Smarten Up

Business Logo for Psychological and Neuropsychological IssuesFinally, some good news.  Humans are becoming more intelligent with each passing generation.  It may not be evident from watching television or driving a car, but humans are actually smartening up.  This is not meant as a joke or effort to flatter the American people.  Furthermore, it’s not just Americans exhibiting greater intelligence, but the world at large.

This month’s edition of Scientific American contained an article by Tim Folger regarding the Flynn Effect.  This is an empirical fact well known to psychologists, but rarely discussed in the popular media.  The New Zealand psychologist James Flynn discovered that IQ scores have been steadily rising since the turn of the last century.  IQ scores have been rising about three points per decade.

A particularly interesting aspect of the Flynn Effect is its limitation to only two cognitive skills, as measured by most intelligence tests.  The most popular IQ test is called the Wechsler Intelligence Scale, with separate instruments for children and adults.  The Wechsler tests purport to measure school related learning, as well as skills that are novel and culturally independent of school learning.  The increase in IQ scores has not been in school learning, rather gains have been very specific to novel fluid abilities.  The gain in IQ appears to be related to an increase in abstraction and pattern matching.

The Wechsler tests may be tapping into the increasingly abstract nature of our jobs and daily living.  Even modern farmers use computers and GPS guided tractors to perform their work.  Janitors within hospitals are increasingly relied upon to understand and combat bacteria and viruses that they cannot see with their eyes.  Video games, TV and internet sites may increase abstraction ability and pattern recognition at greater speeds than the prior generation.  Few jobs remain that may be accomplished without some ability to think on an abstract level.

One of the psychologists cited in the article offered a telling example.  He attempted to explain to his grandmother how to turn off her computer.  After telling his grandmother to hit the “start” button and select “shutdown,” he returned to find his grandmother hitting the screen with the computer mouse.  The psychologist explained that his grandmother is an intelligent woman, but interpreted the instructions in a concrete fashion that may have been effective fifty years ago.  Older people may squirm at this example, but it is riotous to a ten year old.

Take heart that the laughing ten year old is not smarter in terms of raw brain power.  The ten year old mind is more modern and in step with increasingly abstract technology.  To be sure, it is difficult to ignore the influence of greater education, improved child nutrition, and smaller families on the general increase in intelligence scores.  The authors were quick to point out that even during WWII, with its strains on family resources taken into account, the global rise in IQ scores continued without a stutter.

In summary, if the reader is having trouble understanding this article, ask your grandchild to explain its meaning.  A son or daughter may, unfortunately, lack sufficient IQ gains to be very helpful.  The author would like to say more about the Flynn Effect, but he lacks a grandchild to explain the finer points.  Beating the screen with that mouse thing doesn’t make new words, but the sound is pleasing and soothing.