Monday, December 10, 2007

IQ Takes a Knock

While my wife is the professional in psychology in our family, I've long had a keen interest in the intersections between psychology, philosophy, and theology. My fondness of such intersections probably accounts for my love of William James - who while known for his philosophic Pragmatism and for famous study of religious experiences, was trained in psychology and saw himself as first and foremost a scientist. But it has not yet steered me wrong.

As a nineteen year-old college flunk out, frustrated by the distance between my supposedly high IQ and my dismal academic record, I started looking for new ways to think about intelligence. The first two books I encountered did not disappoint. In Emotional Intelligence Daniel Goleman wrestled with the same issue that drove my teenage self crazy: why some conventionally intelligent people - many of whom are quite brilliant - can't seem to navigate life with much success. To put his finding crudely, he posited a new kind of intelligence, which he called (as you might guess from the title of the book in question) "emotional intelligence." This intelligence, EQ, exists alongside IQ, and can be an even better predictor of outcomes.

Reading his book I thought, That's what I'm missing! My cognitive skills were useless given my apparent deficiency in emotional intelligence and maturity. Whether or not it is in fact the case that there is a thing we can call "emotional intelligence," Goleman's work helped me see that this thing we call intellect, smarts, is not so simple as being able to perform well on a few academic tests. Rationality is quite useful, but it is by no means the only driving force of the mind.

The other book I picked up in my teenage quest to refine my understanding of intelligence in a way that would figure out what the hell was wrong with me was neurologist Antonio Damasio's Descartes Error: Emotion, Reason, and the Human Brain. In it Damasio used neurology to combat the mind-body dualism of Western philosophy. He was also especially critical of the distinction we often make between reason on the one hand, and emotion on the other. While such a distinction can be quite useful - Goleman talks about "emotional highjackings," something I think we can all relate to - it is not so hard and fast as we would have it be. There is an intimate and physiological connection, Damasio notes, between what we call "emotion" and what we call "reason."

To highlight his point Damasio starts with the famous example of Phineus P. Gage, who as a twenty-five year old construction foreman in 1848, had a dramatic accident that fundamentally altered both his personality and his ability to think. An explosion shot an iron rod through his head. As Damasio notes, the rod "landed more than a hundred feet away, covered in blood and brains." But Gage lived. This fact made him a kind of modern marvel of his time, and so there was a great deal of research done on him.

While Gage was declared cured of all injuries less than two months after his accident, he was never the same man. And not just in terms of physical abilities. His fundamental personality was altered. Where before he had been ambitious and successful, after his accident Gage was rude and angry, apparently unable to regulate his behavior. Most distressingly, Damasio notes, Gage - who before had been an extraordinarily efficient worker, characterized by his excellent decision-making - simply could not make good decisions. Damasio writes:

Gage had once known all he needed to know about making choices conducive to his betterment. He had a sense of personal and social responsibility, reflected in the way he had secured advancement in his job, cared for the quality of his work, and attracted the admiration of employers and colleagues. He was well adapted in terms of social convention and appears to have been ethical in his dealings. After the accident, he no longer showed respect for social convention; ethics in the broad sense of the term were violated; the decisions he made did not take into account his best interest, and he was given to invent tales... There was no evidence of concern about his future, no sign of forethought.

Damasio uses the tale of Phineus Gage as an entry point for a study on the relationship between emotion, reason, and the physiology of our brains. He is especially concerned with what people like Gage, who have sustained injuries to specific parts of their brains, tell us about how those parts of the brain function - especially in terms of the relationship between emotion and reason. To sum up his arguments, he notes that both what we mean by reason and what we mean by emotion can be located in our brains, and that when parts of our brain are injured, or fail to function properly, that affects both our reasoning and our emotional life.

Perhaps the most powerful and informative case study in Descartes' Error is the case of "Elliot," a thirty-something who developed a brain tumor which required the removal of his frontal lobe. From that point on, Elliot had much in common with Phineus Gage. Most interestingly, while Elliot's basic cognitive functioning remained the same - he would have, for instance, not noticed a change in his IQ - he simply could not function as a human. He lacked any semblance of social skills, and often could not make the most basic decisions.

After building a cumulative case on the basis of stories like those of Phineus Gage and "Elliot," Damasio makes a profound claim about the way in which we reason: In most of the decisions that we make, both what we mean by "reason" and what we mean by "emotion" are engage. We navigate our daily lives not by reason or emotion, as though the two were opposed, but by the two of them working simultaneously, in concert. This challenges the way that most of us think about thinking. We (especially we pseudo-intellectual types in the Western world) often think of proper thinking as reason unclouded by emotion. But Damasio argues that such an image describes not a properly functioning thought-process, but rather total paralysis.

In seminary I encountered another way of thinking about intelligence, when I was forced to apply Howard Gardner's famous theory of Multiple Intelligences to teaching in a church setting. In a nutshell, Gardner - a professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education and at the Boston University School of Medicine - argues that there is no single thing called "intelligence." Rather, there are several different kinds of intelligence: linguistic, logical-mathematical (those two are what we general mean by intelligence), musical, bodily-kinesthetic, spacial, inter-personal, intra-personal, etc. (He is forever modifying his theory to account for new kinds of intelligence, as well as new ways of thinking about previously identified intelligences.)

In Gardner's thinking - and boy can I relate to this - a gifted mechanic is no less intelligent than, say a mathematician; they simply each are gifted in different ways. Lest you think this is some way of saying "everyone is special, so let's not hurt anyone's feelings by implying some may be more or less intelligent than others," Gardner does believe that we can to a certain extent quantify intelligence within these various categories. He just doesn't think that these modes of intelligence can reasonably be pitted against each other.

All of these positions, taken together with the thousand or so other new(ish) theories of intelligence, amount to a veritable assault on our assumed notion that there is a single quantifiable thing called "intelligence," which is the basic assumption behind the IQ. This matters in part because of the disturbing phenomena of scientific racism. For as long as there have been theories of race, there have been "scientists" who would use the tools of their day to demonstrate the innate genetic superiority of their kind of people, while reducing others to various kinds of brutes. IQ has been intimately involved in this effort to scientifically codify the intellectual superiority of some expressions of humanity, and the inferiority of others. But new research into the nature of IQ has shown that cultural differences on IQ tests are just that: cultural rathe than genetic.

I just read this article by Malcolm Gladwell of the New Yorker. A review of James Flynn's What Is Intelligence?, Gladwell explores Flynn's observations on the change in IQ scores across generations.He argues that IQ tests measure not how smart one is, but rather how modern. Here is a most interesting passage that amplifies what is at stake with that distinction:

The psychologist Michael Cole and some colleagues once gave members of the Kpelle tribe, in Liberia, a version of the WISC similarities test: they took a basket of food, tools, containers, and clothing and asked the tribesmen to sort them into appropriate categories. To the frustration of the researchers, the Kpelle chose functional pairings. They put a potato and a knife together because a knife is used to cut a potato. “A wise man could only do such-and-such,” they explained. Finally, the researchers asked, “How would a fool do it?” The tribesmen immediately re-sorted the items into the “right” categories. It can be argued that taxonomical categories are a developmental improvement—that is, that the Kpelle would be more likely to advance, technologically and scientifically, if they started to see the world that way. But to label them less intelligent than Westerners, on the basis of their performance on that test, is merely to state that they have different cognitive preferences and habits. And if I.Q. varies with habits of mind, which can be adopted or discarded in a generation, what, exactly, is all the fuss about?

1 comment:

crystal said...

Damasio's book reminds me of the books of neurologist Oliver Sacks, especially The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. It's hard to imagine that the way we feel and think and act and even our morality and how we relate to God (I read that Alzheimer's victims often become atheists) can be so affected by changes in the brain. Kind of cool :-)