8 New Ways of Looking at Intelligence

Our brains can be strengthened (and weakened) in many more ways than we ever thought.

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The science of learning is a relatively new discipline born of an agglomeration of fields: cognitive science, psychology, philosophy, neuroscience. As with anything to do with our idiosyncratic and unpredictable species, there is still a lot of art, especially in teaching. But the science of learning can offer some surprising new perspectives:

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1. Situations can make us smarter. But they can also suppress our intelligence.

Situations can be internal or external. They can be brief and transitory, or persistent and long-lasting. They can be as varied as the conditions under which we learn, the conditions that prevail in the classroom or the workplace, the conditions exerted by a peer group. They can be the physical conditions that learners experience by way of how much stress they’re under and how much sleep and exercise they get, and the mental conditions learners create for themselves by the levels of expertise and attention and motivation they’re able to achieve.

Situational intelligence, in other words, is the only kind of intelligence there is — because we are always doing our thinking in a particular situation.

On one level this is obvious, but on another it is quite radical. Since its earliest beginnings, the study of intelligence has emphasized its inherent and fixed qualities, determined mostly by innate characteristics of an individual. This was the view of Lewis Terman, the creator of the modern intelligence test who used the notion of fixed intelligence to identify and cultivate children who were ‘gifted.’ So to assert that intelligence is in large part a product of the situations we find ourselves in is a departure, not only from the way science has traditionally thought about ability, but from the way many of us think about ability today.

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2. Beliefs can make us smarter. This is an offshoot of #1. Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck distinguishes two types of mindsets: the fixed mindset, or the belief that ability is fixed and unchanging, and the growth mindset, or the belief that abilities can be developed through learning and practice.

These beliefs matter because they influence how think about our own abilities, how we perceive the world around us, and how we act when faced with a challenge. The psychologist David Yeager, also of Stanford, notes that our mindset effectively creates the “psychological world” in which we live. Our beliefs, whether they’re oriented around limits or around growth, constitute one of these internal situations that either suppresses or evokes intelligence.

3. Expertise can make us smarter. One very robust line of research within the science of learning is concerned with the psychology of expertise: what goes on in the mind of an expert. What researchers have found is that experts don’t just know more, they know differently, in ways that allow them to think and act especially intelligently within their domain of expertise.

An expert’s knowledge is deep, not shallow or superficial; it is well-organized, around a core of central principles; it is automatic, meaning that it has been streamlined into mental programs that run with very little conscious effort; it is flexible and transferable to new situations; it is self-aware, meaning that an expert can think well about his or her own thinking. Expertise takes a long time to develop, of course, but it’s never too early — or too late — go deep in a subject area that interests us.

4. Attention can make us smarter. You’ve probably heard about the “marshmallow test,” a famous experiment conducted by psychologist Walter Mischel in the late 1960s. Mischel found that children who could resist eating a marshmallow in return for the promise of two marshmallows later on did better in school and in their careers.

Well, there’s a new marshmallow test that we now face every day: it’s the ability to resist the urge to check one’s email, to respond to a text, to see what’s happening on Facebook or Twitter. We’ve all heard that ‘digital natives’ grew up multitasking and therefore excel at it, but the fact is that there are information-processing bottlenecks in the brain — everybody’s brain — that prevent us from paying attention to two things at the same time. The state of focused attention is a very important internal situation that we must cultivate in order to fully express our intelligence.

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5. Emotions can make us smarter. We sometimes give short shrift to emotions when we’re talking about academic success, but our emotional state represents a crucial internal situation that influences how intelligently we think and act.

When we’re in a positive mood, for example, we tend to think more expansively and creatively. When we feel anxious — for instance, when we’re about to take a dreaded math test — that anxiety uses up some of the working memory capacity we need to solve problems, leaving us, literally, with less intelligence to apply to the exam.

But emotions don’t just work alone.  Research has found that a feeling of hopefulness leads us to try harder and persist longer — but only if it is paired with practical plans for achieving our goals, and — this is the interesting part — specific, concrete actions we’ll take when and if (usually when) our original plans don’t work out as expected.

6. Technology can make us smarter. There’s a fascinating line of research in philosophy and cognitive science about the extended mind. This is the idea that the mind doesn’t stop at the skull — that it reaches out and loops in our bodies, our tools, even other people, to use in our thinking processes.

Brain-scanning studies have found that when we use a tool, say a rake we’re using to reach an object that’s out of our grasp, our brains actually designate neurons to represent the end of the rake — as if it were the tips of our own fingers. The human mind has evolved to make our tools — including our technological devices — into extensions of itself.

The problem is that our devices so often make us dumber instead of smarter. I’ve already alluded to the way in which technology can divide our attention, producing learning that is spottier, shallower, and less flexible than learning that occurs under conditions of full concentration. Technology can also make us dumber when we allow key skills to atrophy from disuse, or fail to develop those skills in the first place.

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7. Our bodies can make us smarter.

Ever since the cognitive science revolution of the 1970s, the dominant metaphor for the brain has been the computer: a machine that processes abstract symbols. But the science of learning is demonstrating that it might be more accurate, in fact, to compare the brain to the heart. All the things that make the heart work better — good nutrition, adequate sleep, regular exercise, moderate stress — make the brain work better too.

Take sleep, for example, since sleep is something so many of us are lacking. We often don’t recognize that sleep is actually a key part of the learning process. It’s during sleep that the brain consolidates the memories it formed during waking hours — meaning that it sorts through those memories, weakening the ones that are trivial, strengthening the ones that are important, and connecting up these new memories to the memory structures that already exist in the brain.

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8. Relationships can make us smarter. I mentioned earlier that the human mind is very adept at looping in our bodies, our tools, and even other people to use as instruments of our own thinking. You’ve experienced this if you have a spouse or significant other: it’s likely that one of you is “in charge” of remembering when the car needs to go in for inspection, while the other is “in charge” of remembering relatives’ birthdays. This is called transactive memory, and it’s just one of the ways that relationships with others can make us smarter than we would be on our own.

This article is from the Brilliant Report, a weekly newsletter written by Murphy Paul