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Phil-osophically Speaking

A Penny For Your Thoughts

A penny for your thoughts may be an overpriced commodity if the latest trend about human intelligence is any indication. The most recent study of this controversial and flammable issue shows the human intelligence quotient has declined alarmingly since the Victorian age. In fact, 14 intelligence studies undertaken over a 120 year period that gauged a participant’s visual reaction times --- meaning how long it took them to press a button in response to seeing a stimulus --- all showed intelligence declining in the modern world. 


While this was not the usual written standardization test we were forced to take in school, it is generally agreed that reaction time reflects a person’s mental processing speed and is considered by specialists in the intelligence field to be a legitimate indication of general intelligence. It was a surprising conclusion, since my understanding was that intelligence in Western societies was on the ascent. While I did not subscribe to the belief that the smartest people today were more intelligent than the elite of previous generations, I believed that the population as a whole in industrial societies was indeed getting smarter. This was the so-called “Flynn effect,” which is now being discarded as reflecting the influence of factors such as education, environment, education and nutrition rather than something genetically rooted.


Of course measuring intelligence with precision is a risky business. Marilyn Vos Savant, born Marilyn Mach in 1946, has long been championed as the person with the highest measured I.Q.  To befit the status of her stratospheric intelligence quotient, she changed her surname to Savant, because it means a person of learning. Various tests have had different results for Marilyn’s intelligence level and none, frankly, were without controversy.  The one most cited produced an IQ of 186, a statistical ratio to be expected in one out of every 30 million people or so. Marilyn is best known for her column in Parade Magazine, which unremarkably enough is called, “Ask Marilyn.”  One would expect that Vos Savant would be better known for doing something more earth shattering than writing a spare Q&A column called “Ask Marilyn” in Parade Magazine that comes with the Daily News every Sunday. One would think that someone so smart would be famous for curing cancer, discovering the principles of cold fusion or redefining our understanding of the Universe.

No one doubts that Marilyn Vos Savant is extremely intelligent, but there is real skepticism, despite her I.Q., that she is the smartest person on the planet. Intelligence is a subtle, varied and complex entity. Picasso is considered the greatest artist of the 20th century, whose cubic figures revolutionized the art world, yet simple arithmetic eluded him because numbers reminded him of shapes and figures that had no numerical value. The number 7, for example, reminded him of an upside down nose. The atmospherics surrounding intelligence are filled with gloaming skies and overreaching shadows. Vos Savant herself values IQ tests only as measurements of a variety of mental abilities and believes intelligence involves so many factors “that attempts to measure it precisely are useless.” That, indeed, is a very intelligent observation.


Because he is almost universally heralded as the premiere intelligence over the last three centuries, Einstein’s brain has been the subject of wonder, speculation and research. Like a cerebral heirloom, Einstein’s brain was removed just seven and a half hours after he was pronounced dead in 1955 at the age of 76. His brain was weighed, and then in a laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania, the brain was dissected into numerous pieces and shipped out to places like the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia and is also on loan at the British Museum.


So what secrets about neuroscientists mined about the quintessential brain after studying it for nearly 60 years? The overall size and asymmetrical shape of Einstein’s brain are essentially normal. It’s been noted, however, that Einstein had no parietal operculum in either hemisphere in the brain --- or did he?  Neuroscientists sometimes seem like economists always disagreeing about what the data says.

What about the brain’s absence of lateral sulcus --- could this vacancy have enabled neurons in this part of his brain to communicate better? No one can say for sure. Einstein remarked that he thought visually rather than verbally (so did Thomas Edison) --- but does this tell us anything? Well, not much. What about scientists pondering the ratio of glial cells in Einstein’s brain when compared with the preserved brains of 11 men with normal or just above average intelligence? Glial cells provide support and nutrition in the brain and participate in electrical signal transmission. Does this unlock the secret on why Einstein was able to harness such prodigies of intellectual horsepower? Maybe --- but it is mere speculation. 


Intelligence is as much a mystery as it is a gift. Perhaps today’s sophisticated tools such as magnetic resonances, which act like electronic telescopes peering into the inner cosmos of the mind, will reveal clues. But I doubt that it will add up to anything significant and as a result we will continue to have half-potted ideas on how to increase intelligence in our children.  Remember the Mozart effect that was the rage of the early 1990s. It was believed that the beauty and power of Mozart’s music, when listened to frequently, promoted the development of the brain and cognitive enhancement in young, nurturing minds. One prominent journalist exposed his young son to this experiment for years and instead of producing a musical prodigy or a mathematical whiz (music and mathematics being closely allied) his offspring when arriving at adolescence seemed proficient only in delivering wisecracks and double entendres. Instead of raising a Mozart, he quizzically reflected, he got Groucho Marx. 


So it goes. I’m not prepared to say we are dumbing down as a population even though it’s been noted that women of lower intelligence have much higher fertility rates than women of higher intelligence. Since many cognitive scientists believe that intelligence could be as much as 70 percent inherited, this trend should not be brusquely dismissed. Intelligence, while a gift, has no correlation to making people happier or more moral. It’s even been known to have the opposite effect --- highly intelligent people becoming their own termite or effete’ condescending snobs is hardly an unknown phenomenon. The architects of some of the Nazi’s most notorious experiments on human beings were all highly intelligent. So for me the humane qualities that define us as people of conscience, compassion and charity outweigh the benefits of raw intelligence and are the true measure of man.