done
    on the effects of homework shows that the evidence supporting the
    practice is, at best, modest. Homework seems to be most useful in high
    school and for subjects like math. At the elementary-school level,
    homework seems to be of marginal or no academic value. Its effect on
    discipline and personal responsibility is unproved. And the causal
    relation between high-school homework and achievement is unclear: it
    hasn't been firmly established whether spending more time on homework
    in high school makes you a better student or whether better students,
    finding homework more pleasurable, spend more time doing it. So why,
    as a society, are we so enamored of homework? Perhaps because we have
    so little faith in the value of the things that children would
    otherwise be doing with their time. They could go out for a walk, and
    get some exercise; they could spend time with their peers, and reap
    the rewards of friendship. Or, Johnson suggests, they could be playing
    a video game, and giving their minds a rigorous workout.

More information about the paleopsych mailing list