September 27, 2013



Stephen Gislason MD    

The challenge is to become intelligent about intelligence. Humans have a great interest and ability to create nonsense. You could argue that many of the features of intelligence are deployed in the cause of nonsense but nonsense is not intelligent.

Intelligence is really about survival in a threatening world. Humans survive because of the genius abilities such as vision, hearing, skilled movement and speech; abilities that are built into their brain, innate gifts from nature. Humans do not learn how to see or how to hear what is going on out there, but they do have to learn what it means to them today. This is an interactive process. Speech is a form of sound interaction.

Although modern humans tend to emphasize individual thought and expression, most “thinking” is talking in groups. The value of speech is to connect individuals in “thinking” groups. Books and other publications link large numbers of humans in common patterns of language-dependent thinking.

The newest human abilities are more dependent on learning and are the least reliable. Reasoning, planning and learning to tolerate other humans in a friendly constructive manner require the most sustained practice.  The term, “nice,’ refers to these characteristics and therefore nice people require sustained learning to remain reasonable, to tolerate others and to behave in a friendly, constructive manner. To become nice and to remain rational and skilled, a human must belong to and work within a supportive group that shares these characteristics. Human groups often have the opposite effect, supporting intolerant and irrational thinking and bad behavior.

In the recent past new knowledge and abilities have proliferated in every human population with only a few humans doing well at cultivating the new abilities. In higher education and other life contests, general ability has been traditionally desirable. The "well-rounded" individual was a generalist, good at everything but perhaps not outstanding in one skill.

The key to human survival is group cooperation and individual specialization. The group tends to smooth out the negative effects of individual limitations and irrationality. In an affluent urban society, a small subpopulation cause most of the trouble and consume most of the social and medical resources available. Often the understanding and solution of “social problems” involves the interaction of elite and educated group with a sick, aberrant, dysfunctional group. Their interaction involves a persistent, inevitable misunderstanding arising from incongruent needs, values, information and capabilities. Human societies involve increasing specialization of individuals who are skillful at performing single tasks. The income of an individual often depends on this specialization and does not depend on a general or comprehensive understanding of how their society works and his or her place in it.

A similar description applies to individuals in many animal groups, beginning with the social insects. Humans and ants have much in common; the most compelling similarity is that individuals achieve viability on the planet, not by solitary activities, but by participating in a meta-order that involves the entire group.

Most humans live at a minimum level of overall comprehension and, even if they become more or less civilized, they will tend to regress to old and innate patterns of intolerance, hostility, aggression and conflict if the supportive infrastructure is inadequate to sustain external controls over competitive and hostile behaviors. It is to argue that many to most humans can remain misinformed and unreasonable as long a small number of more intelligent and skillful humans build and maintain infrastructures that support the others.

Neuroscience views minds as manifestations of the living processes found in brains. Brain science does not "explain" mind, or consciousness, but does give us strategies for understanding the properties of mind. Neuroscientists have made rapid progress in the past few decades and some of them are asking the same sorts of questions that only philosophers used to ask. The difference is that neuroscientists are sometimes able to ask more specific questions that may lead to more insight into the basic principles of the human experience. Neuroscientists are motivated and equipped to find real and practical answers to philosophical questions, leaving philosophers behind in an anachronistic philological niche, repeating discussions of what philosophers said hundreds to thousands of years ago.  This is not to argue that all neuroscientists are philosophers or that all neuroscientists understand the human mind, since many are focused on highly specialized tasks that reveal little or nothing about how the whole system works.

Humans are born with a somewhat defined intelligence potential. The spread of IQ scores in any population represents a combination of genetic determinants that cannot be changed and environmental determinant that operate in a sequential manner and can be changed.

Environmental determinants can be separated into two groups:

  1. determinants that are sequence critical and
  2. determinants that operate all the time.

Key nutrients must be supplied as the brain forms in utero on a daily basis. Deficiency may cause irreversible damage. If the same nutrients are deficient in an older child or an adult temporary and relatively milder functional impairment occurs that can be reversed by correcting the nutrient deficiency. The most common cause, in third world terms, of low intelligence is iodine deficiency during pregnancy and infancy.  Iodine deficiency has profound implications in terms of economics, politics, human rights and dignity. Low intelligence populations will not do as well as smarter populations and will not be capable of fully participating in a technological 21st century. In affluent populations children may still be malnourished and suffer from neglected problems such food excess, nutrient disproportion and food allergy.  We can equate normal intelligence with normal brain function. Not all brains are created equally and some brains are not constructed properly or are damaged before and during birth. The world offers abundant opportunities to interfere with normal brain function. The overwhelming task is to avoid foods, drugs, and environmental chemicals that make people less smart and even demented. Alcohol intoxication for example is a temporary dementia that becomes permanent if it is repeated too often. Brain injury adds to the negative effects of using alcohol and other psychoactive chemicals.

Leda Cosmides and John Tooby suggest:[i]  “The brain is a naturally constructed computational system whose function is to solve adaptive information-processing problems (such as face recognition, threat interpretation, language acquisition, or navigation). Over evolutionary time, its circuits were cumulatively added because they "reasoned" or "processed information" in a way that enhanced survival....our minds consist of a large number of circuits that are specialized. For example, we have some neural circuits whose design is specialized for vision. All they do is allow you to see. Other neural circuits are specialized for hearing -- they detect changes in air pressure, and extract information from it. Still other neural circuits are specialized for sexual attraction -- i.e., they govern what you find sexually arousing, what you regard as beautiful, who you'd like to date, and so on.… you can view the brain as a collection of dedicated mini-computers -- a collection of modules… whose operations are functionally integrated to produce behavior...So it is with your conscious experience. The only things you become aware of are a few high level conclusions passed on by thousands of specialized mechanisms: some that are gathering sensory information from the world, others that are analyzing and evaluating that  information, checking for inconsistencies, filling in the blanks, figuring out what it all means.“

Smart people learn faster and learn more than not so smart people. Smart people also are more curious, seek more diverse experiences and absorb more information. Intelligence is manifest in the ability to acquire complicated skills and excel in performance by practice and progressive improvement. Competent people are smart people who have the discipline to practice and improve their performance.

There is a relationship between being nice person and being a competent person. In demanding, professional environments the nicest people tend to be the smartest and most competent. There are exceptions. 
Read Neuroscience by Stephen Gislason and

 Intelligence and Learning

[i] Leda Cosmides & John Tooby Primer of Evolutionary Psychology: Center for Evolutionary Psychology University of California, Santa Barbara