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Friday, October 21, 2011


by Wolfgang B. Sperlich

 The soft – human – sciences like Psychology, Linguistics, Economics and Politics have always struggled with the problem that it is difficult, if not unethical, to conduct experiments on living human subjects. Indeed the vast field of psychology arose from the not unreasonable assumption that the human mind arises from the human brain in ways not readily subject to scientific measurements. Developmental psychology for example had to deduce from observation alone as to what constitutes a likely developmental progression from child to adulthood. Ever obsessed with the lack of exact measurements in this area, developmental psychologists devised many a test that should shed light on the many hypothesis, myths and old wives tales that have always circulated in great abandon. Some of these tests contributed to the general confusion rather than diminish it. A case in point is the infamous IQ test.

To pin down a concept like intelligence to a set of verbal and non-verbal test procedures has long irked the more enlightened education psychologists and others like Gould who in The Mismeasure of Man (1996) argued that that IQ tests were used for scientific racism:

...the abstraction of intelligence as a single entity, its location within the brain, its quantification as one number for each individual, and the use of these numbers to rank people in a single series of worthiness, invariably to find that oppressed and disadvantaged groups—races, classes, or sexes—are innately inferior and deserve their status.(pp. 24–25)

As any reasonable high school teacher would tell you, a single summative assessment may contradict the ability of a student as observed over a whole academic year – hence the more reliable tool of formative assessment. Of course a lot of elitist education is premised on doing well in winner-takes-all tests, hence all efforts are made to prepare students the way their equally successful parents were prepared. Even so you get the occasional failure who may yet surprise the whole lot of them – cf. the case of the recently departed Steve Jobs. Could it be possible that so-called intelligence is subject to developmental changes?

Of course, it’s a no-brainer! Isn’t it? Even if we do IQ tests?

Researchers from the University College London, led by Sue Ramsden, have just published (on-line 19 October 2011) a paper in Nature entitled ‘Verbal and non-verbal intelligence changes in the teenage brain’, coming to the following conclusion:

More generally, our results emphasize the possibility that an individual’s intellectual capacity relative to their peers can decrease or increase in the teenage years. This would be encouraging to those whose intellectual potential may improve, and would be a warning that early achievers may not maintain their potential.

 Any 10-year old could have told you that! So what was the point of all this complicated research with neuroimaging that ‘allows us to test whether unexpected longitudinal fluctuations in measured IQ are related to brain development’.

Aha! The fluctuations were ‘unexpected’? Why so?

The researchers (and an article in the Guardian reporting the findings) tell us that ‘IQ is generally considered to be stable across the lifespan, with scores at one time point used to predict educational achievement and employment prospects in later years’. Who on earth established this ‘generally’ received wisdom? We are treated to names like Sternberg, Binet and Piaget, the former actually welcoming the latest news by saying:

A testing industry has developed around the notion that IQ is relatively fixed and that any changes are pretty well set in the early years of life. This study shows in a compelling way that meaningful changes in cognitive abilities can occur throughout the teenage years. (Robert Sternberg from Indiana University, who studies intelligence but was not part of the research team – as indicated by the Guardian article).

The latter two, Binet and Piaget cannot answer since they are long departed but the Guardian article informs us nevertheless:

The new study contradicts a long-standing view of intelligence as a static entity. Alfred Binet, the father of modern intelligence tests, believed that people's mental development ended around the age of 16, while the child psychologist Jean Piaget thought that brain development was completed even earlier.

This maybe a bit of an unfair interpretation of Binet and Piaget – who of course didn’t know anything about the physical brain in terms of neuroimaging – as they assumed that the overall physical architecture of the brain seemed to be fixed at an early stage, at least as based on their observations of the human mind. I don’t think that either Binet or Piaget implied that ‘learning’ was impossible from the age of 16 or whatever. Still, Binet and Piaget could have – should have – realized that the brain is constantly changing in that it constantly processes vast amounts of data and deposits an amazing amount of data packages in the memory banks. How the brain achieves this feat may well be due to a basic architecture that doesn’t change much – or not at all – during a lifetime. Not that neuroimaging could settle this question with any great certainty either – detecting changes in ‘grey matter’ only.

Let us test therefore the not unreasonable source of stupidity as identified by Robert Sternberg above, namely the ‘testing industry’. The idea that you can charge people good money for undergoing an IQ and other psychometric tests puts smiles on various entrepreneurs. To ensure business success it seems imperative to perpetuate a myth about intelligence testing, namely that one test will tell all, especially the prospective employer or further education provider. No doubt they will have to commission further studies to show that the common sense conclusions published in Nature (sic) are indeed misleading, for isn’t it also common knowledge that a large brain with lots of grey matter is just as easily manipulated by money as the one without, or as succinctly put by Samuel Butler:

Money is the last enemy that shall never be subdued. While there is flesh there is money or the want of money, but money is always on the brain so long as there is a brain in reasonable order.

This is clearly a field where more research should be focused, i.e. checking which areas of the brain light up when dangling a dollar bill in front of your nose. Who knows, Samuel Butler could be proved wrong.