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Feeling stupid?

When I was applying for a teaching job early in my career, the superintendent who was interviewing me asked whether I believed intelligence could be taught. At that point in my life, I had been reading a lot of Wendell Berry, who argued that the proper test for intelligence was the degree of order that surrounded one’s life. You could judge the intelligence of a farmer by driving his fields, he said.

So I answered, “Yes.” Berry’s main point was that farmers who farmed according to intelligent traditions all farmed intelligently. I was quite sure that kids could be taught to order their lives according to intelligent traditions, and that this came close enough to teaching intelligence to satisfy me.

Now I see that according to research [New York Times, registration required] at the National Institute of Mental Health, the brains of intelligent kids grow differently than the brains of less intelligent kids, and the difference can be seen using MRI brain scans. What’s most interesting is that the cortex of the intelligent kids gets thinner than those of average kids, probably because redundant neural pathways are “pruned.”

So more intelligent kids rewire their brains to be more orderly? That makes an intuitive kind of sense. Anyone who has tried to learn a new skill, such as drawing a sailboat with one’s non-dominant hand, has struggled with the difficulty of too many neural pathways. Finding pathways that work and then discarding the others seems a plausible explanation of intelligence.

For a long time I’ve used “not able to find what I’m looking for” as my working definition of stupidity, and too many possible pathways makes losing things easy.  When I can’t remember a word maybe I’ve lost some useful neural pathway amid a tangle of less useful pathways. I haven’t yet found the solution for that, but in much of the rest of my life I’ve found things that work: have systems and keep them organized. Not being able to find a document or a list I made a month ago is a form of stupidity, but there are learnable strategies to mitigate the trouble.

Good middle school teachers know that to teach kids to be good at school it’s necessary to teach them systems for getting and staying organized. I wish it were more a part of high school. Becoming more organized may not raise a kid’s IQ, but it will certainly help him act more intelligently in thousands of situations where acting more intelligently would a great boon.

Posted by on 04/10 at 09:24 PM
  1. Interesting observations and perspective, David.  I’ve been thinking about intelligence and brain re-wiring recently, perhaps in the hope that it’s not too late to improve my own memory and ability to think about problems in ways that I might not otherwise.  A friend has been playing a sort-of brain stimulation game series on her handheld game thingy and claims it helps her get sharp.  I’m thinking of buying one of these little devices and doing the same.  Could it be that there’s an upside to this whole gaming thing, even for adults?  hmmmm…

    Posted by  on  01/25  at  02:17 PM






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