Thursday, 5 July 2007

Designing intelligence

Well, mist1 has once again produced an thought-provoking and insightful (and inciteful) comment, whether she meant to or not. So I'm going to run with it.

Mist1 reminisced about her younger, smarter days. Days when she owned a protractor, and probably even knew how to use it. But those days are gone, she said. They've been set adrift on memory bliss, or some other soft focus setting of fond recollection and nostalgia. Probably with 80s music and drum machines as a soundtrack. Possibly Kenny Loggins, maybe even the whole Top Gun CD. But it's gotta be the special edition - we need that "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling" goodness. It's a target rich environment, Mav.

But I'm not sure it quite works like that. For me, golf is a wonderful analogy for life. I've played maybe 10 times in my life, and I can remember having a wonderful time doing it. There was one shot in particular that I hit off the 10th at Tarhatuan with a driver I'd borrowed from my dad, that was beautiful - it lazily soared, spinning gently in the breeze, before alighting just off the green as softly as a hummingbird with a sprained ankle.

But then, if I really think about the time I've spent playing golf, I realise that for every great shot there were twenty others that left me searching through trees and bushes trying to find that sneaky little fucker of a ball that had managed to hide itself under a leaf just to see that little vein that starts pulsing in my forehead in situations like that.

High school is a good example of this view. I tend to have a fairly rosy view of how things were. But really, it wasn't all that good. School was easy, yes, but the whole social thing was a bit of a mystery. Still is, to a point. Small talk is something that happens to other people, as far as I'm concerned. When I meet someone I just ask questions. Not in a shallow or facetious way - I really am interested, and it's amazing the things you can find out about crocodile DNA if you ask probing questions to a South African in a hotel bar in Switzerland (true story). Plus, she was hot. Anyway, all those years are a bit glossed over. As T. E. Lawrence noted, the passage of time seems to have bleached out men’s stains. I don't know what he thought about the women.

So why does it seem harder these days? Am I becoming more stupid as I get older? I don't think so. I don't think anyone does. I think it's a trick of the perspective. There are a biological changes in the brain for a few years after birth and in the lead up to death caused by old age (I've studied a bit of developmental psychology - my second degree. I got bored), but for the most part intelligence seems to be fine tuning what you've got once it grows. The MRI scan below shows what happens to an infant's brain if cerebrospinal fluid doesn't drain properly (on the left) - there are case studies of people with this condition (hydrocephalus) showing that mental ability is not necessarily affected by the resultant lack of brain tissue.

So why do other people seem to get thicker as they get older? It seems to be habit rather than biology, and I've got a few ideas of bad habits that people get into.

Lack of interest - this is the biggest one for me. I find it incredibly hard to focus on things if I find them boring. This explains why I'm writing a blog entry instead of the report I'm supposed to be finishing. It's why I want to get out of engineering and into psychology, even though it may mean going back to the bottom of the career pile. It's why Top Gear is a top show, and why Big Brother is abysmal this year. Get thee behind me, Killeen! It's a mental discipline issue, and I seem to be more mental than disciplined these days. Something to work on.

Lack of practice - I can still do times tables off the top of my head, but my addition and subtraction skills are wandering off into the sunset on a palomino. I was best at these when I worked in retail during uni - I could work out the change required in less time than it took me to type the total in to the register. I was quite proud of that - a sneaking little pride that knew that no one else would appreciate or even understand it, but that I treasured anyway, like a secret superpower. I was more than met the eye.

Fear of change - deliberately avoiding new situations. This one really pisses me off. What else is life for? No change = no life. Simple. It's a balance - routines are necessary, but with too much routine you end up believing in the routine and not what it's trying to do. The means but not the end. That path leads ever down into stagnation.

Lack of confidence in their ability to learn - I've done a fair bit of tutoring for primary school and high school kids, and the number of them that don't learn things because they've convinced themselves that it's too hard is just incredible. It usually took about three sessions to break them out of the habit, and then their faces would light up like a mobile phone taken off keylock. They enjoyed learning. I've been heading down this path for a while, now, and one reason I've started to write is to show myself that I can learn new skills, and learn them well. It's a confidence thing.

Really, I don't think people stop being smart - I think they stop using their intelligence creatively (which could be designing a new pump, taking up painting or learning to use html - it's all the same, really). Losing creativity is something that SD has talked about (hyperlink! Woohoo!), and it's something that got far too little focus when I was learning. All I know is what works for me. If I can find something that works for me and other people, I think that's a good thing. And that's what I'm trying to do.

I've got a feeling this won't be one of the entries I'm proudest of - the content's there, but the execution is a bit lacking. But I'm here to learn, so it's all worthwhile. I'm aiming at two entries per week at this stage. It might be only one this week - this one took a fair bit of thinking - but every author interview I've read says that it's more important to get it out and revise than to not get it out at all. Baby steps!


Rosanna said...

I think you've hit the nail on the head. I certainly don't think people get stupider, per se - I think it's lack of practice.

I used to be able to speak French, but I have not spoken it for so long. I'm so out of practice, and can't even string a sentence together now. Ditto for algebra and any numerous topics from high school.

Simply because I don't practice them anymore.

I would hardly do algebra on a day to day basis.

tim said...

I'm doing algebra as I type - not the most enthralling of topics, to be sure. TFIF!

Yoffi said...

Hello kitten. Well you're newer than I am...hehe, now I don't feel like the new kid on the block any more!

Welcome. Hello. And I'll be stalking you for a while.

Scum Department said...

Psychology's always something that's fascinated me and I often considered the idea of studying it myself. It's funny though how learning for the sake of learning is simply not a valid excuse these days. There has to be a socially acceptable motivation (generally money) to go and do something like that.

The thrill of learning something and learning it properly has also been lost. Whether it's the whole exam method of confirming knowledge or something else, I'm not sure, but somewhere along the lines it's been overtaken by the pressure of knowing something for superficial purposes.

I'm doing my bit to try and thaw out the creative part of my brain, I'm taking up guitar lessons and rebuilding my bagpipes. I might load some black and white film into my old 35mm and go for a walk.