Thursday, July 5, 2007

The growth of intelligence

On this rainy July day, I’d like to offer some thoughts on intelligence and the mind.

What’s the difference in apparent intelligence between a 1 year old baby, and a 1 year old dog or cat or monkey?

Having observed examples of each, and recognizing that I am not a neurologist or credentialed intelligence expert, I have to say there is not much difference to me. All can respond to my voice, smile when they see me, and do some basic tasks.

I know, all you mothers will disagree. “My baby’s a lot smarter than a monkey,” you say. But can you show concrete evidence that’s true, or do you just believe in your baby’s potential? Even Einstein was just another baby, and look how he grew up! And we all know that the cat, dog, and monkey can take care of themselves much more than the human baby. There is no question that they would fare better, set loose in the world, at any time.

So at that moment, which one is most intelligent, and why?

I understand that some babies will grow up to be brilliant scientists, poets, and politicians. There’s no doubt that some of today’s babies will manifest great intelligence within a decade of hatching. Where does it come from?

Does it grow, or was it always there but concealed?

If it grows, can we induce it to grow later in life?

Looking at my own mind, my intelligence has become much broader and less focused as I’ve grown older. I suspect that I’d score lower on most IQ tests at 50 as compared to when I was 20. But I am far more functional today. And that’s something the IQ tests don’t measure.

So what constitutes the “development of intelligence” and when does it stop? Or does it ever stop?

When you observe the adult human population, there are some people who never develop much intelligence. You can talk to them, and they are friendly and cooperative, but they just aren’t very smart.

Then, at the other end of the spectrum, you’ve got extremely intelligent people whose insight and problem solving ability is extraordinary.

The vast majority of the world’s population is somewhere in the middle.

And then, off to the side, you’ve got the non-verbal autistic people. How do you decide what they are? Are they intelligent, but choosing to hold back from interacting or manifesting signs? Or are they not intelligent and silent because nothing’s going on?

Judging from my own childhood experience, I suspect we have both kinds of people in the autistic group, along with a large population that’s in the middle, like the rest of the population.

Here’s an interesting thought . . . when I was little, I was mostly nonverbal. And at those times I developed the mathematical visualization skills that served me well later in life. I sat there, thinking, undistracted by talk or interaction with others. Was I actually smarter than? One key component of intelligence tests is reasoning ability. Might my reasoning power have been at its absolute peak back then? How would you know?

The brain grows during childhood, and stops growing after that. Is intelligence grown at the same time? Can we stimulate its growth?

I wish it were possible to examine myself at ages 5, 15, and 25 and compare those minds to the one I have today. How much did it really change? Did the rewiring I’ve done to learn to interact with society make me smarter, or less smart? It certainly made me more functional, but did that come at a price (say, in problem solving or reasoning?)

Minds can certainly rewire themselves to a substantial degree. I suspect it in myself but I didn’t see it because the changes were gradual and I was too close. I see it more readily in others. For example, I remember hearing autistic author Temple Grandin 20 years ago, and to me, she sounded significantly impaired. Today, though, she sounds just like I do. Did I sound impaired back then, too? I don’t know.

Whatever the degree of improvement, she and I both stand as examples that brain development does go on throughout our lives.

At this remove, there’s just no way to answer any of the questions I’ve asked. Perhaps long term studies of people like me will answer them for a future generation.

What is the trigger that causes our minds to pull ahead of dogs and monkeys?

13 comments:

Drama Mama said...

I wonder the same thing all the time. Yesterday, we saw our friends and their 16 year old son, with NLD. He has the EQ and maturity of an 8 year old. As a child, his traits were much like my own daughter. She seems to be progressing; does that mean that she will stop? Of course, they are different people, so there's that. But was he born with an 8 year old's capacity? I suppose I get frustrated wondering and predicting.
Thanks to you, it's good to see that the brain can be a flexible organ. I'll just stay with the expectation that she WILL for now.

Jill Elaine Hughes said...

All interesting questions, likely unanswerable in our lifetime. We really know very little about how the brain really works. And the artist in me thinks that is a good thing. :)

Chumplet said...

Sometimes intelligence can be confused with knowledge. You can absorb a lot of knowledge and people will think you're intelligent just because you regurgitate the information as needed.

How well you process that knowledge should indicate your intelligence.

Of course, that's what I think, not what I know.

mcewen said...

How tantalizing [the non verbal child that you once were] Can we bribe you to see a hypnotist who could take you back to your childhood?
Cheers

John Elder Robison said...

Chumplet, most intelligence tests measure reasoning ability, which has little to do with stored information.

But someone who can store and retrieve information can be very, very successful inlife, so that's not a trait to be dismissed lightly.

And McEwen, many people would like to go back and see what I was really like. My brother, who knows me fairly well, says I was very autistic and there's a night and day difference.

Others who only knew me ata distance don't see so much distance.

But I can see the dramatic changes in my life, and I know changes in my brain account for a fair bit of the difference.

Chumplet said...

My autistic nephew phoned my son today, and my son commented on how much Travis' communication skills had improved. He's nine years old. We'll be seeing him up in North Bay this summer.

He was one of those kids who would answer a question that had been asked of him a week previously.

My son is one of those kids who memorizes movies and songs with regularity. I'm sure it'll come in handy!

CindaChima said...

John: I've checked out your blog, also, and I've been known to Google Christopher Schelling (I think it kind of spooked him the first time we spoke.)

I also met your brother when he came to Cleveland on a book tour.

Congrats on the book and good luck!! It's coming fast.
Best, Cinda Williams Chima
www.cindachima.com

Stephen Parrish said...

Hi John. My IQ was measured first in grade school, and not again until I was about 30. Now I'm 49, and I just took one of those online tests, fearing the number surely had plummeted. But the interesting thing is, all three scores---grade school, age 30, and age 49---are within one point of one another.

The Anti-Wife said...

Intelligence and common sense often seem to be diametrically opposed. A smart person doesn’t always make good choices in life.

Animals are born with an instinct to survive. Your question about whether a human baby could survive in the wild is very interesting. And is just surviving the ultimate goal? In animals it may be but in most humans, I think not.

Interesting post.

WritingAllNight said...

My own daughter who is PDD/AS/HFA [they haven't chosen one yet]
scored a 74 on an IQ test when she was 3. I didn't feel it was fair, because her score as they related, was brought down by her inability to speak.

She could communicate but motions, and learned sign language easily. In fact, she only had to be shown a sign once to know it for good.

It's sickening to think that she was classified as 'borderline retarded' just because she had speech issues. We all knew she was [is] extremely intelligent with amazing problem solving skills. She's no less intelligent than her neurotypical sister.

By the way, it seems like outdoor time reduces her autistic-like tendencies. Did you ever experience that?

Michelle O'Neil said...

I don't even like the word "intelligence" unless it's used to describe the innate intelligence of every living thing.

Who's to say that a person with Down Syndrome is less intelligent? Or an autistic person for that matter?

Can you rate the intelligence of a soul?

To me, I.Q. tests mean nothing.

Carolyn Burns Bass said...

I've heard intelligence explained in terms of bandwidth. The more bandwidth a person has, the greater ability to process, store, and retrieve information.

I think of my own brain in terms of a PC. I was born with a certain amount of RAM, set at a specific operating speed. I can't accelerate the speed or increase the RAM. When the RAM's full, I begin getting error messages, like, "Don't take on another project or you'll crash." I've not always listened to these warnings, though, and have come darn close to a crash.

Amonly said...

Hey John,

There is a lot of exciting research going on amongst neuroscientists, neuro-psychologists, biologists, etc. With brain scanning MRIs, and also work with Buddhist meditators, much is being revealed.

My own self reflection and experience points to constancy in aptitudes (in general) so that testing of IQ might be fairly consistent, but how we direct our minds and attention will vary with age, interests, effects of illness and hormones.

Personality tests are also intriguing. Mari and I have taken the Kiersey analysis with fairly consistent results even several years apart, though it shows some variation depending on how we answer or imagine ourselves in situations such as work, school, home, or partying.

There are multiple intelligences we can measure and that are becoming recognized: Emotional Intelligence- and some have proposed AQ - you define- Adultery quotient? Attachment or Affection quotient- just kidding or not.

You witnessed the changes in my brain and personal functioning over the years when dealing with depression, peri-menapause to post.

Your interests have changed over time and your knowledge base has broadened- so there may be less focus on details or facts and more on people these days. With increasing success in your interactions you are encouraged to spend more time with people perhaps.

Responses can be conditioned and learned and become part of a repertoire. How do we define intelligence vs. knowledge that is learned? Trained behavior is different than behavior with insight (Dogs doing tricks vs calculating and planning ahead or reflecting back)

I certainly enjoy your company and conversation and have witnessed your ability to laugh and empathize more.

BTW- my blog - just began and I have had little time to add to but hope to do more.

Good luck with all- see you soon
Alison