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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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6 comments

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!

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