Pop Culture and Cognitive Improvements

During the week-end I read Everything Bad Is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter by Steven Johnson. Some thoughts below:

The author's take is that pop culture (mostly: video games/tv/movies) is not so dumb but foster interesting situations in which viewers/users can improve their cognitive processes through different ways: pattern recognition, social network mapping, problem solving and so forth. Johnson's first point is to convince the reader that pop culture could be as relevant as books or theater (accepted and 'noble' forms of culture) for people's education. Let's summarize the points he raised:

  • video games: "the thing you almost never hear in the mainstream coverage is that games are fiendishly, sometimes maddeningly HARD": he describes how video games rely on the "reward/challenge" cycle and the "desire tosee the next things" to engage users into complex activities. As he explains, "It's not what you're thinking about when you're playing a game, it's the way you're thinking that matters". Games force to make decisions and especially to figure ou what you have to do. He describes the cognitive benefits of video games like the abilities to probe, "telescope" or get a continuous partial attention. I was abit surprised by the lack of mention to the theory of "flow" (Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. Harper and Row, New York): Csikszentmihalyi describes the "flow" as a psychological state that occurs when people are totally involvemed with ahigh degree of focus in an activity; which is the case with video-games.
  • television: tv also increased the degree of cognitive work needed to understand what's happening through 3 processes: multiple threading, flashing arrows and complex social networks. I really appreciate this part, with figures explaining how threads are more and more complex as well as the comparison of Dallas' simple social network compared to 24's terrible one!
  • the Internet
  • films

I am a bit more skeptical about the part which describes the cognitive benefits of pop culture (even though I accept the premise [the cognitive benefits of pop culture], the demonstration is a bit weak from a cognitive science point of view and rethoric. It would need more work on it).

Overall, the book is easy to read, clear and has a relevant point: don't treat pop culture as crap because it has virtues, not based on the content but on the cognitive processes people need to make use of when interacting with it: problem solving, pattern matching, social network mapping, continous partial attention, probing... However when the discussion enters too much into cognitive things, it stays at a too broad levels and I was disappointed by this part. What I miss there is maybe an analysis of specific cognitive processes improved by video game; this could have been better connected to cognitive psychology theories: problem solving, differences between novices and experts, memory, spatial skills, attention, perceptual skills... It's really a pity the author did not address this because there is plenty of connection to be derived from the tremendous bunch of studies about this. Of course, they are not all dealing with how people use video-games but they may use specific or simple video-games to study peculiar processes. Connected pasta: I already blogged about why and how psychologists are interested in video game here. Also there was this post about cognitive in MMORPG. In addition, adressing the socio-cognitive impacts of games is part of my research work for my PhD...