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Posted By Patrick

What's going on in those monkey brains?? Scientists have shown that intelligence can vary within species that are not human – specifically, cotton-top tamarins. This isn’t really surprising for some people – I live with two dogs, and know many other dogs, and it’s pretty clear to me that they are not all equally good at connecting the dots (by odd coincidence, my dog Pasha is much smarter than average). But this study, led by Harvard-based Konika Banerjee and published in PloS One last week, shows that there is a variance in something like “g,” or “general intelligence,” among the 22 tamarins tested. The researchers assessed monkey performance on a number of tasks, and determined that while about 80% of the performance variation was due to circumstances related to the specific task or the environment, about 20% of the performance could be credited to a kind of monkey “g.” The study has received some high-profile coverage since publication, and the authors hope that a standardized test might be developed for primates to assess their general intelligence more effectively.

Now, I don’t want to be a spoilsport here, but plenty of critics within and outside of the psychology world question whether “g” exists, as well as whether it accurately represents intelligence. What skills get measured as part of “g”? How are subtasks weighted in assigning “g”? How important is speed to “g”? But let’s say that even if its accuracy is doubtful the concept of “g” has certain practical or useful qualities. For one thing, it gives a shape – at least a conceptual one – to something that is otherwise pretty vague. And that can be useful, but it’s also a bit like talking about God; the word “God” makes sense if you believe in a deity, because then you can picture this God, possibly as a benevolent old man, bearded and in flowing robes.  But if you’re an atheist, then “god” is a concept with no solid ground, and the word doesn’t really change that. Now we do have a general belief in intelligence but I still wonder if the little “g” is performing pretty much the same type of job as Big G – it lets us stick certain capacities together as “general intelligence” and then to talk about them, but that doesn’t give us any proof that this “g” exists as something other than as a creation of psychologists.

So that’s one thing. And the other is, if we are having trouble assigning “g” to humans (and we are!), how much more difficult is it going to be with other primates? It reminds me a bit of those Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes in which a higher life form, known, if my memory serves, as Q (so many letters today!), runs various tests to assess human intelligence and so forth, but is constantly misreading human actions and capacities (who can figure what that Jean-Luc Picard will do next?) with dramatic and occasionally comical consequences. So I wonder… are we the Q of monkeys?

 
Posted By Patrick

My book Idiocy: A Cultural History just received its first review, by Penny L. Richards, in the Times Higher Education, July 18. And as part of my new policy of shameless self-promotion, you can read it here. Naturally, I’m very pleased with this review – perhaps especially with Richards' observation that Idiocy isn’t a niche history, but pulls together a lot of different concerns. My point was that concepts of idiocy and intellectual disability can’t be taken outside of any given society’s other packages of ideas, notions, trends, economies, policies, and so forth – that they are all part of the same fabric.

 

Idiocy: A Cultural History

 

OK, that's enough shameless self-promotion for now...

 
Posted By Patrick

There I was, waking myself up by scanning the Globe and Mail online this morning when I came across something headlined “People with Autism Ace Intelligence Test.” Apparently,  people with autism were about 40% faster than those in a control group at finishing a non-verbal intelligence test that relied heavily on visual processing, although (despite what the headline said) they did not score any higher on average. The real story was that the authors of the study (led by Harvard post-doc Isabelle Soulières, and including the Université de Montréal's Laurent Mottron and Michelle Dawson, who is herself autistic), published in the journal Human Brain Mapping, say their findings may lead to new ways of educating people with autism, as teaching methods could be more effectively structured to take advantage of these visual processing skills. And they also point out that traditional intelligence tests, like the Wechsler, may not accurately measure the intelligence of people with autism because these tests are language-based. The Globe article and the online comments on the web site are interesting for what they say about how we understand intelligence. As one blogger  says, “the interpretation of results [does not] require one to ‘believe’ in intelligence tests. You can just think of it as a mental task assigned to people, and it doesn’t really matter if it’s measuring intelligence or not.” This makes sense to me. The word “intelligence” gets mixed into a study that suggests that people with autism may process information differently. But they’re not necessarily talking about intelligence, or at least don’t need to be. They’re talking about how the brain works to sort out the information that’s coming into it. And it turns out there are different processes for different folks – not the same thing as intelligence at all! This does have a pragmatic consequence for IQ testing, though – it means, as the study’s authors point out, that different types of tests will give different types results for who process info differently, because the tests themselves ask the brain to process information in certain ways. Verbally or visually, for example. So I wonder what other ways of processing information can we come up with? And what relation do these processes bear to our current and historical ideas of intelligence?

 
Posted By Patrick

In 1906 Sir Charles Sherrington described the brain as being like "an enchanted loom" where “millions of flashing shuttles weave a dissolving pattern" (this quote appears somewhere in The Integrative Action of the Nervous System, according to Lynch and Granger in Big Brains, which I wrote about in the previous entry; I can’t find the exact location, though). Anyway, I like this comparison – it’s half way between analogies of the brain to machines and the “brain as computer” metaphor we’re all familiar with today. The Jacquard loom, invented by Joseph-Marie Jacquard in 1801, was an ancestor of the computer. It was programmed by punch-cards (lots of them), with the loom weaving patterns according to the holes in the card – just as computer programmers not so long ago used punch-cards to tell their computers what to do. The “brain as mechanism” metaphor was common throughout the 19th century, and its intellectual lineage probably goes back as far as Descartes in the seventeenth century – although it really took off as a feasible analogy during the industrial revolution, when the machine began driving the economy and became something of a model of how humans might work as well. Nowadays, of course, the computer, not the machine, is the model for the brain (and drives the knowledge economy… hmmm). But Sherrington’s loom nicely bridges the gap.

a jacquard loom

 
Posted By Patrick

Why do humans have such big brains, relative to our body size? According to Gary Lynch and Richard Granger in Big Brain: The Origins and Future of Human Intelligence (Palgrave Macmillan 2008), the answer might have something to do with us walking upright. According to their argument, in order for us to become bipeds, hominid hips and lower back had to change from those sported by our primate predecessors. They got wider to support the load, which meant that it was possible for babies with larger heads to be born. The big brain is thus an evolutionary side effect – once the brains were out there, they became useful, but they appeared because there was simply more pelvic space to do so, meaning more babies with freakishly (for the time) big heads could be born. So thanks to bipedalism, our brains are now about 2.3 times larger than that of a comparably sized chimpanzee (take that, chimp!).

We tend to think of homo sapiens – the name means “wise” or “intelligent” man, after all – as being the biggest-brained of all the hominids, too. After all, intelligence is our ace-in-the-hole, evolutionarily speaking. We’re more endowed upstairs than homo habilis (who was 1.5 times as large as that comparable chimp) and homo erectus (twice as large as this chimp, who must be getting a bit of a complex by now). But we may be kidding ourselves: we weren’t necessarily the brightest-burning logs on the cave-fire. Neanderthals, for instance, had brains 10% bigger than ours, proportionate to their body; and Boskops (named for the site in South Africa where their remains were first found) were a whopping 25% bigger-brained. So we’ve been unfairly slagging the Neanderthals when we put people down as behaving like them – they produced art, lived in communities that supported their elderly, and no doubt hosted dinner parties that were a whole lot more refined than ours back in the day. But where are the Neanderthals and Boskops today? That’s right – they’re all gone. Their big brains – accompanied by superior intelligence, Lynch and Granger argue – may have been of little help when they were kicking around this earth. It’s hard to say why homo sapiens prevailed, but regardless of who was smartest, we’re here now. And to the victor goes the sapientia.