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How do we prepare ourselves for the challenges ahead? There is no point being complacent. We are in charge of our destiny and we need to work at it, or do we? Most of us take our lead from a mentor or someone we respect who has succeeded in the way we aspire to succeed. As time goes by the challenges ahead seem more complex and therefore it is reasonable to believe we need to be smarter to step up to these challenges. An article in New Philosopher, by Tim Dean, examines how humans have developed mentally over time and how technology is playing a part in helping us all meet our goals as the world around us changes rapidly.
Tim observes “It seems that we’re a lot smarter today than we were in 1900 and we’re getting smarter by the year. This phenomenon is known as the Flynn effect: every decade that passes sees average IQ in developed countries rise by about three points.” For comparison the IQ of the average adult in 1900 was 70. Today it is 100 and a score of 70 today is often regarded as a sign of intellectual disability. Interestingly the gains have not been seen across all categories. For example, test that focus on abstract reasoning, conceptual categorisation and dealing with hypothetical situations have all seen the greatest gains. Others focusing on arithmetic, vocabulary and general knowledge have remained fairly flat. Tim asks readers “So are we really getting smarter? What could be the observed IQ inflation? And why are there gains in some areas but not in others?”
Explosive Intellectual growth is where we as humans have really made great strides. The common ancestor of chimps and humans have not changed much in appearance over millions of years, however it is in the development and blossoming of our minds where we have made the greatest transformation. Tim states “However, this intellectual growth has not only been in terms of raw brainpower, but also in fundamentally changing the way we think compared to our primate brethren. Brains are expensive things to grow and maintain. At some point it simply wasn’t tenable to make them any larger. So we extended our minds in other ways.”
Over time we have developed the ability to move our thinking outside of ourselves into the world around us and have become very good an achieving this. We have latched onto environmental platforms to help us leverage our thinking and push it through into a better place. And in doing so we have enabled our minds to build new scaffolding to lift us though to greater intellectual heights. Tim refers to this process as “intellectual scaffolding.” New ways of thinking have arrived which might explain why IQs are rising in this way. In the beginning we see how the brains of our primate ancestors were engaged in survival and existing in a hostile world. They became efficient in manipulating objects, travelling distances and solving problems in the tangible world. But they weren’t terribly good at math or abstraction. Their intellectual explosion began when they became intensely social creatures. Think together as a team and everyone achieves more. Tim detects “There are many things we can achieve through social and cooperative living that are simply impossible alone.”
Following on, our ancestors then began passing on their thinking to others and in doing so added another social aspect to communication. New systems of expanding social relations involving tracking reputations, gauging honesty and managing relationships. Dean mentions “The next step came when humans embraced technology, which pushed our minds even further beyond our skull. Writing enabled information to be stored in a durable state that could persist over generations. Today a computer can help us perform calculations that no single mind could hope to achieve.” There is far less cause for a child today to ever need to navigate by their own or solve entering problems, except for their own amusement. They manipulate symbols on screens to acquire the information they seek. According to Dean “Their brains have become more capable, not necessarily at performing the old concrete tasks, but rather at managing the new technological environment necessary to perform the tasks demanded of them today. Their minds are more practiced in the abstract than the concrete. They readily employ hypothetical speculation and are encouraged to engage their imagination.”
And so, in these tasks people today outperform their elders. And the question is asked, “Are we really smarter?” Tim believes “We have become more adept at being social and technological creatures. We now use the world to do some of the thinking for us. However in the process we have lost the skill of interacting with the natural world.” What are the risks? Dean observes “One is that we offload too much thinking and forget to nurture what’s inside our skull. Another is that we have become dependent on technology and the system in which we live. We have lost our survival skills. We may have unprecedented access to other people or technology to help us think, but ceasing to think for ourselves isn’t exactly a sensible strategy.”
There is no doubt technology will remain to play an important role in our lives as we move forward. Rather than move blindly into the future grasping our technology and pressing the right keys to obtain instantaneous answers to our questions I think it’s a good idea to remember where it all started, where we have come from and how quickly the journey has taken. The building process has been effectively thought out and implemented. Will it serve us well into the future? Will we lose our ability to think for ourselves, to communicate with others, in essence to diminish our social awareness? Can we pass on our lifetime’s learnings to the next generation or will the next generation rely on technology to remind them how we survived in earlier times and show them an easy road towards the future? Are we smarter now? Will we be smarter then?
As Tim concludes, “We may appear to be smarter, but we shouldn’t let that go to our heads.”