Thursday, March 12, 2009

increasing intelligence?

NYTimes | It used to be believed that people had a level of general intelligence with which they were born that was unaffected by environment and stayed the same, more or less, throughout life. But now it’s known that environmental influences are large enough to have considerable effects on intelligence, perhaps even during your own lifetime.

A key contribution to this subject comes from James Flynn, a moral philosopher who has turned to social science and statistical analysis to explore his ideas about humane ideals. Flynn’s work usually pops up in the news in the context of race issues, especially public debates about the causes of racial differences in performance on intelligence tests. We won’t spend time on the topic of race, but the psychologist Dick Nisbett has written an excellent article on the subject.

Flynn first noted that standardized intelligence quotient (I.Q.) scores were rising by three points per decade in many countries, and even faster in some countries like the Netherlands and Israel. For instance, in verbal and performance I.Q., an average Dutch 14-year-old in 1982 scored 20 points higher than the average person of the same age in his parents’ generation in 1952. These I.Q. increases over a single generation suggest that the environmental conditions for developing brains have become more favorable in some way.

What might be changing? One strong candidate is working memory, defined as the ability to hold information in mind while manipulating it to achieve a cognitive goal. Examples include remembering a clause while figuring out how it relates the rest of a sentence, or keeping track of the solutions you’ve already tried while solving a puzzle. Flynn has pointed out that modern times have increasingly rewarded complex and abstract reasoning. Differences in working memory capacity account for 50 to 70 percent of individual differences in fluid intelligence (abstract reasoning ability) in various meta-analyses, suggesting that it is one of the major building blocks of I.Q. (Ackerman et al; Kane et al; Süss et al.) This idea is intriguing because working memory can be improved by training.