People are Getting Smarter…Content is Getting Dumber: Alexander Macris at TEDxBinghamtonUniversity



you about the content we consume and what that content consumption is doing to our minds but before I start to talk about content I want to talk about something else we consume I want to talk about food when we consume food we experience its taste and we benefit from its nutritional value taste is subjective for person to person it can vary nutrition is universal and objective those of us don't like our broccoli might say that food and taste and nutrition don't go well together others strange people like healthy food at a minimum we can agree that food can be tasty without being nutritious and vice versa now one time the American diet consisted primarily of nutritious food such as organic vegetables whole grain grass-fed beef but as food production became market driven food companies found that making food tastier was cheaper than making food nutritious and that consumers actually prefer tastier food rather than healthier food over time nutritious food was supplanted by inexpensive cheap food that was available to everybody didn't have a lot of nutrition while healthy nutritious food was limited to the dietary elite the people that shop at Whole Foods the gradual erosion of our nutritional value of our food was ignored by almost everybody until the obesity epidemic transformed our love handles into passion Bannister's and now we're the fattest country in the developed world I believe when we consume content it's a lot like eating food like food content has a taste to it when you experience the Avengers it tastes differently than the Dark Knight which you prefer is just a matter of taste never before has the content menu offered so many very excellent tastes if you enjoy consuming content the world is an amazing place but content also has a nutritional value just as food feeds our bodies content feeds our minds and as with food the nutritional effective content is objective and universal I've summarized the findings from over 40 different studies on how concept on how contest consumption affects us nutritious content increase knowledge it expands our vocabularies it improves reflection critical thinking problem-solving visual acuity imagination unhealthy content shortens our attention span it damages our concentration it weakens our problem-solving skills increases impulsivity and like simple sugars it leaves you addicted and wanting more we already know that the American diet of food rapidly changed in the 20th century in a way that made it taste even less nutritious the American diet of the mind has also changed rapidly did these changes leave our mental diet a healthy balanced one or have we begun to feed our minds as badly as we feed our bodies consuming nothing but junk all day if our mental menu is nutritious we should see people getting smarter and sharper if our mental menu is unwholesome we should expect to see a spreading epidemic of stupidity that would parallel the epidemic of obesity let's start by examining our reading habits reading it turns out is the most nutritious way you can consume content the better you are at reading the better you are at thinking and how do you get better at reading by reading educators call this principle the Matthew effect in a series of studies researchers Cunningham and Standage have demonstrated repeatedly that a high volume of reading increases knowledge broadened vocabulary and reduces the cognitive decline of Aging and all of these studies were controlled for general intelligence and verbal abilities so in other words is not that smart people read although they do but that reading makes you smarter no other type of content consumption has been shown to provide these benefits when you want to strengthen your muscles the best way to do it is to lift heavy weights so I've been told when you want to strengthen your mind the best way to do it is to read challenging literature so how challenging is our literature today compared to the past I explored a corpus of best-selling books for the 300 year period 1710 to 2010 an assessed sentence length paragraph length and reading grade sentence length has been steadily declining for decades from an average of 40 words percent to an average of 14 it's now as abrupt as our spoken speech it can't decrease much further unless we start speaking in tweets paragraph lengths held steady from the beginning of the 18th century until the middle of the 20th century when it suddenly began to plummet at an accelerating rate this is when the era of TV began books written before 1950 had an average paragraph length of over a hundred words books written after 1950 had an average paragraph length of 71 words and if you look at just books written after 2000 the average paragraph has dropped 258 words consequently the reading grade of best-selling books has also plummeted dramatically over time the reading grade started at 14.5 for bestsellers in the 1700s and then declined in exorbitant by 2010 it was down to grade 4.5 now remember this has nothing to do with taste the data is not talking about the aesthetic taste of consuming books there are enjoyable books written at every reading grade at every genre when we consider reading grade we're only talking about nutritional value and from that point of view what we are seeing is that bestsellers were once books that challenged the college-educated mind and they are now books that are easy for fifth graders also note that the reading grade of the works clusters tightly as we get around 1940 and the 1940s is when researchers began to develop and promote what they termed readability scores a readability score is a measure of the degree to which material can be understood by readers so this flesh Kincaid reading grade is a readability score once publishers were able to measure readability they could target the works that they published at whatever reading level would reach the greatest number of people at the time the average American could read at the 8th grade level but enjoyed reading at the 6th grade level that is for recreation people liked to read texts that are two grades beneath their actual reading level unfortunately research by Professor Lev Vygotsky found that reading is most nutritious when it's slightly at or above your current reading level reading books that are at your present level or below does not of comprehension if you want to increase your vocabulary knowledge you have to encounter new words and new facts and this is unfortunate because it means there's a negative correlation between taste and nutrition the books you enjoy are not going to be the books that are best for you so as publishers started to use the readability score to guide their publishing it was inevitable they were going to start making their material tastier but less nutritious because that's what we the consumer wanted and this is similar to what happened when farmers substituted corn for grass in the livestock the beef tasted better but it became less nutritious the publishers of newspapers and magazines hired readability consultants to purposefully simplify their written content and as a result in the past 60 years the reading level of newspapers and magazines has dropped by two to four grades decreasing the reading grade of the works allow the newspaper magazine publishers to greatly increase the audience but it also reduced the nutritional value of reading it now it's not surprising that market forces are going to cater towards taste rather than nutrition what's especially troubling is that our textbooks have also been dumbed down the average 8th grader is now reading from textbooks at the 5th grade reading level the literature text that was required of 12th graders is nowadays simpler than the average 8th grade reading book before World War two despite the fact that books are easier to read than ever the average American today reads less than ever 60% of 18 to 24 year olds used to read literature in 1982 by 2002 this had dropped to 43 percent the percentage of adults who read for pleasure is decreasing by 7 percent every year and the average annual spending has dropped from 33 dollars to 28 dollars in the last 20 years it's accepted that the declining popularity of written media has been caused by the rise of screen media so it's a dietary shift it means that not only are Americans reading simpler books flipping through simpler magazines and learning from simpler textbooks they're doing less of all of the above and these changes have occurred simultaneously with measurable decreases in our nation's verbal skills this is what the mean verbal SAT scores look like after you correct for the fact that the test makers have been adjusting the scores upward to hide the decline there was a 50 point drop between 1962 and 1879 in 1962 TV reached 90% market penetration and textbooks got simplified there has been another 10-point drop since 2000 when internet access went mainstream here's a comparison of the reading ability of adults in 1949 and 2003 the world before TV and after TV the number of u.s. adults capable of reading at the tenth grade level dropped from 54 percent to 20 percent the number capable of reading it even the sixth-grade level dropped from 83 percent to 52 percent in other words more Americans could read at the 10th grade level in 1949 then can even read at the 6th grade level today and this is despite the fact that in 1949 the average American had eight and a half years of education and now the average adult has 12 and a half years of education so four and a half extra years of education to do worse so far I focused on printed material because it's the leafy green vegetables of the content diet what about screen media how are they doing well printed media has obviously declined in popularity screen media is doing a little better watching television is now the developed world's favorite activity taking up more free time than anything else the only thing we do more than watch TV is sleep Americans age 15 to 24 spend two hours a day watching TV and seven minutes reading for pleasure if books are the leafy green vegetables in the diet TVs and computers of the daily bread now the good news is that screen media has been shown to increase visual spatial intelligence video games have also been shown to improve hand-eye coordination Thank You five-year-olds who beat me on xbox and divided attention which makes us better at tracking multiple objects at once the Internet has been shown to increase transactive memory which is sort of a meta memory of where to find information like I no longer remember my birthday so I google it in particular the increase in visual spatial intelligence has been profound and you can see the increased scores on the Raven progressive matrices these are nonverbal IQ tests they provide a measure of visual intelligence and screen media are like vitamins for visual ability tasty tasty vitamins the bad news is that all types of screen media come at a substantial cost professor Patricia Greenfield summarizes the findings as damage to our deep cognitive processes a study by the American Academy of Pediatrics found that for every hour a child spent watching television there was a nine percent increase in their intention problems children between age 11 and 15 spent 53 hours a week in front of the screen a 2005 study published in brain and cognition has found that the more we watch television during our middle years age 20 to 60 the greater our risk of Alzheimer's a 2006 study in southern medical journal found that watching lots of soap operas and talk shows was associated with clinically significant impairment of attention memory and psychomotor speed in older people like your professors al are a large part of televisions effect on our mind is caused by what Pavlov calls the orienting response this is the instinctive response we get to sensitivity of change vision sound our brains get turned on by stimuli which triggers a dopamine release whenever art sorry in the last two decades researchers have begun to examine how the shots cuts edits and effects of television activate the orienting response a study of EEG activity in the processing of television published in communications research found that the more you have the shots quickly edited the more effect television has on your nervous system so the average length of shots in our screen media is a benchmark for how healthy it is to watch shorter cuts make the content more arousing more addictive and more damaging to our attention span and unfortunately that's the direction the screen media's moved in in 1972 the average shot length of a u.s. film was 8.6 seconds now it's down to 2.5 seconds film makers call this MTV editing because everything looks like a music video now children's shows are particularly fast cut a longitudinal study of Sesame Street found that the average shot length had have over the last 26 years the even dumb down Sesame Street these trends are a function of the decreased attention span of the modern mind as well as contributing factors to its further reduction attention deficient viewers seek out shorter hyperkinetic content which in turn leads to their minds becoming even more attention to efficient this is a vicious cycle that becomes a cliche how many of you find blockbusters from the old days to be too slow-paced boring and long in fact even 18 minutes is probably too long for a talk in today's attention deficient world so we're going to have a halftime show you have to imagine this music playing during this part of the presentation because when we listen to music it triggers a complex neural process a controversial 1993 study published in Nature found that listening to Mozart increases your spatial task performance follow-on studies have found similar effects from other music with similarly complex structures such as Bach Yanni a 2011 study found that cognitive recall was increased when listening to unfamiliar classical music a 2012 study found that listening to classical music could improve performance of stressful tasks like TED Talks by calming the sympathetic nervous system loud fast music induces stress on the sympathetic nervous system so if these findings are correct and these are less clear the most nutritious music would be sedating complex and unfamiliar while the least nutritious music would be loud simplistic and sound familiar so what direction is pop music been heading in the last 50 years while analysts at the span Spanish National Research Council actually evaluated 465,000 pop songs from 1955 to 2010 to evaluate loudness harmonic complexity timbrel diversity since the 1950s music has tended towards increased inherent loudness there's been a reduction in the diversity of chords but given song a reduction in the number of musical pathways between each chord and the timbers of different instruments has gotten more homogeneous every year since 1955 pop music uses fewer and fewer tones from the available palette so overall in the last 50 years pop music has become louder more simplistic and more similar it's probably becoming less nutritious and this again is not a measure of tastehh in fact we should probably not even discuss my taste in music or my jazz album let's just say that from an objective review of the cognitive benefits of music you are much better off with Mozart so we have answered our starting question just is the nutritional value of food decline from healthy to unhealthy so too has the nutritional value of our content decline dramatically instead of a balanced diet that mixes great tasting content with nutritious fare we instead feed our minds with the equivalent of deep fried doughnuts doughnuts if we care of course I did bad few if we care about the health of our mind as much as we care about the health of our bodies we need to begin to balance our content diet as urgently as we need to balance our food diet we don't need to give up video games we don't need to quit watching CSI we can even keep listening to Beyonce but it wouldn't hurt us to read something really hard like Edward Gibbons decline and fall of the Roman Empire reading grade 17.4 or to watch something slow and methodical like The Godfather or you could listen to something sonorous and melodic like Mozart just don't do all three at once because multitasking is the information superhighway to help thank you you

28 thoughts on “People are Getting Smarter…Content is Getting Dumber: Alexander Macris at TEDxBinghamtonUniversity

  1. Old video, but its also worth mentioning that while the general public is getting dumber and weaker, the elite are getting smarter and stronger. Human race is splitting into two, and they’re both headed in opposite directions.

  2. Thank you very much for the video. First off, I want to say that I enjoyed the content. However, I do have one suggestion. Your graphs on dollars spent on reading materials and the mean value of SAT scores do not start at zero. This makes the decline look much more drastic and starting with a 0 axis. Still, it was a very great presentation. Thank you.

  3. Americans are the most intelligent and the most successful people in all times. The reason we’re criticized so much is the jealousy of the world! Boo ya planet earth! We won the power game. Get over it!

  4. Sadly, some teachers tell kids that their sentences are too long and they are writing run on sentences. Similarly, some teachers say that paragraphs are too long and should be more concise. Many educators are writing the simpler text books mentions. Basically, many educators and teacher's are reinforcing the degradation of reading and comprehension in our society.

  5. I have read way less books on the past year than I can remember reading in my entire life. I usually go through two or three novels a week in addition to any other materials I enjoy reading. This entire year I may have completed about two novels for the whole year.

    However, the reason for my decline in the amount of reading has been due to the fact that I have been trying to learn Korean and the majority of the reading I have been doing has been either about learning Korean or actually in Korean. I would imagine that if varied material makes it more nutritious attempting a foreign language that doesn't even use the same alphabet would probably be the most nutritious mind food ever…

    I have noticed a remarkable difference in my memory along with a lot of other unexpected mental changes in the process and even some behavioral differences.

  6. Impressive talk!! I wish everyone have a chance to watch this video. Let’s read guys, self education is key!

  7. 1710 the average sentence consisted of 40 words.
    1710 the average paragraph consisted of 100 words.

    So a paragraph was made up of 2 and a half sentences?

  8. Sentence length declined because of a rise of the popularity of brevity. I don't think that being able to say the same idea, clearer and conciser, in less words – is a bad thing. It makes communication easier, and clearer.

  9. Idk what this guy means with smart, but intelligence has been shown that it can't be improved upon. And lets say that's not true, reading anything regardless of content making you marter seems like an easy way out. I bet this guy loves reading.

  10. Question not related: Alexander Macris is Romanian in origin?
    The name in Romanian will be "Alexandru Macriş", which is very close. 🙂

  11. I must say, that besides the only single mistake of citing a bible verse that doesnt have anything to do with this talk, and doesnt serve to support any of the arguments or facts laid out in this presentation, Alexander Macris has done an excellent job at getting his points across, presenting data and statistics, and keeping an audience with a short attention span peeled and focused, listening to his every word.

    His presentation is actually excellent, and his superb method of getting his point across is only matched by his witty humor.

    Besides that, his cited statistics and studies seem to check out, so his arguments are well-supported by evidence, to the extent that we can confirm.

  12. How would you know if people are getting dumber if they're not well academically educated in school? People who can't pass academic class doesn't mean they're exactly stupid.

  13. Have to disagree with gaming on that list. Just like books, reading/gaming teach and allow you to reflect based upon what content you are consuming. A puzzle book vs a puzzle game are just as good at improving this. This goes applies to most of the other things on that list. Excluding imagination possibly. Although I have played many games that have peeked my imagination.

    In the end it all boils down to two things for both mediums. Genre and curator. Each has to be skilled and each has a goal it sets out to achieve.

  14. It makes perfect sense that humans are getting dumber. We are the most domesticated animal on the planet, and domesticated animals are always less intelligent than their wild cousins. Besides, we don't even practice THE SLIGHTEST BIT of eugenics in human breeding, so as time goes by, we will get stupider, weaker, more disease-prone, live shorter lives, be uglier, etc. We have proven conclusively that intelligence is quite capable of being a worthless evolutionary trait, in the long run.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *