To hear the neoluddites talk, Google makes us stupid
. And, of course, there's a common belief out there that television and video games similarly are somehow "dulling" the brain. But, if that were the case, then we'd be seeing some pretty specific evidence of that by now. And that's a problem. Because the actual data seems to be going in the other direction. Reason
points us to Jonah Lehrer's reporting on a new study that suggests the smartest kids have been getting smarter
over the past few decades.
There had already been reports showing that the average
IQ keeps creeping upwards, but many suggested this was because of efforts to bring the bottom half
up. That is, over the past few decades we've generally improved the quality of education and especially focused on helping those who struggle, more than in the past. We've also increased educational opportunities for groups that got much less attention in the past. However, there hadn't been much exploration of the top of the curve. Were the smartest getting smarter too? The latest research suggests the answer is absolutely
The effect was found in the top 5% at a rate similar to the general distribution, providing evidence for the first time that the entire curve is likely increasing at a constant rate. The effect was also found for females as well as males, appears to still be continuing, is primarily concentrated on the mathematics subtests of the SAT, ACT, and EXPLORE, and operates similarly for both 5th and 6th as well as 7th graders in the right tail.
Of course, my own initial reaction to the studies about increasing IQ was to wonder if there might be a different factor: the test itself. It's entirely possible that the standards of the test changed and/or people somehow were "teaching to the test." That could
still be true of this newest study, but for whatever it's worth, the new study does not rely just on IQ tests, but a variety of different measures, which at least (hopefully) minimizes the impact of the test itself.
Either way, it certainly calls into question the claims of an Idiocracy world, driven by our interactions with modern technology. In fact one hypothesis put forth by researchers is that "the increasing complexity of entertaining" may actually be helping quite a bit here:
The question, of course, is what this stimulation might consist of? It obviously has to be extremely widespread, since the IQ gains exist at the population level. One frequently cited factor is the increasing complexity of entertainment, which might enhance abstract problem solving skills. (As Flynn himself noted, “The very fact that children are better and better at IQ test problems logically entails that they have learned at least that kind of problem-solving skill better, and it must have been learned somewhere.”) This suggests that, because people are now forced to make sense of Lost or the Harry Potter series or World of Warcraft, they’re also better able to handle hard logic puzzles.
Of course at this stage, that's nothing but a hypothesis, so I'm hesitant to give it too much credence yet.
If I had to take a wild, flying guess (and yes, I'm saying this is a total guess), I'd wonder if the increase is because we end up communicating much more with other people these days. Some of it is that we communicate textually, rather than verbally, much more often than in the past. So children spend a lot more time with the written word -- even if lots of it is considered silly or banal. However, I believe that intelligence increases the most through the spread and sharing of ideas and conversation. The more you have ideas challenged the more you have to think through the logic of what you're saying and try to improve your arguments and cognition around those ideas. And, just in general, I believe intelligence is mainly expanded through pattern matching and the intersection of new ideas. The more one communicates with others, the more likely you are to hit those sparks of ideas together, and generate that new knowledge and cognition.
I don't know how one would go about studying that, but I'm sure it would make for some fascinating research.