fixed intelligence

The Myth of a Fixed Intelligence


The Myth of a Fixed Intelligence


Is our intelligence determined at birth by our genetic makeup or can it be developed in response to our environment? This is one of the oldest debates about intelligence—the issue of Nature vs. Nurture. I believe that both our genetic inheritance and our environment are involved in the outcome. There is an ever increasing volume of research that indicates that mental functioning can be improved. Intelligence, memory, and learning respond to many factors. The research has reported many aspects of diet, nutrition, and life style that support this. These influences that improve are classified as environmental factors (as opposed to genetic factors). There is some fascinating research that has taken a quantum leap in breaking down the old idea of a fixed intelligence.


The researchers found that the enriched environment produced both more brain cells and larger brain cells!


The pioneering research of the neuroanatomist Dr. Marian Diamond, and her co-workers at the University of California at Berkeley, shows that intelligence, the ability to learn, and even the physical brain itself can be developed. She has recently reported the story of this work in her book, Enriching Heredity: The Impact of the Environment on the Anatomy of the Brain. The Diamond group has been studying how the brains of rats change in response to different environments. The rat brain resembles the human brain in many aspects of both form and functioning. The researchers created three different environmental test conditions: the impoverished environment, the normal environment, and the enriched environment. In the impoverished environment, a single rat would be left alone in a regular-sized laboratory cage. The normal environment consisted of three rats in a regular-sized laboratory cage. The enriched environment was a larger-sized cage with twelve rats and numerous toys. Every few days the rats were taken out of the cages for a few minutes to clean the cages. In the enriched environment, the toys would be randomly placed back in the cage before returning the rats to the cage. The rats in this environment would scurry around, examining and exploring the toys and their new placement. The results of these experiments show that access to stimulating objects and a stimulating environment produces a thicker cerebral cortex—a bigger brain! The researchers found that the enriched environment produced both more brain cells and larger brain cells!


 Our minds are as instinctively motivated to learn as our legs are to walk


Other researchers have shown that these conditions facilitate faster and more accurate problem solving, which is a key component of intelligence. Part of Diamond’s research has shown that an impoverished environment will inhibit brain growth, resulting in a decrease in the size and number of brain cells. This research has also shown that an enriched environment can overcome some of the negative aspects of stress and dietary protein deficiency experienced early in life. Diet, nutrition, the air we breathe, and a stimulating environment can increase levels of important brain chemicals, producing bigger brain cells and faster learning. The brain can and does change in response to its environment. Genetic inheritance is not destiny. Marian Diamond’s research has shown that the brain, at any stage of life, from prenatal to old age, can increase in size and learn faster. Although she has used rats in her research, I feel that her work is making important statements about the potential of developing the human brain. The results from these studies as well as the studies on the nutrients, drugs, and herbs reported in this book argue that our brains can continue to grow throughout our lives. We can truly expand our minds and our potential.


Not only is there a need to maximize the conditions that will enable optimum development of intelligence and mental capabilities, there is also a great need to teach people how to think, to learn, and to reason. I believe that these skills can and should be taught. It has been my experience that the traditional approach to education is not focused on developing effective methods to teach these skills. Instead, the emphasis is on learning facts and memorization. A Gallup poll asked parents what they would most like their children to gain from their education. Most parents wanted their children “to learn how to think.” I believe our minds are as instinctively motivated to learn as our legs are to walk. Just as the legs of a champion have to be trained, so our minds have to be taught and trained to function at their best. Scientists from such diverse disciplines as neurophysiology and anthropology are finding evidence that the human brain changes in accordance with changes in understanding and awareness. In other words, as our understanding and awareness changes, the brain that has processed new information also changes. The more we know, the more we can know. The more we understand, the more we can understand. Learning how to think creates changes in the brain at the cellular level that facilitate better thinking. Albert Einstein said, “It is not so very important for a person to learn facts. For that he does not really need a college. He can learn them from books.” The value of an education in a liberal arts college is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think something that cannot be learned from books.


Many children are held back in their learning because they have a model of learning in which you have either “got it” or “got it wrong”


The art of thinking begins with a change in the individual’s belief system about one’s ability to think and about the nature of intelligence. It is true that we have much to learn about how the mind functions, but the first step is to acknowledge and understand what science has already proven—that our minds can grow and change. The research on intelligence, memory, learning, and the brain leads to the conclusion that the critical issue is not whether it is possible to enhance intelligence and mental facilities, but how far we can go in enlarging the frontiers of the mind.


In addition to teaching the skill of thinking and learning, we also need to change the common attitude that answers are only right or wrong. In his book Mindstorms, Seymore Papert made the following comments about an attitude toward learning that is developed by many computer programmers. He said, many children are held back in their learning because they have a model of learning in which you have either “got it” or “got it wrong.” But when you program a computer you almost never get it right the first time. Learning to be a master programmer is learning to become highly skilled at isolating and correcting “bugs,” the parts that keep the program from working. The question to ask about the program is not whether it is right or wrong, but if it is fixable. If this way of looking at intellectual products were generalized to how the larger culture thinks about knowledge and its acquisition, we all might be less intimidated by our fears about “being wrong.” Children learning programming skills in grade school are developing a priceless by-product. They are developing a new attitude about errors and a new attitude and confidence about thinking and learning. When children have the will to stick with a problem and to examine and adjust their thinking until they can get something to work (on a computer or in life), an important level of confidence begins to grow. Discipline switches from an external and oppressing “get it right the first time” to an internal and intellectual “make it work.”


“The world’s greatest resources are to be found in human intelligence, ingenuity, and imagination.”


Buckminster Fuller was one of the outstanding minds of all time. In a speech about what the world would be like in the year 2000, he said, “The world’s greatest resources are to be found in human intelligence, ingenuity, and imagination.” Early in his life, Bucky discovered the secret of having a passion for learning and understanding life, and he spent the rest of his life trying to give that secret away to others. In an editorial eulogizing Buckminster Fuller, Norman Cousins wrote the following, “If we read Bucky Fuller solely for information we will obtain information, but we will be cheating ourselves. We should read him for the increased respect he gives us for human potential, and for the lesson that there are no boundaries to the human mind, which he celebrates above all else.”


We can make Buckminster Fuller’s dream a reality. There are no boundaries to the human mind.