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May 21, 2013

Intelligence: Use It or Lose It

Are prosperity and civilization making us dumber? Scientists ask, you decide:

...researchers say that a meta-analysis of simple reaction times recorded between 1884 and 2004 shows a substantial decline in general intelligence: "1.23 IQ points per decade or fourteen IQ points since Victorian times." While some dispute the notion that reaction time is an accurate measure of intelligence, Dr. James Thompson, honorary senior psychology lecturer at UCL told The Daily Mail that reaction times are "a real measure, with a reasonably large correlation with IQ, so this is an alarming finding and needs further investigation."

These findings contradict the so-called Flynn effect, which states that IQ rose three points every decade since the Second World War. So instead of humans getting smarter, these findings support another controversial argument put forward by the Stanford biologist Gerald Crabtree, which we wrote about this past December.

In an article called Our Fragile Intellect, Crabtree argued that human intellectual fitness has been on a slow but steady decay for 3,000 years, and it is due to our relatively easy lifestyle that has freed us from a state of 'survival by thinking.'

The Editorial Staff could find support for either hypothesis. Thanks in part to advances in technology and increases to the size, demographics, and structure of the social groups we live in the world is vastly more complex than it used to be. Technology acts as an accelerant, adding another layer of complexity to the unchanging human problems our ancestors dealt with. We can do so much more, but that means we have more decisions to make. Rapid travel and information transfer have reduced the amount of time we have to reflect before responding to current events. We find out about problems sooner and our ability to react quickly makes it harder to justify doing nothing.

Everywhere we turn, we're awash in sensory and intellectual stimulation. The average person is exposed to a constant barrage of graphic images, competing theories, news stories, scientific studies, and ideas. At some point all this input becomes counterproductive; we can't possibly make sense of it all so we deliberately screen most of it out.

What seems most at risk in the modern world is the capacity (or the inclination) to engage in deep thought. All this input is distracting. It makes it difficult to concentrate. Who wants to ponder abstract questions with no easy answers when the next Shiny Thing beckons from a flickering computer screen?

If our reaction time is slowing, that may well be because the problems we're trying to solve are more complex and the signal to noise ratio is growing steadily worse. In such a world, slowing down may well be the most rational of responses.

Posted by Cassandra at May 21, 2013 07:20 AM

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I've often wonder (for at least 6 or 7 seconds at time) whether human intelligence simply out runs the ability of science to test human intelligence. I remember as a child of 8 or 9 taking an intelligence test conducted by a local college professor (all the neighborhood moms volunteered their kids for this). I remember that the test was long and involved all sorts of cognitive skills - the mazes were my favorite - and at the end the professor gave me a Coke. But fifty years later I still remember the one question that completely baffled me: "What's black and burns?" I said "black paper." The big kids later told me that the correct answer was "coal." Maybe, but not in my world. I grew up in the city, and I'd never even seen the stuff. As far as I was concerned, "black paper," was a 100% correct answer, and I was prepared to argue forever with anyone who dare say otherwise. Still am, gaddammit.

My point being, that intelligence is more revolutionary than evolutionary. Or something.

Posted by: spd rdr at May 21, 2013 10:18 AM

I'm not even sure we've adequately defined "intelligence", other than as "whatever IQ tests measure".

By that definition, does reaction time really equate to intelligence?

The other thing I always wonder about is our ability to be objective when studying ourselves. We have science to thank for identifying and giving a fancy sounding name to confirmation bias (our natural tendency to pay more attention or give more weight to evidence that confirms what we already think). I'm not so sure we have a way to control for it, though :p

re: "What's black and burns?"

The first thing I thought of was rubber!

Posted by: Cassandra at May 21, 2013 10:32 AM

I've long contended 'homo sapiens' was no more than an honorific - and too sanguine at that.

Posted by: George Pal at May 21, 2013 11:35 AM

Pan narrans: Storytelling Ape.

It's all about the narrative.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at May 21, 2013 11:44 AM

re: "What's black and burns?"

Hillary's heart?

Posted by: Bill Clinton at May 21, 2013 01:27 PM

I'm convinced there's such a thing as intelligence that can be measured and compared among people. I'm less convinced that the tests are so discerning and constant that we can make useful comparisons between people today and those of past generations, let alone past centuries.

Posted by: Texan99 at May 21, 2013 01:55 PM

Hillary's heart?


Posted by: That's *Secretary* Clinton to you! at May 21, 2013 01:57 PM

Overall average intelligence probably has declined somewhat.
Modern civilization provises a safety net for those too stupid to provide for themselves, and free hopsital emergency rooms for the stupid who manage to injure themselves. We also rescue and feed marginal individuals who would have simply starved or frozen way back when.

Posted by: CAPT Mike at May 21, 2013 07:25 PM

When I enrolled the kindergarten VES into a PacNW school they gave her an assessment/placement test. One question was: "What should you do when it begins to rain?"
The VES, having lived in Yuma for the only years her short-term memory had access to, had never seen rain and therefore could not answer the question. She just looked at the test administrator like she'd just grown a third boob. After explaining where we had just came from, the test administrator moved on without further delay, but for a moment I'm pretty sure she was thinking that the VES was either the weirdest or dumbest kid on the planet. (We're still gathering evidence for a final determination of the former, btw.)

Posted by: DL Sly at May 22, 2013 12:37 PM