Television makes us smarter when it makes us think

Braining Up


Are we getting smarter? And if so, can we credit television with helping us get smarter?

A discussion on the Today Show this morning grappled with whether GCSE and A Level results had been improving each year (…until this year) because teaching methods and student efforts were improving, or whether the questions and marking systems were becoming easier.

Or perhaps we are just getting smarter.

You can argue it either way.  Traditional genetic theory would suggest that real intelligence will increase only over many generations, and only then if we can encourage the intelligent to breed more quickly than the dullards (and fat chance with that!, given that stupid people are so often the more attractive ones…).  Then again, there’s also the power of the learning curve.  We improve through practice, and by some sort of trickle down process this wisdom passes to the young.

Complexity in drama

Well, some years ago, Steven Johnson looked at this in the marvellous ‘Everything Bad is Good For You: How Popular Culture is Making Us Smarter’ (and thanks Ben for the recommendation).  In a world where accusations were rife that popular culture was creating a dumbed down, infantile population, he argued that popular culture was having precisely the opposite effect  And not just on the people at the top of the intelligence spectrum, but on the mass population.  We are getting smarter.  IQ tests are adjusted so that the person of average intelligence (on the 50th percentile, if you will) scores 100.  But when you compare over time, you find that someone scoring in the top 10% in 1920, would be in the bottom third today.  And the increases are accelerating.

So what is causing this?  Schooling… perhaps.  But the main driving force recently, Johnson argues, is popular culture, such as computer games and television.

So he looks for evidence in the plots of police dramas.  Are they becoming more sophisticated and intelligent?

First Dragnet – where a single story, a single narrative, is told in each episode. It originally ran until 1970.  Then Starsky and Hutch, which ran in the late 70s.  As the diagram shows, Starsky and Hutch is the same as Dragnet, but tops and tails the drama with a perfunctory comic subplot.

Steven Johnson’s plot structure of Starsky and Hutch




And then there’s Hill Street Blues, which ran until 1987.  It was far more complex, with a number of plots in each episode.  Much more to think about, but each plot took turns.

The Masterful Hill Street Blues. Multiple plots taking turns.

Phil Esterhaus: ‘Hey… let’s be careful out there’. (Michael Conrad, died during the shooting of Series 4)






And finally, The Sopranos.

Here’s the plot structure of a typical episode.  It looks similar to Hill Street Blues, but the plots don’t take turns, they interweave.  That’s much harder.

The Sopranos: Separate plots, like Hill Street Blues, but intermingling and more complex




But the beauty of Johnson’s argument us that he doesn’t stop there.   He went on to to look at the topography of the relationships in dramas. Some dramas have lots of characters, with complex relationships, and others might have a topology of the simple diagram below.  Some research seems to suggest that audiences are more engaged with plots in soap operas which involve those characters who sit at the nodal heart of the relationship structures, rather than those at the periphery.  There is more at stake.  As the years have gone by, these dramas have become more complex.

I recently met Beryl Vertue, the Executive Producer of Sherlock, a particularly complex drama.  She explained that computers and digital editing allow far more complexity to be built into dramas, and changes can be made more quickly.  It’s not only the brains of the audience that can now cope with more complexity, the production capabilities have brained up too – along with the benefit of a 90 minute format instead of an hour.

From complex dramas to complex characters

What builds intelligence is not only complexity in something we watch, but something with which we can engage.  So, these are dramas where the language and the characters are hard to fathom, where we go beyond a quick emotional response (judgement) to interacting and evolving opinions.  We like heroes who are flawed, or villains we can admire – who make us think.  The classic is a Mr Darcy who wins us over gradually.

Beryl Vertue also explained how characters in Sherlock have changed:

‘What the writers have done is to change Doctor Watson a bit, and he has brought a little bit of humanity to Sherlock that wasn’t there before – to the character of Sherlock Holmes.  You make it modern day, but Sherlock Holmes is still detecting things in his really really clever way, and using modern technology as well, but it’s still his brain that’s making him do certain things, and it was always was.’.

Sherlock: Intelligent ambiguous and complex and likely to make you smarter too

When we see complex, rounded characters, it forces us to think about them.  Sherlock Holmes was always a multi-faceted character – a cocaine user for a start.   Sherlock has retained this and built an emotional depth to the character, avoiding clichés.   (A Touch of Cloth, a spoof police drama starting tomorrow, mocks the litany of dramatic clichés found in detective dramas, such as detectives with tragic pasts and troublesome bosses.  Just as disaster movies had to be rethought after Airplane, A Touch of Cloth may force police dramas to work a little harder, to stop us all slipping into comfortably robotic mode while watching).

Reality Programmes and quizzes

So that’s drama, but what about other programmes, such as reality shows?  What makes The Apprentice (which Steven Johnson also discusses) such a joy is not only observing the tasks and the competition, but the way we can’t help inserting ourselves in the drama – how would we behave?  We try to understand the behaviour of the participants – their motivations, their game plan, their hidden give-aways, and we like to talk about it with other people. 

Pointless works as a supreme quiz because it is not, largely, dealing with facts.  Facts can be quite static (unchanging) and binary (right or wrong) in nature.  With Pointless, we are testing our memory against the memories of the crowd, and anticipating how their memories work.  Quizzes based on facts probably get as far as what Daniel Kahneman, the brain process expert (or psychologist) would call our System 1 thoughts – automatic and quick.  With Pointless and Only Connect we are engaging System 2 thoughts – logic and intelligence that requires effort.  It’s deeply complex.

Pointless: It makes you smarter by making the brain work harder.  A cognitive workout

Mastermind. Static facts which are right or wrong. So you don’t think too hard. And it doesn’t make you smarter. Eggheads is the same

There are some who argue that unless you are playing along online, as with the Million Dollar Drop, or commenting via Zeebox you aren’t really engaging.  *sigh*.   This might help but relatively few people actually do this, or want to, and besides we can quite easily engage with the people we are with while we watch.  Engagement boosts the impact of what we watch, but we brain up even more when we connect directly with others – like the two green dots near the top of the diagram below.  And face-to-face is a richer, more connective  experience.

TV programme in red. Viewers in green. They take what they see and pass it on. These connections boost brain power.


So television that makes you think more deeply (especially if it is coupled with the connective effect of speaking with others) boosts your intelligence.

Three other things:, while I have your attention

1. Some years after Everything Bad Is Good For You, Clay Shirky came out with Cognitive Surplus.

He argued that the internet would usher in a more caring and connected society, saving us from the insidious brain mushing, and (he hoped) temporary madness of watching TV.  We will come back to this nonsensical idea another time

2. Savvy young people

A savvy teenager.

It is often said that young people are savvy, or technologically savvy.  It is true that children can be good at operating technology.  But I will think less of you if you use the phrase in my presence.  I just will.

3.  Question:

How many animals of each kind did Moses take into the ark?

Come on, how many?


No.  None.  It wasn’t Moses, it was Noah who took the animals into the ark (or so the unlikely legend would have it).

This is a rather neat demonstration, (which appears on page 73 of Daniel Kahneman’s book) of the way the brain can slip into automatic mode.  The mention of animals and the ark creates the context of the Old Testament, in which Moses and Noah both appear.  The names have a similar tone, and so there you are… you go along with the incorrect name (it’s near enough to ring true).  The problem with straightforward TV quizzes and dramas is that our brains go into automatic mode when watching them.  The ones that help us to get smarter keep us thinking properly.  It’s true of news too.










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