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Reality TV is one of my guilty pleasures, it's what I watch when I want to turn my brain off. But on the contrary, my brain is doing exactly the opposite. As TV watchers, we absorb fictional, scripted television but we actively critique reality programming. Reality TV forces you to think while you watch it, as your brain tries to make sense of the social interactions. The appeal of reality tv goes beyond the enjoyment of watching other people humiliate themselves on national TV. Reality TV builds intelligence and improves thinking skills in ways we don't always realize. Here are 5 ways you are actually working out those brain muscles while binge watching The Bachelor on a lazy Sunday afternoon.
1. Problem Solving and Strategy
As viewers, we develop problem solving skills and an ability to strategize as we contemplate how we would complete each challenge when watching competitive reality tv shows like Survivor, Amazing Race and the Apprentice. Much like sports and video games, we watch this genre of reality tv for the series of competitive tests, growing more difficult over time as the show unfolds. As the season progresses, we come up with our own schemes for how to survive from week to week and we cheer on our favorite contestant we most closely relate with based on their use of strategies and tactics we would use if we were in their situation.
2. Social Dexterity
What may appear at first glance to viewers as just drama, gossip and beef is actually a social experiment of human interaction. By watching these shows, we develop our social mapping function and improve our brains ability to visually organize information by tracking multiple relationships, conflicts and alliances across an interconnected social network. The more we watch and commit ourselves to the storylines, the more we increase our brains ability to map, analyze and recall the full range of relationships in a vast social landscape.
3. Active Participation
Talent and skill based reality shows like The Voice, Idol, Creature Shop or Face Off turn the viewer into active participants. Studies have shown that those engaged in active participation showed clear temporal superiority over those who are passively engaged in a learning activity. Active participation also resulted in superior recall abilities. Instead of sitting back and passively watching these shows as they play in the background while you check your Instagram feed, you are actively participating and critiquing each performers technique and overall execution. Judging these performances from your living room requires brain cells in order for you to analyze, critique and evaluate various scenarios in the show. In order for you to vote for your favorite singer or performer on shows like The Voice, American Idol and ABC's new Rising Star, you have to pay close attention to the various levels of skill across multiple criteria being judged such as technique, timing, pitch, stage presence and overall star factor.
4. Social and Emotional Intelligence
When watching dramas unfold on shows like Real Housewives, The Bachelor and others, our brain does an amazing thing by recognizing subtle shifts in peoples emotion, tone, gesture and facial expressions in mere microseconds! Neuroscientists see this as one of the greatest accomplishments of the human brain. Our brain is working at lightning speeds, trying to capture a quick revealing glance that may reveal a characters genuine emotion. Humans (especially housewives who live in the Hills) express the full range of their emotions through facial expressions and body language. Our ability to read this unspoken language is based on our interpersonal skills and social/emotional intelligence. A persons AQ score or Autism Quotient measures their ability to read emotional cues, thoughts and feelings of other people. People diagnosed with Autism have poor AQ scores and suffer from poor social skills and a limited ability to read other people's attitudes and emotions in social settings.
5. Multi Narrative Storytelling
Back in the day, tv shows were much simpler and were written in a format that was much easier to follow. Todays reality tv requires more brain cells and mental capacity in order to follow the interweaving plots, unexpected developments and interconnected relationships. Multi Narrative storytelling reveals a story through multiple points of view and asks the viewers to apply their social mapping skills and intelligence to make sense of the storyline and actively piece together events that may have occurred in previous episodes. Reality dramas are usually based on an ensemble cast that are connected by an event, place or common goal. We develop a complex understanding of each character and are able to retain and recall every single narrative in the show and can even make predictions for how these events will unfold by the season finale.
Special thanks to go out to bestselling author Steven Johnson for inspiring our research. To learn more about his work and other ways media has evolved over the last few decades, click here.