[Paleopsych] NYTBR: 'Everything Bad Is Good for You': The Couch Potato Path to a Higher I.Q.

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'Everything Bad Is Good for You': The Couch Potato Path to a Higher I.Q.

How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter.
By Steven Johnson.
238 pp. Riverhead Books. $23.95.


    To people over a certain age the idea that popular culture is in
    decline is a comforting one, which may explain its deep appeal. If
    today's TV shows are worse than yesterday's, and if new diversions
    like video games are inferior to their earlier counterparts, whatever
    those might be (Scrabble? Monopoly?), then there's no harm in paying
    them no attention. To a 40-year-old who's busy with work and family,
    the belief that he isn't missing anything by not mastering ''SimCity''
    or by letting his 10-year-old program the new iPod is a blessed
    solace. If the new tricks are stupid tricks, then old dogs don't need
    to learn them. They can go on comfortably sleeping by the fire.

    The old dogs won't be able to rest as easily, though, once they've
    read ''Everything Bad Is Good for You,'' Steven Johnson's elegant
    polemic about the supposed mental benefits of everything from watching
    reality television to whiling the night away playing ''Grand Theft
    Auto.'' Johnson, a cross-disciplinary thinker who has written about
    neuroscience, media studies and computer technology, wants to convince
    us that pop culture is not the intellectual tranquilizer that its
    sound-alike critics have made it out to be but a potent promoter of
    cerebral fitness. The Xbox and ''The Apprentice,'' he contends, are
    pumping up their audiences' brains by accustoming them to
    ever-increasing levels of complexity, nuance and ambiguity that work
    on brain cells much as crunches do on the abdominal muscles. The
    depressing corollary to his thesis is that if a person isn't doing
    these exercises -- perhaps because he's too busy raising children who
    engage in them compulsively -- he's getting flabby from the neck up.

    Johnson's argument isn't strictly scientific, relying on hypotheses
    and tests, but more observational and impressionistic. It's persuasive
    anyhow. When he compares contemporary hit crime dramas like ''The
    Sopranos'' and ''24'' -- with their elaborate, multilevel plotlines,
    teeming casts of characters and open-ended narrative structures --
    with popular numbskull clunkers of yore like ''Starsky and Hutch,''
    which were mostly about cool cars and pretty hair, it's almost
    impossible not to agree with him that television drama has grown up
    and perhaps even achieved a kind of brilliance that probably rubs off
    on its viewers. About the fact-filled dialogue on shows like ''E.R.''
    and ''The West Wing,'' he writes: ''It rushes by, the words
    accelerating in sync with the high speed tracking shots . . . but the
    truly remarkable thing about the dialogue is not purely a matter of
    speed; it's the willingness to immerse the audience in information
    that most viewers won't understand.''

    As a child of ''Kojak'' -- a series that taught me nothing except a
    peculiar, tough-sounding ethnic accent with which I could entertain my
    buddies -- I don't like to think that merely by watching TV today's
    teenagers are boosting their I.Q.'s (for that, I had to plow through
    ''Moby-Dick''; or so my teachers told me). I'm afraid I have to cede
    the point, however, because I've seen ''24'' as well, which is to
    ''Kojak'' what playing the video game ''Doom'' is to zoning out in
    front of ''Captain Kangaroo.''

    Johnson posits a number of mental mechanisms that are toned and
    strengthened by the labor of figuring out the rules of high-end video
    games and parsing the story structures of subtle TV shows. Playing
    physiologist, he asserts that the games address the dopamine system by
    doling out neurochemical rewards whenever a player advances to a new
    level or deciphers a new puzzle. These little squirts of feel-good
    brain juice aggravate a craving for further challenges, until the Baby
    Einstein at the joystick has worked himself into an ecstasy of
    problem-solving that, Johnson tells us, will serve him well in later
    life (though he's vague about exactly how). Johnson calls the relevant
    intellectual skills ''probing'' and ''telescoping,'' and defines them
    as the ability to find order in bewildering symbolic territory.
    Wandering through labyrinths full of monsters keeps a person on his
    toes, that is, and this is good preparation for modern life -- perhaps
    because modern life so closely resembles a labyrinth full of monsters.

    So far, so good. But when Johnson purports to discern a silver lining
    in programs like ''Joe Millionaire'' and ''The Apprentice,'' he has to
    resort to trickier tactics. After reminding us that his argument
    doesn't depend on the content of the shows being particularly
    interesting but relates instead to the intricacies of their formats,
    he suggests that reality TV engages viewers' ''emotional
    intelligience'' by confronting them with a staged array of rapidly
    shifting social situations and densely interlocking human
    relationships. When an ''Apprentice'' team leader chews out an
    underling who is well liked by other contestants, it lights up an
    ancient corner of our brains responsible for assuring our survival as
    members of communities and tribes. Our minds run a series of lightning
    calculations having to do with tones of voice, facial expressions,
    ethical principles and psychological verities as we weigh the chances
    that the team leader will implode or the underling will revolt. And
    what will the Donald think? That's a factor, too.

    Though I side with Johnson in his contention that emotional
    intelligience is an authentic, important competency, and while I'll
    admit that ''The Apprentice'' delivers up enough half-baked strife and
    intrigue to absorb our inner office-politicians, I'm not sure why such
    a regimen is good for people except in the sense that it isn't
    actually harmful. As elsewhere in the book, Johnson's contrarian
    contempt for the knee-jerk vilification of pop culture seems to push
    him further than may be warranted into defending and elevating
    artifacts that are neither here nor there. My grandmother's love of
    lurid true-crime magazines, with their blow-by-blow re-creations of
    small-town rapes, roused her emotional intelligence, too, telling her
    to avoid dark parking lots and pockmarked men with certain styles of
    mustaches, but, really, what of it? Stimulation is not a virtue all by

    Johnson seems to feel it is, though. In temperament, he's like a
    cerebral Jack La Lanne. He admires exertion for its own sake -- in
    this case, neurological exertion. The faster the synapses fire the
    better, no matter to what end, even if the body supporting them is
    growing sluggish and obese and the spirit animating them is
    chronically neglecting its family members in order to TiVo ''The
    Simpsons.'' Johnson is a cool and neutral thinker, concerned with
    process rather than purpose, but the provocative title of his book, by
    alluding to some unheralded moral dimension in the consumption of
    today's pop culture, is mischievously misleading -- a way to snag the
    attention of the squares who refuse to acknowledge the benefits of
    doing anything other than reading the Holy Bible by candlelight.

    Considered purely on its own terms, Johnson's thesis holds up despite
    these quibbles. Our own internal computers are indeed speeding up, and
    part of the credit for this must surely go to the brute sophistication
    of our new entertainments, which tax the brain as ''Kojak'' never did.
    The old dogs may grump about cultural illiteracy and the erosion of
    traditional values, but the new dogs have talents, aptitudes and
    skills that we, as we drowse by the fire, can only dream of. Their
    sheer agility may not bring them wisdom, but our plodding didn't
    either, let's be fair.

    Walter Kirn, whose most recent novel is ''Up in the Air,'' is a
    regular contributor to the Book Review.

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