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Book Review: Everything Bad is Good For You ~ Steven Johnson

I am very appreciative of the fact that my kiddos keep me posted on interesting books and ideas that they discover. And this book was a gem and a great tool to assist my thinking and help me keep pace.

When folks entertain themselves these days, they just may be making their brains more effective tools. Even if they watch certain television shows, they may not be just “couch potatoes” passively absorbing, they may be improving their minds, increasing brain synapses, and IQs.

It takes about 40 hours to play most video games. The games have evolved from just joystick skills enhancement to having to solve a series of dilemmas, remember those processes and repeat them in order to complete the quest and finish the game.

Johnson states, “Where most commentators assume a race to the bottom and dumbing down, I see a progressive story; mass culture growing more sophisticated, demanding more cognitive engagement with each passing year. Think of it as a kind of positive brainwashing”

Several TV shows have really changed how we think for the better because these shows have graduated from straight story lines to intricate plots and subplots that one must follow and understand in order to comprehend. There are still shows that are straight story lines but think of the difference between CSI and 24 – the watcher must keep all the story lines straight and know what happened previously in the latter. The West Wing and the Sopranos are also examples of many track programming.

Video game probing is a powerful form of intellectual activity – your’re learning the rules of a complex system without a guide, after all.

The long –term trend in pop culture is toward increased complexity, is there any evidence that our brains are reflecting that change? If mass media is supplying an increasingly rigorous mental workout, is there any empirical data that shows our cognitive muscles growing in response? YES

Johnson does not say folks should engage in a 24/7 video game fest of life. That is not balance. Children need to be with others, go to school, play outdoors and learn to be part of a family by being part of a family. There is definitely balance.

Johnson also feels that although there is a measurable increase in problem-solving skills and IQ with games and complex entertainment there is a strong need for reading and including the classics. It is through reading, people understand other people; the novels and stories that we read are instructing us in the complexity and layering of a personality and culture, that one can not get from problem-solving challenges alone.

That some of the culture today does push at the boundaries of acceptable or healthy moral values shouldn’t surprise us, because it is in the nature of myth and storytelling to explore the edges of a society’s accepted beliefs and conventions. Popular stories rarely flourish in environments of perfect moral clarity; they tend to blossom at exactly the spaces where some established order is being questioned or tested.

This is the point where one needs to address issues within a conversation or dialogue, it is through many forms of communication that morals and values are translated and expressed. People need to talk about the entertainment they just explored. Blogs are a fine example of how media is changing the conversation that has increased communication skills and understanding. The vast majority of folks understand that the game characters are fictional and the story lines in TV are entertainment – not real life.

I don’t wish to be left behind, and although sometimes these more complex forms exploding into our society are too fast for me, I see how the Nintendo DS Brainage program is keeping my brain working and how writing a blog is keeping me in the conversation and in the game.

I highly recommend this book, it is KINDLE formatted and I very much enjoyed how Johnson added more information from the comments he has received on tour. The book is a fast, entertaining read and similar to a long blog post because of the stimulating comments from others.

So how do you keep your brain growing and developing more brain synapses?
What is your favorite form of social media and entertainment?
Check out the previous post for Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink

Steven Johnson hopes his children will engage with THE SIMS and CIVILIZATION IV


Do not forget the writing contests!


24 Responses to “Book Review: Everything Bad is Good For You ~ Steven Johnson”

  1. Betsy Wuebker Says:

    Hi Patricia – I remember reading that video gamers were sought after talents for certain positions in the armed services – so much of the technology is similar. I’m not a fan of video gaming – in fact, I banned them from the house when the kids were little, although I did allow some computer games, just not the ones on the TV. I thought the kids should be doing other things instead of gluing themselves to the TV.

    I read, read, read, read. Nose-In-A-Book would be my Indian name, LOL. The world of online journalism – blogs, etc.- keeps me engaged, and hopefully, aware. Don’t know about the synapse thing. I do enjoy Twitter and belong to Triiibes, but find I spend more time on them during slow periods in my businesses.

    Thanks for an eye-opening post.

  2. Mark Says:

    Interesting one can find the bad and the good in technology. Thanks for sharing this!

    Marks last blog post..Shifting Gears

  3. Patricia Says:

    Betsy,
    We did no TV or Video games when kids were little, (well they went off and did that at friends houses) We are all big readers here too, which Johnson says is very important for become full people. I am working with my Nintendo DS – Brainage and have a new game coming – and I am teaching myself Suduko by stimulating brain synapses – and it is working.
    I love reading blogs and interacting too… Life is about balance in Mr. Johnson’s world, but gaining those synapses and problem solving skills is crucial for our complex world.

    One needs to pick carefully, and there are a few computer games that will help too…but they are getting more important

  4. Patricia Says:

    Mark,
    You are welcome. I was very pleased my kiddos brought this book and study to my attention.

    Lots of good information about how we learn here and the importance of a balanced life.

  5. Friar Says:

    I think this is just the latest New Thing to be worried about.

    Typical. The older generation doesn’t understand the newer one, and they’re all worried about how it’s affecting society.

    They were probably having similar conversations 50 years ago, about how kids would be affected by TV and Rock’n’Roll music.

    And today’s kids will be having the same discussion, 50 years from today, about how THEIR kids are affected by the next latest New Thing.

    Friars last blog post..How to be a Nouveau-Riche Yuppie

  6. Tony Lawrence Says:

    We’re big readers – there’s always been lots of books and magazines scattered around the house and always a pile at the door to trade off with my sister when she comes.. our kids picked up reading from us of course. We never restricted their TV viewing but didn’t have to: they liked to read.

    Our kids turned out very well, but we have a nephew and niece who grew up in a very different environment – the only books in the house were the ones they had brought from school. The parents literally (or illiterately, I guess) never read anything, period.

    Yet their kids turned out OK too. One is a pharmacist – pretty good field nowadays.. so while I’d certainly rather see children have a rich literary environment, lack of it doesn’t necessarily impoverish them.

    Tony Lawrences last blog post..Microsoft move stuns nation

  7. patricia Says:

    Friar,
    Thank you so much for coming by and making a comment. The book itself is fascinating to read and I found it extra interesting to understand how those brain synapses work, having a child with a lesion in the brain at the pre-frontal cortex, the information goes it but has a very hard time getting integrated and put back out. We found putting information in like she was a stroke victim (3 ways) was very helpful but by doing video games (SIMS) she could dramatically increase her ability to use information.

    Rather neat stuff.
    I worry more about kids not reading and running and not enjoying the fullness of life

  8. patricia Says:

    Tony,
    Thank you for coming by and your good comments.
    I am finding that without reading one can not interact with enough people to discover the layering of personality or culture.

    I think not having a literary background does impoverish people – there are two pharmacists that I see – One is brilliant and on target, but never thinks that I might need to talk about the medication – he just gives me work sheets.
    The Other is a compounding pharmacist – he formulates medications just for me – not pressed in Milk powder or bleached sugars….because he wants to test to see if this is what is right or will ease the symptoms.
    I am not at either pharmacy more often than the other, yet Fellow #2 interviews me for what I am trying to heal or relieve.
    He is also an expert on Dickens and plays a beautiful guitar…
    Thank you for telling me about your pharmacist success – if he did not read, or the family did not read – maybe they were more dynamic about communications or understanding each other…
    or maybe not…

    So many people can sell insurance, run banks, do their work, but they do not understand the role of society, culture or individuals – they lack that dynamic.
    I think this is the difference with Mr Geitner solving the banking problems in the USA and David Korten….one is game player and one is a brillant human being….

  9. Tony Lawrence Says:

    Oh, I don’t disagree with you, Patricia. I guess I just expected them to turn out to be, well, not “losers”, but certainly somewhat diminished.

    I don’t know if the kids read now. Interestingly, the parents got divorced and their dad lived with us for a few years. During that time he started reading – probably because you can’t walk in a room here and not see a book. He became a regular reader and as far as I know, still is..

    So it’s never too late, is it?

    Tony Lawrences last blog post..Microsoft move stuns nation

  10. Patricia Says:

    I don’t think it is ever too late! Because then there would be no hope of me ever learning math! but I am learning it with the help of a video game….

    I too am watching a young woman who is about to graduate from college and does not read – only what is assigned. She is going to be a lawyer. I think she will be brilliant, but I am wondering if she will have understanding of the humans she interacts with…
    Divorced parents too? My social scientist is keeping her eyes open and watching!

    A different way to people watch!

  11. Mike Says:

    Two years ago, when we were in Montana, I had the opportunity to see two of my nephews that I hadn’t seen for years. One of them, Jasson, was very much the same as I remembered except that he was in the Air Force, married, and buying a home. In fact, we visited at his home. His dad (my half-brother) and mom had moved there, too, and were living in the basement — as was one of his younger brothers — the other nephew.

    We saw very little of the younger nephew. I remembered him as a very nice, normal kid. If I had run in to him anywhere else, I would never have known him.

    His entire life seems to be bound up totally in on-line gaming. Very over-weight, with long scraggly hair, apparently he seldom emerges from the basement. Jasson referred to him as the “cave troll.”

    I don’t have a problem with kids or adults playing games or participating in other types of entertainment that are different from the norm — so long as there is some balance and it doesn’t turn into a crippling obsession — which I think has happened with my nephew.

    My brother and his wife never read much as far as I know. I grew up separately from all of my half-siblings and had more exposure to the wonders of the written word, I think. Our daughters both grew up surrounded by books and we have many photos of them with their nose in a book. Not too long ago, I took a photo of my grandson with his nose in a book, eerily reminiscent of photos of his mom and aunt. Later in the same visit, though I played some wii games with he and his sister.

    Mikes last blog post..The Sun Has Lost Its Spots — Part 2

  12. Jannie Funster Says:

    I do think we are getting more and more advanced with all things that require reading and language. The less we have to move our big muscles, the more time we spend on our smaller ones.

    However, this is detrimental to young childrens’ development.

    I think I keep my brain growing well by creating and learning music.

    And I’m very curious Patricia, have you ever watched The Sopranos? You seem too pure to have done so. Or was it just a point of reference for this post?

    Jannie Funsters last blog post..Potential Regalements

  13. patricia Says:

    Mike,
    When I was doing counseling I found the world of video game addiction to be quite prevalent and just as hard an addiction to work with as any other. Mr. Johnson is talks about addicted folks, and they are some of the ones which do not have balanced lives. He makes sure his own sons spend time playing out side and reading because of his research…anything done to the detriment of growth and balance is not ok – but he is reporting on that there is an increase in IQ which may help society in dealing with it’s complex problems. Just as the games and a few TV programs are getting more complex so is our society.
    We need to encourage balance
    Wii games are a great form of balance and I think these Japanese physically interactive games are being developed just to help develop that balance.
    Have you tried the Nintendo DS Brainage games…of course I don’t do my own tech work, but I want to keep my brain sharp – they are very fun!

  14. patricia Says:

    Jannie,
    Yep a balanced person uses all their muscles….and we know emotions are better handled and understood when folks have exercised.
    Creating and learning music is another excellent way to challenge the brain and keep it active… You are so smart and Talented

    I have never watched the Sopranos and have only acquired a basic cable TV system in the last year – I can’t get used to watching it, but with being ill it has helped out when I could not read. I even watched Oprah a couple of times!
    I use my computer to watch videos and programs I want to see, such as the Daily Show – I need to laugh!
    The author uses the Sopranos quite a bit to demonstrate the difference between kinds of dramas…so I used his examples as I had none of my own.
    I did see the Biggest Looser the day I got my TV!

    I don’t wish to be left behind and so I like understanding all these things. I love learning new things. I want my kids to know all the things they need to know to be successful…we were the first on our block to have a home based computer!

  15. Mike Says:

    Patricia – No, I try to stay away from electronic games. I’ve played in the past and have a tendency to get to wound up in the to the detriment of more important things.

    Mikes last blog post..Wednesday Weigh-In for April 8

  16. Patricia Says:

    Just for FYI…I do Brainage 15minutes everyday…right before I write and it brings me great focus…and on Brainage II they even have a relaxing game if one can not sleep – and it really puts me to sleep – no lie! He he he

    I do not find it so addicting as other games…

  17. Dot Says:

    I don’t have kids, so no worries about video games for them. I don’t think the issue is the medium or content so much as the amount of their lives that it sucks up. When I was growing up, I used reading to zone out from a violent household and avoid facing life. Now, kids do the same with video games and the rest.

    I think the issue is the overall mental health of the family and the child or young adult. If it’s a healthy household, there will be exercise, time outdoors, time spent with friends and family, work and play. If it’s an unhealthy one, there may be nothing but the play, done grimly to keep other things at bay.

    Nowadays, I read constantly, as I always have, watch a lot of TV when I have to rest, enjoy movies on DVD, walk, and spend time with friends. I think all those things stimulate the brain. I also spend quite a bit of time just thinking, about my life, other people’s lives, the world, the economy, the future, and more.

    Dots last blog post..The Silva Method, CDs 9 and 10

  18. Sara Says:

    Patricia,

    Thanks for sharing about this book. I’ll have to check it out. I agree with you about using video games. There are many life-saving medical procedures that might be performed if weren’t for the fact young children learned to pay Nintendo games with joy sticks.

    I’m glad you do keep your brain working and write your blog because I enjoy the way you think and write:~)

    Saras last blog post..What You Can Do When Overwhelmed

  19. Patricia Says:

    Dot,
    Oh such good comments. And I do think healthy develops healthy -also that unhealthy can learn healthy. I wanted to share that some of these TV programs and video games are teaching skills that our complex society needs – not all the skills but another level of skills to add onto our lives.

    Sara,
    You are so right, we needed those joystick controls and now Mercedes Benz has come out with a concept car that is joystick controlled and can be driven from either front seat – I will never be able to drive that car because I can not do joystick controls!
    My daughter owes her graduation from college to a speech and education therapist who understood what games she should play to make brain synapses that worked for her development. She is computer dependent.
    Thank you for coming by and the lovely words. Both are very much appreciated.

  20. LisaNewton Says:

    I try to keep up with some the latest techie info, but often times it’s overwhelming. I just do what I can.

    The funny thing about video games is that when my children were growing up, I never had them in my house. I always wanted them to play outside, using their muscles. For the most part, they’re still not interested in video games. However, my oldest daughter’s fiance is into them, so a few months ago, I got a chance to play Wii for the first time. It was fun………………:)

    LisaNewtons last blog post..Sun and Fun at the Santa Monica Pier

  21. patricia Says:

    Welcome Lisa,
    We never had video games at our house either. We were busy painting, and making music and everyone doing a sport. But it is nice to know that those who were playing those games may be be problem-solvers in the future.
    My Oldest daughter introduced me to this book ( computer geek) and also the Wii system and Wii fit….very fun indeed.
    Thank you for your good comments

  22. ginger Says:

    i’m really surprised and kind of revolted that all of america agrees with johnson’s argument. i’m 19, a student at temple university and i had to read this book for english class. you know how at some point in the book johnson acknowledges the fact that school teaches us nothing? in fact it teaches us specifically not to think at all. well, so school can’t be the reason our IQs are rising. so what is…he says pop culture. well number one
    what the fuck is an IQ score? what does it say about anyone? nothing….IQ came out for the military, to put the dumb people in the front of the line. IQ says nothing of intelligence.
    why would pop culture be making us smarter when it does the exact same thing school does: to organize and manage…to follow rules. that’s all it does. the whole issue of probing and telescoping that johnson mentions? it’s all about rules, following directions, and such. comparing APBA to filing taxes doesn’t make it sound hard and intellectual it makes it sound like shuffling of numbers…more organizing and managing. that’s what thinking means to johnson.

    plus you can use “problem solving” (which i’m not trying to say is a bad thing) in all other areas of life other than tv and video games…how about learning to drive, playing sports… socializing, communicating with family, in school…all these LIFE things take problem solving skills.

    and he says that books are isolating?… technology is isolating, ironically. you’d think not because we have access to each other 24/7, but the constant communication we have with one another is not intimate in any way. it’s empty and virtual. and technology has also taught us to be uncomfortable being alone. instead of children finding things to do to entertain themselves, like drawing, going outside and using their imagination to create games or build things, or reading, or what have you….they instead need constant attention and to be around people all the time. so where does imagination and thinking come into play? where is there time for introspection when you can’t even be alone? alone is not the same as being lonely…

    and just because technology is complex doesn’t mean life was easier a hundred years ago…simple things are not dumb, but johnson says they are. he says we’re smarter because the complexity of things ahve gone up..but really…were things less complex years ago?…no…adaptation has speeded up. from radio to movies to tv to walkmans to ipods…but complexity doesn’t mean things are harder. actually technology makes things easier for us. it takes two minutes to figure out an ipod…things are convenient bc of technology not harder…just becaus parents dont know how to work the dvd player doesn’t mean they’re dumb…it means that a dvd player is a generational difference and they don’t need or have time to learn such things. it’s not that they can’t…it’s that they don’t care. kids learning all this technology is really not that difficult, it’s just they’re kids and have more free time than adults and CARE to keep up with all the tech…

    johnson’s complete argument is ridiculous. he loses right when he says that life was easier 100 years ago…100 years ago kids were not either playing stickball doing chores or being a child laborer. which is what he claims…they were using their imaginations, building forts outside in the yard or whatever..

    i’m not trying to claim that technology sucks. it doesn’t. it’s great for a lot of reasons. but johnson’s claim that technology and pop culture makes us smarter is a revolting idea…all he thinks thinking means, is following rules and organizing…he’s complete bullshit. but americans agree with him because america is, as a whole, pretty fucking stupid.

    any argument johnson has, can be fought against.

  23. Patricia Says:

    Ginger,
    Thank you so much for your comments, I wish I could sit down in a room and just bounce your ideas around and toy with them.

    I think that all our electronic gadgets are both helpful and a hindrance. As a person with dyscalcula I have always been considered rather stupid in school (formal education) but my Nintendo DS player is teaching me how to think linearly now and to remember number patterns. You can teach an old dog new tricks – especially if they wish to learn!

    My neighbor retired from teaching last year – she taught math and Spanish – she is relieved to be retired because the students would not participate in discussions any more and she is not a good entertainer style teacher.

    My Mum stopped teaching first grade when the students refused to learn how to use an analogue clock because their sense of time went digital…..so how do you teach about the relationship between time and space.

    When I first taught college level, we were busy teaching freshman girls how to be assertive enough to participate in seminars and gain traction. My brother – in- law had to pay students to ask questions in his last semester’s political science class about China and Korea.

    I worried about my children – so I used everything to help them grow…and become….I love to argue and play with issues and ideas and I do find Americans as a group want to sneak away and find a new idea on their own ( the next greatest thing) and then present it as a fact, a rule, a new idea…

    I do not see a great deal of evidence about how folks are talk creative and detailed thinking skills or even how to have a discussion. Our many exchange students found lack of discussion and community problematic when they stayed here.

    I don’t see Johnson’s book as a problem but only as an idea…and how do we create balance in life now that we have his ideas spelled out….Where have all the thinkers gone…where are the discussions….
    I miss them
    I am so appreciative for your response – Thank you…I hope it will generate some more comments….
    Thank you – I rejoice at your stopping by and wriitng.

  24. Patricia Says:

    Ginger,
    I typed so quickly I had a couple of glaring typos…but I came back because I wanted also to say that I think the “norm” right now is that Americans are rather proud of being “dumb” our last President bragged about being a C student and then becoming President….American Ingenuity is lacking….there is a meanness to others and this value in greed that is public…