It is perhaps of no little comfort that someone has decided that hours spent watching mass-market television, twitching thumbs and forefingers in front of the latest Playstation game or trooping off to the cinema to some special affects occasionally interrupted by a plot is actually another form of intellectual development. For Steven Johnson, author of Everything Bad is Good for You: How Popular Culture is Making Us Smarter, there is no such things as unproductive leisure these days, believing an hour with a gameshow or reality TV series can be as instructive and even mentally stimulating as a few chapters of Marcel Proust – and he has the stats to prove it.
Having studied IQ reports, he has unearthed the phrase “Sleeper Curve” repeatedly, implying that even the most mainstream of popular entertainment today is actually considerably more complex in terms of emotional intelligence, plot structure and inference than comparable shows 30 and 40 years ago. The Sporanos, for example, compared to simplistic cop show Dragnet is a favored example, while the increased complexity of hospital and legal-centred shows thrive even without explanation of the minutiae of the subject matter.
In gaming, he does deeper still, arguing that action-reward activities stimulate the neurotransmitter dopamine, in which success is rewarded by the release of pleasure-inducing ophoids. This, in turn, enhances focus. So, the next time you are urged to go and do something productive, you can raise the game controller or the DVD case and state, with scientific confidence, “I already am”.
Everything Bad is Good for You: How Popular Culture is Making Us Smarter, Steve Johnson (Riverhead), 2005