What TV Should have You Questioning About Intelligence.

Back in 2005 writer Steven Johnson was kicking up a hell-storm about how TV affects our intelligence; yours and mine, independently.

Johnson proclaimed, both in his book Everything Bad is Good for You and in a series of majorly published periodicals, that countless elements of modern television benefits the human brain. Johnson was adamant about it: pop culture on TV can make you thinker harder and grow smarter.

“There’s money to be made by making culture smarter,– Johnson explained in his NY Times piece.

For what it’s worth, Johnson’s efforts of convincing us that TV can be good for our brains are not made in vain. Johnson argues that television has become “more complex” and “demanding” and those points alone are improving viewer’s intelligence and thinking capabilities.

Shows with complex narratives that force the viewer to think critically – shows like “24” or “LOST” – are doing more than entertaining: these shows are educating viewers on methods for problem solving and formulating potential explanations or ideas. Viewers aren’t simply watching television to be entertained, according to Johnson, we’re watching because we want to help solve the problems our favorite characters get stuck with. We, as viewers, want to think about what’s going on behind the TV screen.

Do you believe that?

Isn’t it possible that shows are simply becoming more intelligent, but viewers aren’t? Sure, some shows consist of remarkably detailed narratives with plots that span dozens of characters and hundreds of twists, each with a potentially different outcome, and yes viewers may subtly be thinking about what could happen next, but what’s really going on?

For some shows, such as “LOST”, we – as viewers – are encountering immensely complex narratives, but do we really understand those narratives, or do we just take what the show spoon feeds us as nod our heads willingly?

Realistically we come into contact with complexity every day, apart from the television, that leaves us none the smarter (taxes and insurance come to mind). What’s to make us really believe that the complexity on screen is going to make us any the wiser? For each complex element introduced to us in our favorite shows, how much of that is given to us with the guarantee of “all will be explained?”

That’s part of why we watch television, right: to get the answers of something that’s unfolding before us? If we know the answers are coming and the show is holding our hand the entire way, why would we even attempt to think critically?

The point to consider here is that television shows over-simplify incredibly complex processes and ideas. Johnson’s New York Times article mentions how impressive it is that the “texture and substance” (to use his terms), the technical mumbo jumbo and meaty, plot-forwarding dialogue, blend so easily in these shows. This could just as easily be endemic of our collective of not caring. Put a guy in a lab coat in a hospital on a TV show and I will accept that he is a doctor, with no regard to what he says.

What is more, the glossing over of technical terms (think of a diagnostic session from the show “House”) leads us to believe that everything can be summed up in a soundbyte, and that we don’t need to understand what anything is as long as there are experts who can clue us in.

Today, the debate continues, nearly six years after Johnson first addressed it in his book. Which makes me think it’s time for us to seriously consider how TV is impacting not only our time, but our intelligence.

Have you considered the fact that cable TV may be making you smarter? Or is it just another way to pass some time without a care? If Johnson has done one thing right by his book and many articles, it’s this: he implores us to explore the notion that TV can be more than just an opportunity to “space out” and turn our brains off for a few hours at a time.

If we’re going to embrace television or the new-age media that is beginning to clutter up our time, maybe it’s time we seriously consider how these forms of entertainment are affecting our intelligence. For better or worse.

TV brain illustration by Caricartoon.

Leave a comment