The Null Device

Cognitively demanding leisure

Scores in general intelligence tests have been steadily rising for some decades; so much so that tests have to be replaced with new, harder ones every decade. Some claim that this is due to a more cognitively demanding environment, with things such as television programmes, badly-designed user interfaces and especially video games exercising the mental faculties responsible for problem-solving tasks of the sort covered by IQ tests:
Over the last 50 years, we've had to cope with an explosion of media, technologies, and interfaces, from the TV clicker to the World Wide Web. And every new form of visual media - interactive visual media in particular - poses an implicit challenge to our brains: We have to work through the logic of the new interface, follow clues, sense relationships. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these are the very skills that the Ravens tests measure - you survey a field of visual icons and look for unusual patterns.
The best example of brain-boosting media may be videogames. Mastering visual puzzles is the whole point of the exercise - whether it's the spatial geometry of Tetris, the engineering riddles of Myst, or the urban mapping of Grand Theft Auto.

The message there is that things derided as stultifying, such as TV programmes and computer games, actually make you smarter; in contrast, locking yourself in a room and reading the classics instead, as wise authorities would recommend, will cause these cognitive skills to atrophy.

Of course, human neural capacity hasn't been increasing steadily over the past century; our brains are roughly the same same size as those of our great grandparents were, and made of the same kinds of neurons and synapses. As such, it'd be a matter of give and take. As some skills increase, pushed on by new technologies, others atrophy, and conservatives decry the mind-rotting effect of new technologies. This is not a new phenomenon; when writing was invented, there surely were grumpy pundits decrying the inevitable decline of epic-poem memorisation skills (and I doubt whether anyone today, with the possible exception of certain autistic savants, would not appear hopelessly stupid to the ancients by such criteria were they sent back in time); ditto the decline of mental arithmetic skills with the advent of calculators. (Some among you will remember debates on whether giving schoolchildren calculators will harm their mathematical skills.) And, of course, agriculture and the city lifestyle has just about killed wilderness survival skills for any but professional experts trained in these.

Anyway, back to the point in question. One thing I would expect to emerge is improved skills at dealing with an information-rich environment, such as abstract problem-solving and multitasking skills. The other side of the coin would be shortened attention spans; as compulsive multitaskers constantly bombarded with multiple flows of information, we don't need the ability to patiently focus on one thing as our ancestors did, and so it has atrophied. (I once read that one of the reasons that Hollywood remakes so many old films, other than marketing with new casts/soundtracks/gimmicks, is that a lot of people these days find the original films too slow-paced and boring.)

There are 3 comments on "Cognitively demanding leisure":

Posted by: gjw http://the-fix.org Tue May 10 02:30:29 2005

I think this just demonstrates a disconnect between different _types_ of intelligence. Spend your time playing video games, and you'll develop problem solving skills. Spend your time reading, and you'll learn facts and ideas. Now, every IQ test I've taken has focused overwhelmingly on the problem solving skills. They don't put questions like "Who was the ruler of Egypt during the Third Crusade" in IQ tests, because they're not culturally neutral. Therefore, IQ tests are biased towards testing the kinds of skills that video games impart, because they're unable to test more fact-based knowledge. The idea that this kind of intelligence will be replaced by mobile Google searches fills me with the fear.

Posted by: toby http:// Tue May 10 05:04:36 2005

IMO, fact recall != intelligence

Posted by: acb http://dev.null.org Tue May 10 09:56:40 2005

Fact recall is not intelligence, though following connections between facts and drawing inferences therefrom is a type of intelligence. As for Google searches replacing this sort of intelligence, there will always be a need for some kind of strategic thinking to guide the tools at hand; at most, the lowest-level skills (rote memorisation, mental arithmetic) will be lost (or demoted to arcane party tricks), having been delegated to tools.

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