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Not as smart as we think. February 26, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in Ben Franklin, homesteading, wit and wisdom.
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It was bad enough to learn that poor Homo sapiens was a mental midget compared to the Neanderthals, whose considerably larger brains apparently enabled them to be much more creative and artistic than our slower-witted ancestors. But our friend Ben’s IQ—and chances of winning that ever-hoped-for MacArthur award—suffered yet another blow this week when I saw in The Wall Street Journal that even what comparatively little brain we have has actually been shrinking.

You read that right: The human brain is shrinking, and at an appalling rate. In just the past 5,000 years, our brains have shrunk 10%. The article says that the reasons for this are unclear, but our friend Ben can think of a single obvious conclusion: Our so-called civilization makes it less necessary for us to be smart in order to survive.

Doubt me? Let’s take a comparatively brief stroll back in time to the Colonial era here in America. It wasn’t just the high-profile historical figures, the titans like Ben Franklin and George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who excelled in many areas. (Franklin was, among so many other things, a scientist, printer, diplomat, postmaster, inventor, author, and community organizer; Washington was a soldier, surveyor, farmer, Freemason, and politician; Jefferson was a gardener, inventor, architect, politician, diplomat, gourmet, and philosopher.)

Every person living at the time had to have multiple skills in order to survive. Nobody went to work in the morning, performed a single specialized function which was all they were trained to do, such as computer repair or eye surgery, and then came home with some takeout fast food and watched TV until bedtime. There was wood to be chopped and seasoned, food to be procured by hunting, gardening, animal husbandry (the raising of livestock), and farming, and then the food had to be prepared from start to finish, butchering to curing to roasting, threshing to grinding to baking, fermenting to distilling to drinking. There were houses and outbuildings to be built, land to be cleared, fences, tools, and other useful items to be made, wool to be sheared, turned into yarn, and knitted or woven, or cotton to be harvested, dyed, and turned into cloth, clothes to be sewn, quilts to be made from the scraps when the clothing wore out. Herbal remedies, soap and candles to be made. Families to be raised and educated, lives to be defended. The list of chores to be completed each day would make today’s stressed-out soccer moms look like idle royalty. And all this in addition to whatever folks did to make a living.

Today, it’s rare to hear of someone who excels at many things. You’re a pro golfer or an auto mechanic or a VP specializing in direct-mail marketing for a large corporation or a late-night talk show host, but not all of the above. When someone does manage to break out of the narrow channels in which we’ve been confined—let’s say Steve Martin, comedian and painter, or Joni Mitchell, musician and painter, or Dan Aykroyd, comedian, musician, and vintner—it not only makes news but is greeted with considerable skepticism. These people have stepped outside our claustrophobic, one-step definitions of who we think they should be. Their “additional” talents must therefore be bogus. Talk about one-track minds! No wonder our brains are shrinking.

And on the “But wait, there’s more!” front, you may, like our friend Ben, have been told at some point that we humans only utilize 10% of our brains. Our friend Ben always took this as good news. After all, there was always the possibility that we could figure out how to use, if not every single brain cell, at least a much larger percentage than we were currently putting to work. Surely talent, genius, and that longed-for MacArthur Fellowship were within reach!

Fuggidaboutit. That 10% business turns out to be an urban legend. We actually do use all of our brains, though we don’t use the entire brain at one time. (That’s why scientists can map the areas of the brain that “light up” when we’re dreaming or taking a test or anticipating eating a chocolate bar.) And herein lies an opportunity.

When our brains are developing in the womb, bazillion neural channels are formed as our synapses develop and fire off communications to each other. But as we get older, those channels shut down, obviously because we aren’t taking advantage of them. But all is not lost. We don’t have to get dumber just because we’re getting older. We just need to keep challenging ourselves. Go to a community or vo-tech college and take a class in cabinetry or cooking or cheesemaking or guitar-building. Learn a new language or how to play a new instrument. Pick up a math or history or travel book and take yourself into new territory. Learn to play chess or ping-pong or ice skating, or write that book, take up watercoloring, plant a garden. Brew your own beer, become an herbalist or Reiki master, learn how to install wiring or repair the plumbing. Or all of the above.

After this last blow from The Wall Street Journal, our friend Ben has only one thing to say: We’d better start usin’ it, ’cause we’re rapidly losin’ it. Don’t let it happen to you!


1. mr_subjunctive - February 26, 2010

Au contraire, we are much smarter than we think, and I strenuously object to this post, particularly the implication that people were smarter in the recent past than they are now. STRENUOUSLY.

It was much easier to become a scientist before we knew anything about science than it is now: now, in order to get to the point where you’re doing anything original, you have to spend two, five, eight years just catching up on the history of your (increasingly-narrow) field before you can even begin. In 1660, it was enough to notice that light comes in different colors, and you’re a genius. The scientists of today learn more in a couple years of college than the statesmen and renaissance men of yesterday learned in their whole lives. They don’t have to discover it for themselves, granted. But they still have to know it and be able to apply it to new situations, so I think it counts. Being responsible for learning an entire scientific field is not something you expect from people who are stupid.

And let’s not forget that Jefferson, at least, wasn’t farming and building and gardening all by his lonesome. He had slaves to do most of that for him. How brilliant do you have to be to point and say, “I think we should have some okra over there, and we’ll plant the grapes on the left?” Even the people who didn’t have slaves had children, who, it was assumed, would do work around the house until they left the house and worked on their own.

You’re also focusing very, very narrowly on a handful of individuals we all agree were pretty fucking brilliant, and ignoring the incredibly idiotic masses. It’s not like they didn’t have them then. They just didn’t have as much leisure time for writing down their stupid thoughts. It’s not just our five or six brightest and richest men learning the entirety of genetics before striking out on their own work, it’s hundreds of men and women from all over the world and all over the economic spectrum. Give me a support staff of subservient children and slaves, large amounts of wealth, property, and leisure time, slower communication and transportation, and technology that depends on parts I can see and touch made of metal and leather, and I could invent the steam engine / calculus / constitutional democracy / etc. too. (No, really! I could!)

And, how fucking mentally challenging is it to churn butter? Make soap? Chop firewood? Are you really suggesting that you have to be smart to chop firewood?

We have complicated days, and complicated lives, and complicated jobs. It takes a good deal of thinking to be able to navigate these. The amount of coordination and logic it takes to get three children to and from daycare / piano practice / soccer practice / cheerleading practice / SAT prep / little league / etc., for a family in which both parents work, would rival even your five-houses puzzle from a few posts ago, and people have to solve those problems every day, and then re-solve them every few weeks as one activity begins, ends, changes schedules, or what have you.

So yeah, maybe people these days don’t know how to trap and skin their own animals for clothing, or build a log cabin, or forge their own horseshoes. So the fuck what? Instead, we know concepts like DNA, evolution, chemistry (Ninety-five of the 117 chemical elements we’ve observed to date were discovered after 1776! NINETY-FIVE!), galaxies, extrasolar planets, search engines, continental drift, game theory, bioluminescence, public transportation, internal combustion engines, ecosystems, electromagnetism, blood typing, radioactivity, quarks, aerodynamics, botany (I probably have at least 100 genera of plant in my home right now that they’d never have seen or heard of), the placebo effect, nuclear fission and fusion, organ transplantation, non-Christian religions, vitamins, all literature written since those folks died, non-representational art, the planet Neptune (disc. 1846) . . . I could literally go on forever. And the best part of this list is, even if what you know on these subjects is incorrect, you still know more than they did about them, because they didn’t know anything at all.

Even if the Wall Street Journal article is correct (no link, so I don’t know what it says), and our brains have been getting physically smaller, this signifies nothing about our intelligence. Einstein did not have an extra-large brain, [stupid person of your choice] did not have an extra-small one. It could be that brains develop with shorter intracellular distances in fetuses receiving good prenatal nutrition, resulting in a more compact brain; it could be that our brain cells are more extensively cross-linked; it could be that the study is in error, and brain sizes have not actually changed in the last 5000 years; it could be that smaller babies tended not to survive to adulthood 5000 years ago for one reason or another, and they do now because our medical system is just that much better, bringing down the overall average brain size.

And even if they have changed in the last 5000 years, you’re not comparing to people 5000 years ago, you’re comparing to people 300 years ago. The decrease in brain size, if real, didn’t necessarily happen at a steady rate: it could be that it swings up and down all the time, and that 300 years ago brains tended to be smaller (we already know that average height and weight were smaller).

So um. Streeeeeeeenuously object. On many, many, many, many, many levels.

Whoa, whoa, Mr. S.! First of all, let me just note that, based on reading Plants Are the Strangest People for the past few years, I’d say that *you,* at least, are smarter than most people, now or at any time in the past. (But I’ll admit it wouldn’t occur to me to characterize the overall population on the basis of your obvious brainpower.) Secondly, thank you for giving me a well-deserved kick in the you-know-what for not providing a link to the article. In the past, all WSJ web content was subscription-only, so I lazily didn’t go online to see if they’d decided to join the 21st century—at least, until reading your comment. Sure enough, though some content is still restricted, other articles—including this piece—are not. Though the comment about the shrinking brain is pretty much limited to what I’ve said here, I think you’d find the article in its entirety of interest; go to http://www.wsj.com and search for “Blame Darwin” and it will come up (the full title is “Obesity? Big Feet? Blame Darwin,” by Melinda Beck). Besides our shrinking brain, it contains other counterintuitive findings, such as that people were, on average, actually taller in the past, when they were hunter-gatherers, than after they became farmers.

Your points are well made, but I think a distinction must be made between having access to knowledge and actually using it. I don’t think people can be blamed for not knowing what was unknowable in their day due to the absence of the advanced equipment that has been such a boon to us in moving knowledge forward; rather, I think they should be credited for the great intuitive leaps that enabled them to reach scientifically accurate conclusions in its absence. There is no doubt that those of us privileged to be living today have access to the best education the world has ever known, but in my opinion, that just makes it all the more shameful that so few of us take advantage of it. The general lack of knowledge of history, geography, grammar, mathematics, science, literature, world civilization and culture—yow. The WSJ article mentioned in passing that “A 2009 Gallup poll found that 44% of Americans believe that God created human beings in their present form within the past 10,000 years.”

It horrifies me that the spirit of discovery—the insatiable desire to learn—that has characterized humanity throughout its history, be it in ancient Greece, the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Victorian Age, or the 20th century, seems to have been ruthlessly suppressed in our “proud to know nothing” age. Call me a cynic, but if there were still witch burnings, I’ll bet that not only would they be frequent occurrences, but they’d draw large, avid, self-righteous crowds, and ditto book-burnings. (Helloooo, Sarah Palin!) After all, suttee was practiced on the innocent, accused of no crime whatever, well into the 20th century.

Our access to knowledge is unparallelled—we don’t have to be a Jefferson to know more than he ever could have. (I’m trying to remember how recently a person could have actually read every book ever written at that point, and I swear I think it was about Jefferson’s time or not so many years before or after.) But are we taking advantage of that access? Like you, Jefferson, Washington, and many of their contemporaries had hundreds of plants and knew their botanical names (such as they were at the time); there was a flourishing enthusiasm for botany then, and later in Victorian times, as new plants were discovered. (And that knowledge and plant culture were not, by Victorian times, the province of the elite, as you of course know; instead, they were responsible for the enthusiasm for houseplants and greenhouses that continues to this day.)

Show me the average person today who can tell you the botanical name of even one plant, who can recognize more than African violets, roses, and daffodils, or—worst of all—who could care less or see why it matters. Then show me the average person who *can’t* tell you at length about what they watched on TV last night, what’s going on with Brad and Angelina, Jennifer, Jessica, and John Mayer, who’s been kicked off “American Idol,” whether Simon hates Ellen and who he’s dating. Aaaarrgghh.

And yes, I do think that the skills required for survival, from homebuilding and animal husbandry through weaving and clothes making, food gardening and food preservation, are arts that require considerable skill and knowledge. Not to mention a work ethic that would have most of us—yours truly included—heading for the hills.

In sum, we have access today to the greatest body of knowledge the world has ever known. Could we please, please take advantage of it?!! As long as we don’t, I fear it proves my point.

2. Dave@TheHomeGarden - February 26, 2010

Hmm, scary thought! Some of us (myself included) need all the brains we have! Time to use it or lose it.

I thought this was a real wake-up call, Dave! Time to get out the guitar and the Italian lessons and get going!

3. Bonnie Story - February 26, 2010

Unlike the previous leather-bound rant above… I agree with you that people are becoming fat, lazy, sluggish, unimaginative and worst of all INSULATED from the consequences of all the modern “progress”. I am not confusing stressful modern lives, which we certainly do have today, with challenging lives, which we all used to have, as you elaborated on in your excellent post. An example challenge: Hungry things just outside the door (or cave) that would like to EAT YOU, and that tried to, often.

So, I’m with you, we are becoming very fragile and vulnerable with our modern lives. Yes, we have email and stressful jobs, but do modern city people really know how to feed ourselves, protect ourselves, or stay warm any more? NO.

It’s going to be a real sad deal when it all comes home to roost. One medium-size solar flare will cut out digital communications and much more, and it will reduce most modern city folks into babbling helpless idiots, instantly. Not much to be done about it, ‘cept to brush up on ones caveman skills. When you have the time between facebook sessions and board meetings, that is.

Cheers! Bring on the hate mail – *sigh* – Bonnie

Ha! Thank you, Bonnie! I have to say, I think Backwoods Home magazine is a good step towards brushing up on our survival skills without heading back to the cave. If you don’t know it, I’d suggest you check it out via Google. I think you’ll be glad you did!

4. mr_subjunctive - February 26, 2010

I’m not saying that the people three centuries ago should be faulted for not knowing what we know now; I’m saying that we know a lot of things now that we take for granted, and don’t even think of as being knowledge. Even your examples of Brangelina and [contemptuous voice:] John Mayer [/contempt], and knowing what the tabloids are saying about them at any given time, are important (or even critical) things to know in certain contexts, and learning these things and being able to talk about them still takes memory and the ability to process information and verbalize it.

You do not want to be the girl in junior high who doesn’t have an opinion on the winner of “American Idol,” frivolous though it may be, because your social survival, the key to avoiding being bullied or ostracized, may hinge on it. I mean, you can spend your time learning how to churn butter instead, if that’s what interests you, but you’ll pay for it. “American Idol” is the more important piece of information for you, in those circumstances.

Now, I kinda get what you’re saying, or at least I think I do — the situation in the U.S. could change very rapidly, at any moment, and this system we’ve built for ourselves could fall apart and leave us needing to know how to slaughter our own chickens, card our own wool, or grow our own potatoes. I actually think that outcome is more likely than not, within my lifetime, which makes me sad (and more than a little afraid).[1] But even when/if this happens, deserted-island situations aren’t likely to be all that common; what you’ll need is the ability to function within a group, the ability to learn new skills, and the ability to specialize. So really you only have to have one person in the group who can grow potatoes, hunt rabbits, or purify water, because if more potatoes/rabbits/water than that are needed, that person can just teach everybody else.

I think that, as a general rule, there have not been very many people who know enough to get by in total isolation. But that’s partly because there’s not much need. Human beings,[2] being social, can have our knowledge externalized much more than other species can.[3] We leave tasks for other people to do, we write things down in books, we teach specific skills that are thought to be important to the next generation, we put stuff on the internet and then create search engines to make the information accessible.

It’s not stupid to do things this way. It isn’t even new. It’s a way of maximizing the usefulness of our limited collective brainpower, and people were doing it three hundred years ago too.

Now, okay, yes, it makes me weep to hear that 44% of Americans have such a lousy grasp of science that they think the earth is less than 10,000 years old. But this is at least partly because there is no penalty for thinking that. I think people actually are curious about the origins of life, the earth, etc., and have just been unlucky enough to have been born into a country where there are powerful political factions that reject science for religious and ideological reasons. I.e., that 44% isn’t stupid — they’re totally capable of learning what evolution is — they’re just in a situation where the social and political penalties for learning about it are high enough that most of them won’t try.

I guess what I’m saying overall — and this entire comment is both 1) not hugely proofread and 2) me working stuff out in my head as I go, so apologies if it’s boring or off-topic — is that I think you need to look at information and problem-solving in terms of its value to the person whose intelligence you’re criticizing, and not in terms of its value to you personally, or its historic value. Only when you’re considering the actual quantity and utility of the information to different people can you compare intelligence between them. And if that includes, for some people, who Simon Cowell is dating, then so be it.

The ending to your post, by the way, is good advice regardless, but a lot of the reason for that is that one’s ability to maintain old connections between brain cells and forge new ones starts to decline after a certain age (which I don’t remember what the age is — though I could look it up), and this decline can be slowed down by learning new stuff. If you want to be sharp when you’re 80, it helps to learn new stuff when you’re 40. But I don’t think it actually matters, for brain-connectivity purposes, what you’re learning.

Which is either a frightening thought or a cool one. I can’t decide.

[1] (In Casa Subjunctivo, this is jokingly referred to as “the zombie apocalypse,” though I do not anticipate actual zombies being involved. Homophobic rednecks with shotguns, possibly.)
[2] And can I take a moment to complain about how unnatural and awkward it feels to be defending people as smart, capable, flexible, and quick learners? I’m going to have to watch “American Idol” later just to have my low opinion of the species reconfirmed, lest my whole worldview become permanently warped from this conversation.
[3] I actually saw a really interesting-looking reference to a study that showed that, after a number of years of marriage, spouses begin to automatically and unconsciously divide up responsibility for knowing stuff, according to who’s been better at remembering it in the past, and each begin to expect the other one to know things within that specialization. This is, the article/book/whatever explained, why the death of a spouse hits so hard — among other things, you’ve suddenly and irreversably lost half your brain.

Hey Mr. S., thanks for checking back in. Your overarching point is excellent, and is apparently why Homo sapiens was able to overcome the far superior Neanderthal: H. sapiens was able to function better as a group, as a society. By pooling our collective talents, we discovered the secret to success. But as you say, we paid a price, and that price was the isolation (and often destruction) of individual excellence. Yow, btw, re: spousal segmentation. That’s scary info indeed!

5. Victoria - February 27, 2010

Really interesting read, guys/gals.
Lot of good points made.

This discussion is often the topic in workplaces and among families – just how ignorant/easily led/uninterested is the American public, or, people, in general?

So true, Victoria! I think you’d appreciate the WSJ article as well, with its numerous other fascinating points on human evolution, including why we have nightmares and why our immune system has turned against us.

6. Self-Cultivation List 1 « Worms and Flowers - March 17, 2010

[…] discussed on Poor Richard’s Almanac, in their post about shrinking brain power (“Not as smart as we think“) we don’t use all parts of our brain at once. We use different parts for different […]

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