Well it’s final: the results are in, and those of us over 50 who watch more than 3.5 hours of TV a day show twice the decline in verbal memory over six years. A recently released study, in Britain’s Scientific Reports, looks at nearly 3,600 adults and confirms it.
The article’s lead author, Daisy Fancourt of University College London, used “multivariate linear regressional models … independent of confounding variables,” so I already know she is a lot smarter than me, since more variables sure confound me.
Fancourt recommends “things that are mentally challenging like crosswords,” to offset the dumbing-down effects of the aptly dubbed boob tube.
My father-in-law Len, having entered his tenth decade, knows something I don’t, since he devours crossword puzzles like cotton candy. Me, I’ll consume the candy and wait for the mental rush from the sugar high; I am equally susceptible to the brain freeze from popsicles.
The crossword puzzle craze, which now has Latinate scientific mumbo-jumbo to back up its efficacy in keeping us out of Archie Bunkerville, has roots and tendrils snaking back more than two centuries. An ephemeral publication, Britain’s Stockton Bee, which surfaced as a ‘miscellany’ in the 1790s in Stockton-On-Tees, had word puzzles of a sort, kinda like the Prince of Wales playing “Bass-ball” in 1749, or tennis enabled by the first patented lawn mower in Britain in 1830.
We might recognize the ‘Double Diamond Puzzles’ which appeared in St. Nicholas magazine beginning in 1873 -- the same kids’ journal that first published lyric poet Edna St. Vincent Millay as a pre-teen in 1906. As a young man, I haunted used bookstores for those old issues of St. Nicholas, whose covers had a dreamy quality that alone made one think. You can find my copies in the Millay Collection at Skidmore, where I figured scholars would enjoy them as much as I had. After all, the only Ph.D. I boast is Princeton Happy Drinking.
In the century since Liverpudlian Arthur Wynne published the first known “word-cross puzzle” in the New York World on December 21, 1913 -- a pretty sweet Christmas present to newspaper readers, I must say -- crossword puzzles have gained traction not only as a way to linger over a morning coffee, but even to help stave off the darkness of dementia.
In a study of 17,000 healthy adults over 50, presented in 2017 at the Alzheimer’s Association International Conference in London, professor of cognitive neuroscience Keith Wesnes of the University of Exeter Medical School reported a “direct relationship between the frequency of word puzzle use and the speed and accuracy of performance on 9 cognitive tasks.” A tisket, a tasket, in the word basket.
On the other end of the spectrum, where the rubber of more recent media and technology innovation meets the cognitive road leading swiftly downhill, we have the sad spectacle of everyone we know, ourselves included, stumbling down the street talking to the air with Bluetooth earbuds on our mislabeled smartphones.
Sure, the phones are smart, but how do we look? In the case of teens, at least, it is a matter of more than appearances, but of mental state.
Psychology professor Jean Twenge of San Diego State University recently examined the terrifying leap of 50 percent in episodes of major depression among teenagers in four short years between 2011 and 2015. What she found was “The largest change and most pervasive change in teens’ lives was more smartphones and more time on social media.”
Now, we all know the difficulties of epidemiological studies and how hard it is -- and even counter-intuitive at times -- to seek cause-and-effect, but I have a feeling we need to get our kids to put down their magic handheld devices and pick up those archaic tools called pencils and hit the crossword puzzle pages on those old fish-wraps their parents knew as newspapers.
As a practitioner of the arcane art of television, I have oft lamented that when I left print journalism at Time Inc. years ago to join the moths getting burned by the bulbs of electronic news at ABC, I left behind a type of intelligent and, dare I say it, intellectual conversation. It seemed to come with the turf of masticating words for a living and having to puzzle out paragraphs and pages that somehow told a story in language -- the great human connector -- without undue resort to the ease of one picture worth a thousand words.
It appears that not only traditional literacy but cultural literacy as well have been left behind in our virtually overnight migration from the printed page and the puzzle of words to electronic screens in every room and hand.
Today’s smarts seem possessed by inanimate devices and not what we learn and hold in our minds. Give us back those 3.5 daily hours.
Dalton Delan is an accomplished American writer, editor, television producer and documentary filmmaker. His column is copyrighted by Berkshire Writers Group