Intellectual Development 101

Moving away from religion and politics and into less controversial waters. What I want to discuss now is something that is probably more fundamental than one’s political or religious beliefs and delves more into the deep water trenches of our minds – that is how we adopt beliefs, knowledge and opinions in the first instance.

Taking into account the lottery of life that endows people with different intellectual capabilities from birth, I’m going to put forward the notion that its not what we start with but how we choose to develop what we inherit that really matters.

Neuroplasticity is probably one of psychology’s and neuroscience’s greatest achievements as a scientific field. It blows a hole into the notion that we are passengers of our genetic fate in terms of our intellectual and mental domain. In effect, the decisions we make about how we nurture and develop our minds will literally alter the physical nature of our brains.

This leads us to an important question – how do we optimise and best influence this magical process?

The first thing to note is that we should not necessarily try to aim for the same thing in terms of smarts. There are different kinds of intelligence which can be honed and deployed in our world. Stumbling and mumbling discusses the difference between hard and soft intellect, but this can be extended. How do you compare the literary genius of JRR Tolkien with the musical genius of Mozart? How do you compare the analytical rigour of Godel with the intellectual breadth of Bertrand Russell? It is a case of apples and oranges.

The most common interpretation of intellect that psychologists use then is to look at someone’s IQ score. This misses the point horribly in some case. I have always suspected for some time that IQ tests are excellent at capturing cognitive abilities rather than intuitive or creative capabilities.

This splinter in the spectrum of intelligence gives some basis for Nozick’s categorisation between quants and wordsmiths. Anecdotally I can only report that the quants I know seem to favour depth and wordsmiths favour breadth in their knowledge.

Which brings us to the second point I’d like to make – whether one should specialise in a field or develop an understanding of the important parts of various areas. The education system in most developed countries seems to have a prescriptive approach on this issue; favouring generalism in younger students and then making students largely specialise as they go to college or trade school. An analogy can be made here about one’s approach to learning to cook. Should one develop as specialism in one style of cuisine or cherrypick a greatest hits or fusion style? Its an endless debate but what I would propose to readers of this blog is to do a mixture of these strategies and learn an area well in depth before moving on hopefully to another field of knowledge at some point in one’s life.

Unfortunately the great failing of the education system in most countries is that in keeping with a capitalist economy, the point of it (as intended by its designers), is to create workers rather than well rounded human beings which is why genuinely useful subjects like personal finance, philosophy or nutrition are largely shunned unless one has the desire to specialise in that area at third level.

My last point is that developing the intellect is not merely developing and applying knowledge alone, but getting out there and taking on new experiences, meeting people and performing physical tasks like learning an instrument or indeed to cook. With these complementary activities in place, the mind will grow outwards rather than inwards and the lottery of life can resemble less a lottery and more a game.