Watching TV Makes you Smarter?

Yep.  At least that’s what Steve Johnson claims in his 2005 New York Times Magazine article with that title.  And…it’s an argument worth considering, especially given our penchant for dissing Americans in matters of intelligence. (Consider, for starters, Susan Jacoby’s recent book The Age of American Unreason, former Vice-President Al Gore’s The Assault on Reason, and Richard Shenkman’s new book Just How Stupid Are We?: Facing the Truth About the American Voter.)  H.L. Mencken wasn’t mistaken when he once said, “No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public.”

So, maybe it’s worth overestimating the intelligence of the American public, or at least reconsidering some of our criticisms.

Here’s the gist of Johnson’s argument:  a number of contemporary television shows, including The Sopranos, 24, The West Wing, and ER (keep in mind this was published in 2005) are actually demanding of some of our mental faculties.  The mental faculties he’s referring to include attention, retention, the parsing of complex narrative threads, and the deciphering of quick dialogue filled with information most viewers won’t understand.

He uses The Sopranos to illustrate his point about complex narratives.  In one episode, the viewer has to untangle at least 3 different narrative threads with layered plots in just one scene.  And, he says, the narratives build from previous episodes and continue on in future episodes.  ER is an example of a show full of quick dialogue packed with complex terms and a vocabulary unfamiliar to most that the audience must wade through to follow the story.

All of this, Johnson argues, requires the audience to focus–exercising the parts of the brain that map social networks, work to fill in missing information, and help make sense of complex narrative threads.  What Johnson’s crediting here is the structure and design of the shows…not the content.  The content, he acknowledges, is probably more immoral and sensational than ever.  But that’s not the point in this examination.

So, is this a valid point?  Do others agree?  What shows on TV right now might be comparable to the ones Johnson cites to make his argument?

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1 thought on “Watching TV Makes you Smarter?

  1. I do not agree with Johnson. I think most people watch shows for the content (or the famous actor/actress) and don’t give a crap about the structure.

    By the way, thanks for keeping this up so college guys like me can use for our Annotated Bibliographies!!!

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