Thinking Deeper

From: Investigating Intelligence

What if you could take a pill that would make you more intelligent?

Science fiction? Well, maybe not. Researchers have been studying intelligence for some time now and have begun to make significant progress. But it all starts, of course, with understanding what, exactly, we mean by intelligence in the first place.

In his popular book, How Intelligence Happens, University of Cambridge cognitive scientist John Duncan sets the stage by re-introducing us to the work of the influential English scientist Charles Spearman.

Back in 1904, Spearman discovered that a clear correlation existed between people’s abilities to perform various tasks. Those who were good at one sort of thing tended, in a mathematically quantifiable way, to be good at others. The wider the sample of tasks, the clearer this correlation became. This led Spearman to develop his theory of a so-called “g factor” or “general factor”, reflecting a certain aptitude that some people had which enabled them to be successful across a wide range of activities.

Intriguingly, some tasks proved to be fairly reliable indicators of this factor almost all by themselves: Spearman applied his statistical approach to the work of Alfred Binet and others, and the modern “IQ test” was born.

But what does it all mean?

Well, it’s hardly straightforward: the road to a more rigorous understanding of human intelligence is fraught with difficulties.

The first is sociological. Many are concerned that such investigations are driven by a dangerous sense of elitist eugenics that seeks to extend itself far beyond any strictly defined sense of cognitive ability.

A common criticism levelled against IQ tests, for example, is that they are motivated by an insidious desire to reduce all human experiences, and all humans, to a single number.

Howard Burton in conversation with John Duncan, University of Cambridge

John unhesitatingly dismisses this idea straight away:

The problem is, of course, that the scientific study of intelligence has a nasty habit of running smack into our pre-conceived egalitarian principles.

But it’s one thing to measure something and another to truly understand it. If this g factor is a real thing that somehow enables some of us to more flexibly address different sorts of problems, what is it, exactly? And where can it be found in the brain?

Through years of rigorous testing and close examination of brain-imaging technology, Duncan believes he’s narrowing in on the answer.The key to g, he believes, lies in a very particular brain network that lies in the frontal and parietal lobes.

The key word here is “organizing”. John is convinced that the primary role this network plays is to allow us to focus sufficiently on a task at hand in order to select the key thing that enables us to find the solution. That is, in a nutshell, what separates those with high g from those without it, and effectively what we mean when we call someone “intelligent”.

Now that we have a clearer sense of what we mean by intelligence, together with where the networks associated with it can be found in the brain, might we finally find a way to increase it? Can we improve our own g factor?

Far from steering us towards eugenics, then, John’s research is pointing us firmly in the direction of better educational techniques.

That smart pill, in other words, might just be a better teacher.

This is the introduction written by Howard Burton of the book, Investigating Intelligence, which is based on an in-depth, filmed conversation between Howard and John Duncan, Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience and programme Leader, Executive processes group of the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit at the University of Cambridge.

The book is broken into chapters and includes questions for discussion at the end of each chapter. The book is also available as part of the 5-part Ideas Roadshow Collection called Conversations About Neuroscience.

Visit the dedicated page for our conversation with John Duncan on Ideas On Film: On our Ideas On Film YouTube channel you can watch a clip from the filmed conversation:



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