Human Intelligence 

Every once in a while, I read something that knocks my socks off. This time it was Annie Murphy Paul’s piece on Intelligence in the New York Times, “How to Think Outside Your Brain.”

If I understood correctly, the rough idea is that the human brain has developed as much intelligence as it can, so intelligence is going backwards now. WOW.

Just when I thought I was getting smarter, I find out we’re all pretty much getting dumber. I.Q. scores have stopped rising or are dropping in Finland, Norway, Denmark, Germany, France and Britain. Interestingly, not in the United States. Yet.

What blew me away about this article, though, is how well researched it was. I also love when authors set things in evolutionary context, which she does, as she explains how human activities of daily living became more and more mental over the course of our development.

She also tells us that The Flynn Effect, named after the philosopher who discovered it, is the 100-year climb in I.Q. and that The Reverse Flynn Effect refers to the dropping off of I.Q. scores that is happening now.

I.Q. Test Pros and Cons

Anticipating objections, I did a little digging and found another piece that does a good job of addressing the objections about the meaning and usefulness of I.Q. tests altogether, e.g., that poverty and cultural differences are not taken into account. Evan Horowitz raises the objections and the research that refutes them. He also says:

People are getting dumber. That’s not a judgment; it’s a global fact. In a host of leading nations, IQ scores have started to decline…. current IQ tests are designed to measure core skills such as short-term memory, problem-solving speed and visual processing.

It’s a problem for humanity if, as our problems grow, our ability to solve them does not keep up. So why then is I.Q. falling anyway? And here’s where it really got interesting for me.

Is the Brain Working Too Hard or Not Hard Enough?

Both authors went into much greater detail on the whys and wherefores of falling intelligence than I will here. That said, Horowitz seemed to think we’d gotten lazy given our reliance on technology and weren’t working the brain muscle hard enough—while Paul seemed to be saying we are working the brain muscle much harder than it was built for and need to rely on technology and other resources outside of the brain more.

Maybe it’s a bit of both. But I just had an experience of my own that got me really excited about this idea that the brain has had enough.

A Solution That Created The Problem

I just finished a project, just about every aspect of which I had never done before. All day long  for weeks I lived in “I have no idea what I am doing.” It felt largely awful. But I mustered my grit, told myself the learning was great for my brain, got it done, felt proud of myself for doing it—and decided that for the agony of it all I deserved a reward.

The brain likes rewards. Yeah, not this one, not this fancy piece of technology with a learning curve—read demands on the brain, mine and the brains of the set up providers—almost as steep as the project that preceded it.

So, even though Paul recommends that we let technology do more for the brain, this little adventure, had I known it would be such an adventure, could have and probably should have waited. All muscles need a rest, including, and maybe especially, the brain.

Breaks for the Brain

In addition to technology, Paul includes the body, physical space, and social interaction as “extraneural resources…mental extensions” to give the brain a break and help the brain accomplish more than it could by itself. She unpacks these in the article, so if you are interested do have a look.

Regarding social interaction, click here for a Science Daily piece on social interruptions, while we are working, being better for health, happiness, and productivity than we may think. And reading fiction, if you’d like to do that, is supposed to be good for the social aspect of human intelligence, as I’ve written before here.

And, one more thing. I noticed that the longer the set-up of the new technology took (2 full days on the phone), the crankier I started to feel, which I decided to chalk up to a very tired brain.

So, whenever I began to feel impatient, and at risk for saying something not good to the people on the phone who were trying their best, I converted mindfully to gratitude instead. Gratitude to them for trying. Gratitude to the people who asked me to do the initial project in the first place. Gratitude to me for getting it done. Gratitude to the people who believed in me enough to convince me that I could do this project no matter how new, awkward, scary, and exhausting it was. I could go on…

In other words, just because we may feel bad, doesn’t necessarily mean anyone or anything is bad. May just mean the brain is overworked and needs a break. And, by the way, now that my new toy is all set up and my brain has recovered, the brain loves novelty in proper doses and really loves the new thing.

Now see what happens for you the next time you may have worked your brain too hard, and let us know.

Warm wishes,


Photo by ALAN DE LA CRUZ on Unsplash