Intelligence isn’t simply a fixed quantity, a learning expert explained in a talk recently. How smart we are is powerfully affected by our situation, and that’s something we can control.
Somewhere along the way in life you’ve probably taken an IQ test and were give some number as an answer. That figure — seemingly definitive and said to portray some inborn capacity — may have given you the impression that your level of intelligence, no matter how high or low it might be, is a fixed quantity. You can learn, sure, but basically you’re only as smart as you were born to be, right?
But that’s not what the latest science actually says, learning expert and author Annie Murphy Paul recently explained in a speech, which she helpfully transcribed to her blog. Intelligence, it turns out, is way more complicated than that.
In the lengthy but fascinating talk, Murphy Paul lays out eight ways intelligence is affected by context in which we put it to use and suggests ways that we can rethink intelligence to get the best out of the brain we were born with. The complete speech is well worth a read if you’re interested in the subject, but to get your warmed up, here are the basic ideas she explores in greater detail in the complete post:
Situations can make us smarter. They can be the physical conditions that learners experience by way of how much stress they’re under and how much sleep and exercise they get, and the mental conditions learners create for themselves by the levels of expertise and attention and motivation they’re able to achieve. Situational intelligence, in other words, is the only kind of intelligence there is.
Beliefs can make us smarter. Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck distinguishes two types of mindsets: the fixed mindset, or the belief that ability is fixed and unchanging, and the growth mindset, or the belief that abilities can be developed through learning and practice. These beliefs matter because they influence how think about our own abilities, how we perceive the world around us, and how we act when faced with a challenge or with adversity.
Expertise can make us smarter. Experts don’t just know more, they know differently, in ways that allow them to think and act especially intelligently within their domain of expertise… Expertise takes a long time to develop, of course, but it’s never too early–or too late–go deep in a subject area that interests us.
Attention can make us smarter. There are information-processing bottlenecks in the brain–everybody’s brain–that prevent us from paying attention to two things at the same time. The state of focused attention is a very important internal situation that we must cultivate in order to fully express our intelligence.
Emotions can make us smarter. When we’re in a positive mood, for example, we tend to think more expansively and creatively. When we feel anxious–for instance, when we’re about to take a dreaded math test–that anxiety uses up some of the working memory capacity we need to solve problems, leaving us, literally, with less intelligence.
Technology can make us smarter. The problem is that our devices so often make us dumber instead of smarter… In order for tech to make ourselves smarter and not dumber, we need understand when to take full advantage of our devices, and when to put them away.
Our bodies can make us smarter. All the things that make the heart work better–good nutrition, adequate sleep, regular exercise, moderate stress–make the brain work better too.
Relationships can make us smarter. If you have a spouse or significant other: it’s likely that one of you is “in charge” of remembering when the car needs to go in for inspection, while the other is “in charge” of remembering relatives’ birthdays. This is called transactive memory, and it’s just one of the ways that relationships with others can make us smarter than we would be on our own… a feeling of belonging is critical to the full expression of our ability.