Intelligence. What has it become?

As an Education minor, I can’t stop thinking about the discussion we had in class on Thursday regarding intelligence and whether or not we’re smarter now than people a hundred or two hundred years ago. I think it may have been Derek who mentioned that IQ scores have increased in the last few decades. Well, I did a little research and found an article in American Scientist stating the same information. According to the article, the average IQ score for an American increases 3 points each decade and has increased about 15 points over the last 50 years. The article also notes that this score increase is too fast to have a genetic basis. Instead, the score increases are attributed to environmental factors, such as nutrition, hours of schooling, parental influence, and access to visual resources.

I struggle with the idea that we’re “smarter” than previous generations, because essentially intelligence is a relative term. We’re only intelligent and smart in comparison to things that are not. Furthermore, as the article mentions, it’s difficult to determine and define intelligence using one test and one score. Nowadays, it’s very easy to learn how to take the test instead of learning the material on the test. I’m sure many of us can recall SAT tutors, or even now GRE books, that help us with strategy rather than concepts. So, are we smarter because we know how to beat the test based on strategy?

What would LeDoux think? He explains to us the “use it or lose it” idea of what he calls “synaptic math.”  So, are we using more synapses now that one hundred years ago? If so, do we have more synapses and that’s what’s making us smarter?

Steve Jobs sadly passed away earlier this week, and in the days since his death, his contributions to technology and to society have been compared to those of Thomas Edison. Thomas Edison changed the world, and I assume many of us would agree that Steve Jobs did too. But, is Steve Jobs just as smart or smarter than Thomas Edison, or did he have more resources at his fingertips? Similarly, are we smarter than the generations before us or do we just have endless ways (ex. the internet, Google, iphones, etc.) to access ridiculous amounts of information? Do such magical devices increase the number of synapses we have even though I would consider this to be artificial intelligence? I wonder what LeDoux would say…


American Scientist article

9 thoughts on “Intelligence. What has it become?

  1. I was having this discussion with my family and I feel that we have a higher collective knowledge. We record our ideas and inventions (Thomas Edison was the first to invent the electric lightbulb, and then it became commonplace). We couldn’t have the technological systems we have today (smart phones, computers, tv) without the inventions from the past. Fortunately, each generation doesn’t start from scratch.

    As for intelligence, I think that IQ tests are not the best or most accurate measure. I’m not sure that our generation is smarter than Thomas Edison, Albert Einstein, or even my great-great-great grandfather. We have merely become better at using our resources.

    So pretty much I agree with everything you said, Taylor.


  2. Some very good points Taylor. Having just taking the GRE this past Monday I agree that my book was entirely based on strategies to navigate the test and tricks to save time. Also like the Steve Jobs and Thomas Edison comparison!


  3. Great entry, Taylor. I found myself thinking about this a lot too since our class. Are we better at using resources Lauren? Or do we have just different tools available to us and we basically use them as well as the ones available during Edison’s day were used by him. And thus, in each generation there are individuals that do things that stand out, are beyond the time and the resources available. In any case, good comments too… 🙂


  4. I wonder about whether we could get a bit more specific about what sorts of intelligence we’re talking about. I’m guessing that with the increased efficacy of schooling in the last fifty or so years, we’re seeing a rise in analytic intelligence (which the IQ test measures). That doesn’t mean we’re smarter, per se. I think we’re seeing increasing attentional deficits (see ADHD) that probably make up for the better average reasoning capacity of Americans.

    I guess another question we can be asking, beyond “are we getting smarter” is “are we thinking entirely differently?” What has it become, indeed.


  5. How about the fact that we really don’t need to retain information in the same way as even just 10 years ago. We have knowledge at our fingertips, literally, all the time….


  6. But do we need to retain more information now in order to be able to function in the more complex society of today? We might be able to look up facts on Google, but we need to know more background info in order to study new material in a neuroscience class in present day than we would have a few decades ago when there was less knowledge on the subject


  7. Melissa, I definitely agree that in some ways we don’t need to retain information like we’ve needed to in the past. Technology definitely helps us have it at our fingertips, but I don’t think it’s that we don’t retain as much information, it’s just different information. So instead of knowing where the Pacific Ocean is, we need to know how to access maps on Google. This is when I agree with Derek that it’s we’re thinking entirely differently – can we really compare this to the past to say we’ve become “smarter”?


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