Pumping the Brain Muscle

Aug 29, 2009, 2:26 PM |

Most people believe reading a book is a more intelligent activity than watching a TV show or playing a video game. But does reading make someone intelligent? Studies clearly indicate that it does, especially if we measure intelligence by reading comprehension, vocabulary, and linguistic ability. Obviously, these factors alone don’t cover the full spectrum of intelligence (problem solving, analytical thinking, general knowledge, creativity, spatial reasoning, etc.). And reading books does not necessarily make a person intelligent any more than sitting in church makes a person “good”. A broken car can sit in a repair shop all day and still be broken.

Such is the case with many people suffering from severe intellectual impairments like schizophrenia, autism, Alzheimer’s, and others. These individuals, while significantly retarded, can exhibit unimpaired or even overdeveloped language skills, usually termed “chatterbox syndrome.” Conversely, individuals suffering from impairments like Broca’s aphasia (damage to the “language area” of the brain responsible for speech) can have extremely impaired language abilities with unimpaired intelligence. Likewise, blind and deaf people aren’t considered unintelligent just because they can’t read or speak the way the rest of us do.

But for “normal” people, if reading makes us smarter then we should surely spend less or no time watching TV and playing video games. That all depends on the reading material. Most people consider reading books an intelligent activity because it increases linguistic ability, enhances vocabulary, and usually involves learning whatever life lesson the book conveys. Not all books are created equal. Informational books on wilderness survival or cooking will supply the reader with a lot more practical knowledge than, say, Twilight or even Moby Dick. And Moby Dick will supply the reader with a lot more linguistic ability and vocabulary than Twilight or a cookbook.

Readers of Twilight are often criticized in the same way readers of comic books have been for decades. Comics are the red-headed stepchildren of the literary world because they aren’t considered “intelligent” by “intelligent” literary people. Despite their popularity today in film adaptations, comic books have yet to be canonized or taught in schools as course requirements. (Can you imagine a university course catalogue that includes Graphic Novels 101 or Literature of Alan Moore 438?) But what some “intelligent” literary people fail to recognize is that many of these comics contain the same elements as their beloved classics–verbiage, plot, literary device, and meaning. People who assume kids can’t learn anything from Batman obviously don’t know anything about Batman. What can’t kids learn from a justice loving, technology using, physically fit, intelligent superhero who doesn’t believe in killing just to fight crime and who managed to conquer his fear? What can’t kids learn from the equality-seeking X-Men? Or the loyal, family-loving Spider-Man?

If learning is part of what makes reading books so important, then educational television shows like those appearing on PBS, the History Channel, or the Discovery Channel would actually be better than some books, especially fiction novels. But what about other television shows and other books? Is it better to read a romance novel than to watch All My Children? Or are the two intellectually equal? Is there some sort of hierarchical chart indicating which books are more intellectual than television shows, and which television shows are more intellectual than books?

A fair assessment of which books are better than which shows, and which shows are better than which books, might be how “intellectually strenuous” they are. Just like the body, the mind gets a better work out from more challenging activities. Compare swimming 20 laps vs. taking a bath to reading Time magazine vs. reading Teen People. More passive activities like watching television don’t strengthen the brain as effectively as more active activities like reading (except, as I have already argued, the Discovery Channel is probably better for your intelligence than romance novels).

Many people, most of them parents, view playing video games as a passive activity involving little to no intellectual effort. But anyone who has ever had to perform a series of complicated maneuvers, solve a challenging puzzle to continue to the next level, and/or accomplish a set of tasks within a time limit knows that is absolutely not true. This is especially untrue if we measure the time invested in each activity. Assuming the average person reads at
300 words per minute, it would take about 6 hours to complete a 400 page novel. Some games last about the same time–6 to 10 hours. But some games, particularly role playing games (RPGs), can include anywhere from 20 to 60 hours of game play. RPGs often combine verbal and textual dialogue, as well as some text-based action commands. Playing video games is probably the least passive thing someone could be doing, and it’s good brain exercise.

Some games have it harder than others. Players of massively multiplayer online games (MMOs) are often viewed more negatively than non-MMO gamers. For example, fans of the wildly popular World of Warcraft (WoW) are viewed as game-addicted time-wasters. Shouldn’t they be doing something else in their free time? Something more productive? MMOs stimulate the brain about as much as any other video game, and they provide the added benefits of social interaction (albeit virtual), teamwork, leadership, and commitment. Not all activities performed alone in front of the computer are completely useless, and many software companies (and even a few parents) have been wise to the educational benefits of game play since the days of Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?.

As much as I’ve lauded video games for their brainy benefits, I would never suggest them as a replacement for reading books. Reading is the best way to acquire lexical mastery, and reading is the only way to get better at reading. Here’s what I am saying: just like the body benefits most from several types of exercises – aerobic, strength training, flexibility exercises – so too does the brain benefit from different types of learning. Reading is important. Video games are important. And even more passive activities like
watching television are important for hearing spoken language. Not everything stupid is bad for you.