Watching TV Makes You Smarter
According to Steven Johnson, author of “Mind Wide Open” and “Everything Bad Is Good for You”, watching TV makes you smarter. And he makes a great case for it too in a recent NYT Magazine feature that contrasts the TV dramas and sitcoms of the 70s and 80s with the ones we are watching now. It’s an insightful read. Johnson’s argument revolves around a thing he calls the Sleeper Curve, which is effectively the growing cognitive sophistication of TV viewers due to the increasing complexity of TV show plotlines. This growing complexity involves three primary elements: multiple threading (more characters), flashing arrows (more ambiguities), and social networks (more intricate character dynamics).
Put those charts together, and you have a portrait of the Sleeper Curve rising over the past 30 years of popular television. In a sense, this is as much a map of cognitive changes in the popular mind as it is a map of on-screen developments, as if the media titans decided to condition our brains to follow ever-larger numbers of simultaneous threads. Before “Hill Street,” the conventional wisdom among television execs was that audiences wouldn’t be comfortable following more than three plots in a single episode, and indeed, the “Hill Street” pilot, which was shown in January 1981, brought complaints from viewers that the show was too complicated. Fast-forward two decades, and shows like “The Sopranos” engage their audiences with narratives that make “Hill Street” look like “Three’s Company.” Audiences happily embrace that complexity because they’ve been trained by two decades of multi-threaded dramas. …
Of course, the entertainment industry isn’t increasing the cognitive complexity of its products for charitable reasons. The Sleeper Curve exists because there’s money to be made by making culture smarter. The economics of television syndication and DVD sales mean that there’s a tremendous financial pressure to make programs that can be watched multiple times, revealing new nuances and shadings on the third viewing. Meanwhile, the Web has created a forum for annotation and commentary that allows more complicated shows to prosper, thanks to the fan sites where each episode of shows like “Lost” or “Alias” is dissected with an intensity usually reserved for Talmud scholars. Finally, interactive games have trained a new generation of media consumers to probe complex environments and to think on their feet, and that gamer audience has now come to expect the same challenges from their television shows. In the end, the Sleeper Curve tells us something about the human mind. It may be drawn toward the sensational where content is concerned — sex does sell, after all. But the mind also likes to be challenged; there’s real pleasure to be found in solving puzzles, detecting patterns or unpacking a complex narrative system.