How Can We Improve Intelligence

Intelligence has long been a subject of the nature-nurture debate. More recently, theories of hereditarial origins of intelligence have come under threat by new research results.

Study of Study | How can we improve intelligence

Study of Study — Photo by Randen Pederson

A new wave of environmentalism suggests that intelligence can indeed by a subject of modification by the environment.

 

New ideas on intelligence

Nisbett (2009) demonstrates three important aspects of this new thinking about intelligence:

  • First, it can be improved with appropriate interventions, such as proper schooling. Schools can make a great difference and their quality can be enhanced significantly.
  • Second, the meaning of ‘being smart’ is different in the contemporary society than it was previously. Society puts a great emphasis on intelligence, and consequently, education and culture change in a way to make the whole society smarter.
  • Finally, it is possible to reduce the intelligence and academic achievement gap that separates individuals of lower socio-economic status and minorities from people of higher economic and majority status.

 

How to define intelligence?

If we want to define intelligence, we should listen to what scientists have to say. They agree that abstract reasoning, problem-solving skills, and the ability to obtain new knowledge are important parts of intelligence. Memory and mental speed, as well as general knowledge and creativity should also be among the defining characteristics of intelligence. However, scientific definitions of intelligence do not contain aspects lay people think. Social features, such as the ability to understand others or being empathic are not considered as characteristics of intelligence, summarizes Nisbett (2009).

 

Measuring intelligence

Intelligence is measured by the use of intelligence tests, which result in an IQ score. Originally, this quotient meant the mental age of the participant with his chronological age. Intelligence testing’s original purpose was the prediction of school achievement, therefore, such a developmental approach seemed appropriate. Modern intelligence tests compare individual performance to the mean of the relevant population.

Interestingly, the scores of intelligence tests show a moderate correlation with the people’s rating of other peoples’ intelligence, which show that it is not just about an abstract scientific concept. Moreover, intelligence tests correlate significantly with each other and have a relatively high correlation of subtests within tests. All of these data suggest that a general factor of intelligence exists.

General intelligence has two components; one of them is called fluid intelligence, which refers to the ability of solving novel problems. It deals with new information and the use of existing knowledge does not help particularly the solving of problems. Using your fluid intelligence, the information requested for problem solving must be constantly in your mind. Executive functions, such as working memory, attention or inhibitory control all contribute to the exhibition of fluid intelligence. Of the most well-known measurement of fluid intelligence is the Raven Progressive Matrices.

The other type of intelligence is the crystallized. Contrary to fluid intelligence, crystallized intelligence very much uses stored information and known procedure about the functioning of the world. Crystallized intelligence is apparent in some subtests of the WISC test, such as Arithmetic, Vocabulary, Comprehension or Similarities.

Additional evidence for the two types of intelligence is the difference of fluid and crystallized intelligence’s trajectories over the lifetime. Fluid intelligence starts to decline relatively early, for example, mathematicians might find their powers diminishing by the age of 30 already. By the age of 70, fluid intelligence is noticeably less compared its previous peak level. On the other hand, crystallized intelligence can develop and grow until a very old age. (Nisbett, 2009)

 

Intelligence and heredity

A very interesting question is the predictive ability of intelligence. Nisbett cites the research results of Charles Murray. He observed that the intelligence of middle class siblings can be very different and this fact contributes to their earning potential and ability to retain jobs. Very bright siblings (IQ>120) made more money than their siblings with average IQ (IQ between 90-109). However, a person with average IQ earned more than twice the amount of a very dull sibling (IQ<80). The percentage of illegitimate children was significantly higher in the low intelligence groups.

 

Importance of schools in the development of intelligence

Despite the opinion of hereditarians that IQ can be attributed in 75-85% to genetic influences, other factors seem to be playing a more significant role. Schooling is thought to contribute not only to the development of intelligence, but also to the keeping of existing intelligence. A multitude of studies has shown that children who do not or just infrequently visit school, experience significant drops in their IQs.

The fact that the average intelligence is 100 for a century might indicate that education and other influence have a small impact on the development of intellectual capacities. However, the average intelligence is based on the average performance of the population. It reveals nothing about the relation of current performance and the ability of previous generations. The Flynn Effect (which shows how general IQ scores of a population change over time) demonstrates a substantial increase in the average intelligence test scores around the world. This might indicate that we are smarter than our grandparents were. The convention of intelligence tests stresses the use of 100 as an average, but an intelligence of 100 today might have been significantly higher 30 years ago. Tests are frequently re-normed and more difficult items are added to keep the validity and reliability of tests up to date.

IQ gains can be explained by a variety of factors. Schools definitely contribute to better results in intelligence tests. One year of schooling is considered to equal two years of age (in terms of development). The information and problem-solving skills taught in schools cannot be obtained elsewhere in the majority of cases. People generally have better abilities related to intelligence tests. This seems to be related to education again, but the aspects of popular culture are more challenging intellectually as well. The solving of everyday problems significantly contributes to the development of intelligence. The importance of schools in the development of intelligence raises the question of what is working and how education can be improved to contribute to the increase of intelligence during the lifespan. Research suggests that the quality of teaching is an important factor and so is the enrichment of curriculum and tutoring.  (Nisbett, 2009)

 

What we can do to develop our own and our children’s intelligence?

When raising children, parents instinctively do a great deal to develop their intellectual abilities. These include talking to their children with a high-level vocabulary, reading, having frequent conversations, encouraging the exploration of the environment, avoiding undue stress, analyzing and evaluating interesting aspects of the world, learning and using self-control skills, working hard towards goals especially after failure. The development of intelligence is possible. It is an important developmental task of all ages to improve intellectual capacities and maintain their highest possible functioning. It may be hard to do so, but it is not impossible.

 

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