Saturday, November 05, 2005

What is Intelligence ?

The central feature of intelligence is the ability to understand what is really going on out there and to respond to events with successful and adaptive behavior. Intelligence is built from subsystems that sense, decide, remember and act. It is fashionable to speak in terms of "mental abilities" and to list a number of different mental abilities. Obvious differences in individual mental abilities are measured with standardized tests which are then correlated with performance in school, skills learned, and with other socio-economic measurements. Intelligence test measurements tend to be used as a short-form for general intelligence. Arguments arise when test results are not congruent with preconceptions and vested interests.

Leda Cosmides and John Tooby suggest:

“The brain is a naturally constructed computational system whose function is to solve adaptive information-processing problems (such as face recognition, threat interpretation, language acquisition, or navigation). Over evolutionary time, its circuits were cumulatively added because they "reasoned" or "processed information" in a way that enhanced the adaptive regulation of behavior and physiology....our minds consist of a large number of circuits that are specialized. For example, we have some neural circuits whose design is specialized for vision. All they do is help you see. The design of other neural circuits is specialized for hearing. All they do is detect changes in air pressure, and extract information from it. Still other neural circuits are specialized for sexual attraction -- i.e., they govern what you find sexually arousing, what you regard as beautiful, who you'd like to date, and so on.… you can view the brain as a collection of dedicated mini-computers -- a collection of modules… whose operations are functionally integrated to produce behavior...So it is with your conscious experience. The only things you become aware of are a few high level conclusions passed on by thousands of specialized mechanisms: some that are gathering sensory information from the world, others that are analyzing and evaluating that information, checking for inconsistencies, filling in the blanks, figuring out what it all means.“

The other day, I was in the hardware store getting some plumbing parts and I heard one clerk tell his colleague: "If you yawn, that means there's no oxygen. I mean if you walk into a room and start to yawn there no oxygen there. It's a fact!" Perhaps the clerk should get an award for attempting science but he did not get it right. He is manifesting the human tendency to develop explanatory systems with the information at hand. Everyone has a science and technology. The question is how intelligent and up-to-date is your version of science and technology?

Many people are content with the most available explanations and will not make the effort or do not have the ability to study current science and technology. Some people are quite satisfied with explanations provided by astrology, for example, and make no effort to learn the up-to-date sciences of astronomy and psychology. Astrology might have been a viable science 1000 years ago but in the 21st century, astrology is a historical curiosity that should be in a museum and not in daily use. Irrational explanations reflect a deep human tendency to interpret events superstitiously and with exaggerated self-reference. Advanced education, carefully modeled and supervised by more rational teachers is required to replace irrational explanations with more rational ones.

Common usage of the word "intelligence" involves a scale, not a single value or entity. Humans rate each other on a scale of smart to dumb, or bright to stupid. The idea is that intelligence varies and this means that the ability to understand what is really going on out there is unevenly distributed in any human population. The ability to respond to events with successful and adaptive behavior is a variable expression of intelligence.

The problem with the hardware store clerk's assertion is that the premise is wrong. No oxygen leads to coma and death, not yawning. And yet, there is something appealing about the clerks' interest in the problem and his certainly that he knows what is really going on. His statement is representative of an entire class of human statements that sound like intelligent remarks but are not. When people do not really understand what is going on out there, their statements are wrong, their actions are wrong and the consequences of their actions can be harmful to themselves and others. Some of the errors can be attributed to the habits of a lazy mind, to ignorance, misinformation and some of the error to lack of innate ability. You could imagine a very bright child who was taught all the wrong things at home and at school, he or she would make mistakes because of no information or misinformation. You could also imagine a not-so smart child who was taught all the right things but did not understand or forgot.

The real question is: How do the innate determinants of intelligence and learning interact? You might observe some bright children who were taught all the wrong things and at some point in their life, realize that their teachers misled them and invent new ideas and new strategies, learning through their mistakes. The adaptive principle of intelligence suggests that if you got the wrong direction and the wrong information from your parents and teachers and you are smart, you have a chance to discover your own truth.

From the The Book of Brain

by Stephen J. Gislason MD