Thursday, August 4, 2011

Better brains through TV and movies?

It's something I've pondered for a while now.

Being a polymath blogger scholar observer fanboy of vintage/classic movies and TV as well as the emerging new titles and media, for years I've found that it's an intriguing exercise in compare/contrast to watch, say, popular TV episodes from the 1950s-'70s (Tales of Tomorrow, Dragnet, The Untouchables, The Andy Griffith Show, The Outer Limits, The Twilight Zone, the original Star Trek, Mary Tyler Moore, etc.) alongside their modern descendents (The Sopranos, The Wire, CSI, Eureka, Lost, 30 Rock, etc.). Compare Perry Mason with Law & Order, or the original '70s version of Battlestar Galactica with the "re-imagining" from a few years ago, or (being an Anglophile) Doctor Who then vs. the current post-Davies, Steven Moffatt years.

It's not just that entertainment media today is more varied with exponentially more avenues for choice and access. Over the decades there has been, by and large, a strong curve upward in the overall quality and sophistication of the screenwriting, and with that a concurrent rise in what's expected from the viewers who engage with what's on the screen. It's my contention that we're living through a Renaissance in TV screenwriting right now, with HBO being the primary analogue to Da Vinci's studio. (The ubiquitous "reality" programming is not part of my thinking here. Or anywhere else for that matter.)

Until the 1980s-90s a TV storyline rarely spanned more than a single episode with, at best, simple "A" and "B" plotlines that lightly intersected after the last commercial break. Characters remained fundamentally unchanged and unexplored. Stories rarely exhibited depth greater than a No. 10 envelope. (Yes, there were and are exceptions. I'm spit-balling generally here.)

Gradually, though, all sorts of envelopes have been pushed outward until getting hooked on a show is more like getting pulled into a good novel rather than a stack of comic books. Layered subplots and character arcs that last for months or years are now the norm. Plot puzzles — plus their keys and hints and traps — are more complex and nuanced than ever before. Characters we love (or "love to hate") tend to be deeper and more faceted. Emotional, moral, and social content is more provocative, less hidebound and unadventurous, and thus more likely to challenge our thinking and beliefs, potentially stretching us in those directions as well.

We have more options to not simply watch passively our favorite TV shows (or movies too, although that's a somewhat different discussion) because enjoying a series is, as far as I can see, more proactive and involving than it ever used to be. As with playing computer games, we're plugged in to what we're watching almost as co-participants. There's more to do.

Screenwriting and screenwriters, not coincidentally, have likewise evolved with us to keep this feedback circuit alive, and so keep challenging us with long-form plotlines, more intricate puzzles, and characters who maintain three dimensions no matter which way they, or we, turn them.

Since entertainment media is like the Force, surrounding and penetrating us and binding the cultural galaxy together, for years I've wondered if it's changing us as much as we're changing it. I don't mean that we're just staring at screens more hours of the day (duh, hello). I mean, is all that upswinging stimulation from increasing narrative sophistication and complexity rewiring our gray matter similarly, and for the better?

Which leads to me to something I read today via Andrew Sullivan:

Jonah Lehrer mulls the Flynn Effect, or the "widespread increase in IQ scores over time." One theory:
It obviously has to be extremely widespread, since the IQ gains exist at the population level. One frequently cited factor is the increasing complexity of entertainment, which might enhance abstract problem solving skills. (As Flynn himself noted, "The very fact that children are better and better at IQ test problems logically entails that they have learned at least that kind of problem-solving skill better, and it must have been learned somewhere.") This suggests that, because people are now forced to make sense of Lost or the Harry Potter series or World of Warcraft, they're also better able to handle hard logic puzzles. (The effect is probably indirect, with the difficult forms of culture enhancing working memory and the allocation of attention.) As Steven Johnson argued, everything bad is good for us, especially when the bad stuff has lots of minor characters and subplots. HBO is a cognitive workout.
Just as casually lifting a five-pound weight with enough repetitions will over time improve muscle strength, or doing the New York Times crossword puzzle every day will hone memory and mental agility, I wonder if our evolving viewing habits and desire for increasingly engaging entertainment are making us smarter and more observant, in contradiction to what our moms told us about that crap rotting our brains. (Well, okay, there is still Jersey Shore.)

It's an interesting notion, albeit one I'm wary about drawing too much from. After all, as Lehrer says, the effect is likely indirect and in any case "it's wise to be modest about what we know about population changes in IQ over time."

Nonetheless, I wonder if in fifty years today's more "complex" and "sophisticated" entertainment will seem as thin and simplistic as the programming that went out over black-and-white screens and rabbit-ear antennas decades ago seems to us. If so, at least we have it on good authority that viewers in the future will have a sixth finger for the remote control.

Music: Paul Simon
Near at hand: Germaine Greer's Shakespeare's Wife