Sunday, July 14, 2013

A Journey into the Brain and the Scientific Method - Is Intelligence malleable?

Jean-Paul Sartre famously said: "Hell is other people."

That can certainly be understood, when thinking of the pain that is often inflicted by interpersonal relationships (notwithstanding Sartre's true message, which is using the "hell" inflicted on us by others as a metaphor for the metaphysical belief in heaven and hell).

Would he also agree though, that "Intelligence is other people."?

Given his close attraction/association to minds like Henri Bergson's, Simone de Beauvoir's, Alexandre Koj√®ve's and Che Guevara's, there can be no doubt that Sartre's intelligence, could have been considerably stimulated from his influences, and thus continually molded as a result of his exchanges with these and other advanced minds. 

"Your brain is next!"
Exposure to other's intelligence has been stated to start even before birth; the fetus' brain absorbs relevant elements from its surroundings like a sponge, and once the baby is born, the process continues, and neuron connections are quickly formed and strengthened.

Relatives generally contribute most, if not all of what the newborn is exposed to.

When reasoning starts setting in, and personality becomes more apparent, the brain starts to discern and discriminate, choosing what it wants to focus on, or what it wants to enjoy, and this is when some decide (consciously or not) to nourish the brain and others decide not to.

Granted, some child prodigies start absorbing more advanced concepts earlier than most, but one thing remains the same: those that hold a hunger for learning and personal advancement, realize their potential early, capping what's readily available to them in a short period of time.

And then there are those lucky enough to have their loved ones identify their thirst for knowledge, after which, if they're even luckier, are quickly enveloped in a stimulating environment.

To these minds, where mentors are found wanting, books and other written material become substitutes.

Access to great minds and their great ideas become available in libraries and bookstores.

Books --> Great for getting a knowledge fix.

In modern times, brick and mortar bookstores have always functioned as panaceas for knowledge hunters, which makes these stores' dubious survival and slow transfer into virtual realms all the more exasperating.

But this fact is irrelevant; a hungry mind will always be a growing mind.

And growing minds are great at learning from others. These minds ultimately show their true genius once they generate their own original thinking.

To give this more structure, let's apply the scientific method ((i) Formulation of a question, (ii) Hypothesis, (iii) Prediction, (iv) Testing, (v) Analysis).

Formulation of question:

Is intelligence, as sharpened through others, superior to that which can be generated in relative isolation, or in a mental vacuum? 

In other words:

Is a brain better off when it is inquisitive, constantly learning and relying/looking to others to enhance intelligence?


    "Intelligence is other people" as an idea becomes most potent when:

    • Knowledge-seeking:
    • The brain is initially hungry for knowledge
    • Environment:
    • The environment surrounding the brain in question promotes learning and rewards it for its own sake
    • Influences:
    • Intellectual acumen is driven by influences, whether it through living mentors or through previously established thoughts and ideas (via the deceased)


    The human brain benefits tremendously from interactions with others, especially when the brain is attracted to learning and can identify true value in personal growth. 

    The engaged brain takes a dive into deeper realms to then address the unknown and to ultimately produce original thought. 

    Historic and current geniuses seem to follow this mental pattern.


    Does the real world behave as previously hypothesized?

    Do all or most geniuses express a strong interest in (i) knowledge-seeking, (ii) benefit from a stimulating environment and (iii) become deeply influenced by other minds?

    Can this be said to contribute to their original thought?

    John Maynard Keynes, the British Economist who strongly contributed to the formation of modern macroeconomics and helped spur his own influential brand of economics (Keynesian Economics). His ideas are so strong and pervasive that they're still put into practice today.

    A smirk is more mischievous when it hides under a mustache.

    • Knowledge-seeking:
    • Easy to assume that he was a precocious child by any measure. While at Eton College, he focused his interests on mathematics, history and the arts. Originally inclined to study philosophy (can there be anything more prone to knowledge-seeking than philosophy?), he was coaxed into Economics by his peers and mentors. Was a member and part of many knowledge-sharing clubs and societies.  
    • Environment:
    • Keynes was born in Cambridge - so he was surrounded by academia and its erudite elements from the start. Keyne's father, John Neville Keynes, was an economist and academic. Keyne's mother, Florence Ada Keynes, was active in public service, having become Mayor of Cambridge, England in 1932. World War I, The Great Depression and World War II produced a productively intoxicating environment, where the economies falling in shambles around him made for excellent case-studies. 
    • Influences:
    • Direct influences: Alfred Marshall and Arthur Pigou, two British Economists, which at the beginning of the 20th century, were some of the foremost figures in their respective fields. Keynes' family was no doubt influential - how could they not be? The dinner conversations were most likely vivacious, witty, if not downright all-around passionate. His mother, a social reformer and politician, and his father, an erudite professor, whose structured thinking and academic work in Economics no doubt aroused passions for the subject in his son. 

    Other British talents arose during Keynes' lifetime, some achieving their notoriety and success in post World War II literature (C.S. Lewis), politics (Margaret Thatcher), management theory (Stafford Beer) and other realms.

    It's not the size of the book that matters, chaps.

    C.S. Lewis's contributions to children's literature became his claim to fame - but it was his non-fiction work that showcased his journey from atheism to becoming a Christian Apologetic. Mere Christianity, a wisely structured set of of arguments, are rife with personal conviction and inner strength. Influences through one-on-one discussions with J.R.R. Tolkien and  G.K. Chesterton's "The Everlasting Man" molded his brain into a defender of the Christian faith, contributing his literary skills and mighty pen to the greater good, in part due to his influences - the result being his becoming an influence himself. 

    Don't underestimate me. I point a good finger when I need to.

    Margaret Thatcher heralded the new era of conservatism in British life, making away with the stronghold the British Unions had so vehemently defended during the 1970's and bringing in a more capitalist idealism to the United Kingdom's politics. She had been vivacious as a young woman, always ambitious, and forever influenced by her hard-working father, who owned a grocery and managed it his whole life. Politics lends itself to constant stimulation, which she no doubt had. Thatcher's unlikely rise to power, impressive as it was, can be regarded as a testament to personal perseverance, in the face of unbelievable obstacles, yet completely realizable through her own brain, by "plowing through", as her father had done and as she did herself, in both her professional and personal life.

    I don't have a favorite beer, so stop asking.

    Stafford Beer, a genius in his own right, having studied the theories and ideas of Norbert Wiener's study of systems (cybernetics), became a pioneer in a field of his own creation: management cybernetics. Having bee influenced not only by the deeply theoretical work of his predecessors, he also developed a more practical side to his creations, lecturing business students on how to optimize systems, and even engaging in advanced consulting work with the Chilean government. A visionary whose imagination knew no bounds - Beer was enthralled by the possibility of optimizing processes and did so until his death in 2002.

    These four individuals were knowledge-seeking, grew up in, and most importantly, contributed to creating stimulating environments, and lastly, were deeply influenced by others.


    These accounts suggest that intelligence can be nurtured and extended through proactive measures.

    How can laypeople emulate and aspire to further applications of intelligence, to stretch the limit of what our brains are capable of?

    The answer to this last question is not easy to answer - but that fact by itself is irrelevant: what matters is that each brain excels to its potential, and attempts to learn from others, in a similar fashion to what those that have already excelled have individually achieved.

    Or put simply - follow good examples and you'll become one.


    1. I have to submit a counterexample to your hypothesis.

      Srinivivasa Ramanujan was one of the most brilliant mathematicians you have never heard of. Relatively deprived of a "stimulating environment" and not within the standard establishment of peers he went on to create substantially more original work that no one has even contemplated possible.

      The flip side of being surrounded by others and by nurturing people is the fact that you can no longer trail blaze and become truly original; by resting on the shoulder of giants, you may be looking on from higher, but you're still facing the same way.

      1. This is true.

        I would still like to think that there's a modicum of stimulating environment through his time spent in Cambridge, in English Academic Institutions and through his close relationship with G.H. Hardy (

        I completely agree with the flip side you mention. Competition breeds more competition. In some it always has, so becoming "truly original" has to be taken into different contexts.

      2. It's not about competition though - it's about pandering. Surrounded by others, one strives to be similar.

        Similar is not always good. Similar, very often, is atrociously bad. Just look at corporate America.