Does TV Make Us Smarter?

Steven Johnson argues in the New York Times Magazine that watching TV makes you smarter. Oddly enough, he chooses a magazine—a thoroughly word-based media—to make his point.

The article is long, but the crux of the Johnson’s point is that TV shows today have plot lines that are so complex, a person can’t help but grow more intelligent by watching them. He writes:

…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.

Johnson burns a lot of words in the essay, but all he really ends up saying is that today’s shows are much more intricate than ones from television’s Golden Age. All this really proves is that television watching now is a more cognitive activity than television watching 50 years ago. In that sense, today’s TV may indeed make us smarter.

The problem is that Johnson fails to note that television remains a cognitively passive medium. This means that television has gained little ground on alternative means of spending one’s time—whether it be reading a book or walking in the forest. Activities that require constant active participation of the brain are much more conducive to learning. Viewers of “24” may indeed have to piece together several plot lines, but in the end, they’re still just sitting back watching a show.

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