Intelligence and Learning

Some Topics

Wise woman


"I sometimes ask myself how it came about that I was the one to develop the theory of relativity. The reason, I think, is that a normal adult never stops to think about problems of space and time. These are things, which he has thought about as a child. But my intellectual development was retarded, as a result of which I began to wonder about space and time only when I had already grown up".  Albert Einstein

The term “genius” has been applied to people of exceptional accomplishment. While it is true that people who accomplish great things are more intelligent than average, it is not true that intelligence tests or school scores can reliably predict who will excel and become great scientists or great innovators in any field. While it is self-evident that the brains of intelligent people work better than the brains of less intelligent people, it is not true that genius can be predicted by any simple measure of brain structure or function.

Everyone agrees that Albert Einstein was intelligent. Does everyone agree that new children born on planet earth should be directed to become more like Albert Einstein and less like Adolph Hitler? Do we understand the difference?  Who can steer the course of children one way or the other? Is it biology that comes first or schooling? Do parents play a determining role? Do peer groups and movies have a dominant role? What if we could combine Albert Einstein and the Dalai Lama as the goal for our children's' development? Both won Nobel Prizes and are recognized worldwide as exemplary humans even though their knowledge, skills and social status were very different. Can every child aspire to become exemplary or are these two exemplars rarely gifted individuals who appear only once in 100 million births? 

Albert said his secret of success was that he was child-like. The Dalai Lama states that he is just a Buddhist Monk and he is known for his good humor and child-like delight in simple pleasures. Another Nobel prize-winning exemplar, Richard Feynman, was known for his child-like but effective explanatory diagrams that depicted particle events in Quantum Physics. Feynman pictured an electron going from point A to point B, not by one path, but by taking all possible paths at once. Richard enjoyed beating drums and being happy. He played bongos and chanted nonsense verses. He remarked: “It is odd, but on the infrequent occasions when I have been called upon in a formal place to play the bongo drums, the introducer never seems to find it necessary to mention that I also do theoretical physics."Feynman's remark points to an issue in the consideration of intelligence - the specific versus the general. There is a common argument that gifted people are specialists in one area and may be limited in other pursuits. Another argument suggests that there is a general intelligence that is applicable to solving all life's problems and expressing all human traits. Albert Einstein, the Dalai Lama and Richard Feynman are examples of nice, smart humans with both specialized and general abilities. All three are capable of providing a perspective on living interesting, worthy and productive lives.

Feynman stated:“Throughout all the ages, men have been trying to fathom the meaning of life. They realize that if some direction or some meaning could be given to the whole thing, to our action, then great human forces would be unleashed. So, very many answers have been given to the question of the meaning of it all. But they have all been of different sorts. And the proponents of on idea have looked with horror at the actions of the believers of another idea - horror because from a disagreeing point of view, all the great potential was being channeled into a false and confining blind alley…The dream is to find the open channel. What then is the meaning of it all? I think that we must frankly admit that we do not know. But I think in admitting this, we have probably found the open channel."

Some genius is built into every human brain. We are all benefactors of a long lineage of survivors on the journey of life, planet earth. The mental abilities built into humans are wonders. The more you consider and study these innate abilities, the more wonderful they become. If you study vision or try to build robots that can navigate in a natural environment, you quickly develop great respect for livings systems that see and move around in spacetime with accuracy and purpose.

The picture available in your own mind sets an impossibly high standard for man-made visual systems. The built-in genius modules are gifts and require no effort, no education, and no morality to use. The catch is that other aspects of human activity require abilities that are added on to the basic equipment. To use the newer additions to intelligence, you have learn the right things and make a sustained effort to do well. The systems in our brain that steer the genius modules towards our desires and goals are newer, more variable, less reliable and prone to error.

These newer brain systems require declarative and procedural learning and are dependent on memory. They evolved in the context of small human groups who hunted and gathered food. Individuals interacted with body language, emotions, and simple speech. Learning consisted of copying behaviors and skills and hearing stories that would be memorized and repeated generation after generation.

Little has changed in the overall construction of the human brain for many thousands of years, but we now live in large groups and have invented complex tools and interactions that tax the capacity of each human. Small differences in brain construction and function can mean large differences in behavior and success in learning and practicing advanced skills. It is becoming increasingly obvious that only a small number of humans cope well with modern complexity and  few can master the intricate skills and detailed knowledge that is required to maintain a complex society.

The rest of humanity is more comfortable living in small groups, utilizing older and simpler technology with a distinct preference for simple explanations, old myths and folklore. Often, only a few humans out of a large group go beyond the opinions and ignorance of the day. Real innovation is rare. Ignorance and irrationality is more the rule. This is a difficult realization for idealist who trying to imagine a just and egalitarian society based on knowledge and rational thinking. Only a small percentage of humans in any population are knowledgeable and capable of sustained rational thought - if we estimated 10% case, we would not be far off. 

The rational elite cluster in small enclaves such as universities and high tech companies. If you sampled humans at Harvard, you would hope to find close to 100 % knowledgeable and rational people. Even at Harvard, a new idea, a different approach, or a non-conforming personality will have a hard time and many innovators leave prestigious institutions or are ejected before they fully manifest their brilliance or creativity. In fact, institutions herd people into more conservative and stable lifestyles and select traits that are socially compatible, rather than innovative or brilliant. Institutions would not be institutions if they were not run conservatively and to some degree inhibit innovation and change. Creative people have always struggled with and left institutions to get on with their work. There is no relief in sight for innovative humans.