Saturday, February 18, 2012
Quasi-Brief Foray Into Intelligence Increase
Propelled by some net-friends and Wilson and Leary's "SMI2LE" acronym (for their futuristic vision of Space Migration, Intelligence Increase, and Life Extension), I covered some of the latest on space migration HERE. When it came to tackling intelligence, I rapidly realized I'd been plopped into a dense thicket of Amazonian foliage, vines and tendrils ensnaring me, a thick canopy of green blotting out the sky, save for some filtered sunlight here and there, no compass, no radio...I couldn't even define "intelligence" to my satisfaction. I have run across some fairly good stabs at defining It, but nothing stood out as clearly the "best" definition. It seems intelligence is one of those things we "know" when we encounter it - in others or in our ourselves - but have a rather rough time of capturing it in all its glory and detail.
I suspect, when I feel this way, that I had made a bad assumption. Intelligence seems such a wonderfully grand thing that I'm a bit relieved we can't pin it down.
We have tried to look at what intelligence is not, and we rapidly spiral down to the contemplation of stupidity. This gets us somewhere, but it seems to fall short. In a late 1970s essay by Robert Anton Wilson, called "The Abolition of Stupidity," (see The Illuminati Papers), RAW writes, "Voltaire, of course, may have been exaggerating when he said that the only way to understand the mathematical concept of infinity is to contemplate the extent of human stupidity; but the situation is almost that bad." Later on in that same book, in an essay titled "Stupidynamics," we come upon one of my many collected definitions of intelligence: "High intelligence is the ability to receive, integrate and transmit new signals rapidly. (This follows from Wiener's Cybernetics, especially his classic definition, 'To live well is to live with adequate information,' and from Shannon's Mathematical Theory of Communication.)"
As I mulled the definition problem, I found I gravitated towards ideas that had to do with making social life better, and thinking in wider and wider systems. It's easy to say intelligence ought to further the prospects of continuing human life in its cities, ecosystems and general environment, in perpetuity. A sort of species-wide Darwin test.
I really like a definition I copped from Andrea Kuszewski, in an article that originally appeared in Scientific American last year, but which I found at the page for the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. Ms. Kuszewski writes:
"Intelligence isn't just about how many levels of math courses you've taken, how fast you can solve an algorithm, or how many vocabulary words you know that are over six characters. It's about being able to approach a new problem, recognize its important components, and solve it - then take that knowledge gained and put towards solving the next, more complex problem. It's about innovation and imagination, and about being able to put that to use to make the world a better place. This is the kind of intelligence that is valuable, and this is the the type of intelligence we should be striving for and encouraging." Her entire piece is a must-read. When I read her piece I confess I felt sorta dull. When I took in her five Big Things (Seeking Novelty, Challenging Yourself, Thinking Creatively, Doing Things the Hard Way, and Networking) and their links, I thought, "Jeez, I really have my work cut out for me..."
I have found so much Good Stuff in my researches into trying to find the State of the Art of "intelligence" I can only mention a few. One could make Intelligence Increase the topic for a blog and do nothing but write about that for a year and never get close to exhausting the topic. I'm sure there are people who have done that, indeed. But this overwhelming feeling both curls back upon itself and points back at the topic itself and - check it for yourself - people interested in getting smarter seem to very quickly want to get smarter in their own games, the ones they're already pretty good at. Note Ms. Kuszewski on "Challenge Yourself": once you get good at one game, abandon it for another.
On a wider level, while relatively few inhabitants of the planet ardently seek to get off the planet and there seems a fascinating backlash against longevity/immortality, almost everyone seems to want to be smarter. Or they profess that. (What happened to so many of them?) Which I find curious.
Howard Gardner: there are multiple
types of intelligence. I love his history of
cognitive science, called
The Mind's New Science, even if it's a
tad dated by now.
I like Professor Howard Gardner's ideas about many different types of intelligence, and how much of it seems innate, then nurtured. The IQ tests mask cultural assumptions made by overly geeky types who seek to measure everything. Linguistic, logical-mathematical, and spatial abilities RAWK, don't get me wrong. But Gardner says bodily kinesthetic intelligence has commonly been overlooked. Geniuses here might be Baryshnikov, the gold medal winners in gymnastics, Michael Jordan, Gretzky...
Then there is musical intelligence. You know it when you hear it. I have learned that to cite certain examples of musical intelligence is a set-up for inadvertently pissing off your interlocutors: you will leave out some Genius they love, and music gives us great spiritual satisfaction in an often cruel universe. It's like dissing God. Not gonna go there. Fill in your favorite musical geniuses. You have your reasons and I promise you, they're good enough for me.
Gardner was/is also part of a larger movement in recognizing Emotional Intelligence, and this topic seems to have just gotten hotter and hotter every year since around 1975. In the hardcore neurosciences, it's now a slam-dunk to assert that an adequately operating limbic system/emotional brain is essential in making rational choices, personally and socially. How do we know this? Short answer: there are plenty of IQ-smart people with limbic deficits, and they can't implement their logical-mathematical skills to the point where they can run a full, well-lived, reasonably "happy" life. The neurological literature is filled with extreme cases. If your hippocampus was damaged, you can't make long-term memories. One of the best books I've read on this topic is Antonio Damasio's Descartes' Error.
Memory. Hmmm...I've just finished reading a rousing great, unfathomably wonderful book by a young hotshot journalist named Joshua Foer. It seems he fell in with a bunch of "mental athletes" who compete against each other in what seem like impossible, astonishing feats of memory. I will take the time to plug Foer's book from 2011, Moonwalking With Einstein. (see 3 minute video at the end of this post, too) Foer, in a sort of gonzo-style journalism, decides to become one of these mental athletes, and trains hard, and becomes, in one year, one of the top memorizers (or mnemonists) in Unistat.
But it's the creativity behind the tricks these guys use to memorize a recently shuffled pack of cards in two minutes, or memorize a previously unpublished poem of many pages, pages of random words (record: 280 in fifteen minutes!), lists of binary digits, lists of historical dates, names, faces...
Think about what memory means to you. It sort of goes a long way in identifying who you "are," doesn't it?
But then again: if you look at really good Jeopardy! players (one reader of this blog won $10,000 on the show); they have fantastically good semantic intelligence. This can be described as knowing free-floating pieces of knowledge, ideas that are out of space/time. As Foer puts it, knowing that "breakfast is the first meal of the day" is semantic memory; knowing you had eggs for breakfast yesterday seems to be processed in the nervous system differently, and is called episodic memory. Then there is procedural or non-declarative memory: even people who have damaged limbic systems and can't make long-term memories can still knit you a sweater, ride a bike, climb the stairs, etc. This is all incredibly mysterious, but we're learning. And I'm getting away from my subject.
One thing that rivets me regarding improving memory: when I looked at literature spanning roughly 1967 to 2005, there was no end of literature on drugs that would be coming that would markedly improve our memories. And some of you who have tried some of these drugs? Please feel free to weigh in in the comments section. I'd love to hear from you.
A rendering of Cicero. Photo by Maro Prins
But Foer and his colleagues used tricks that were from drawn originally from a book written between 86-82 BCE: Rhetorica Ad Herennium, but if you want to read it go to Amazon (or better yet, your local public library?) and look for Cicero's little red Loeb Classical Library edition, which contains Latin/English. This was the first book to go over the "memory palace" idea, which lasted until Gutenberg, then slowly died out. Before our modern era, memory training was a basic aspect of ethics, character building, having a worldly mind, attaining virtue. After the mass-production of books - epigenetic memories - memory faded. Why expend the effort to remember when you know where to find it outside your own nervous system? It's got a Library of Congress number, a Dewey number, you can Google it, etc.
As Foer says, after mass printing really got going, "memory techniques that had once been a staple of classical and medieval culture got wrapped up with the occult and esoteric Hermetic traditions of the Renaissance, and by the nineteenth century they had been relegated to carnival sideshows and tacky self-help books..."
You're thinking, "I love Giordano Bruno and all that, but gimme the new memory drugs!" I hear ya.
But please consider a look at Foer's book. It's wonderfully entertaining, and he shows you how it's done. I found it seductive. And it has a good bibliography.
I have no space/time here to cover the scientifically proven benefits of yoga, meditation, aerobic exercise, or the magickal art of writing for transformation. On to drugs.
Okay: this topic too seems far too extensive, so I'm going to limit it to what I've read about ADHD drugs being used "off-label" by college students, and to the ever-increasingly almost too-good-to-be-true testimonials about Modafinil/Provigil.
Possibly 1 in 10 college students use Adderal or Ritalin as "mental steroids" (see "Cognitive Enhancers Are Not 'Cheating'") in order to perform better on tests and writing assignments. Which is interesting, but the side effects are obvious to anyone who reads up on this stuff, and we wonder why Provigil isn't made more widely available. Read Johann Hari's tale of what Provigil did/does for him. He ends the piece on a probably prudent conservative bend about the drug, but other articles mention people who study this stuff, use it themselves, and don't seem all that afraid of the long-term effects.
Smart Drugs seem to be finally arriving, folks. And one thing that interests me relates to the marijuana legalization story (and cannabis has been shown to have some enhancing effects, too, but I would digress too much if I went on that route): some of these stories emphasize what Leary once called "cognitive liberty" (see The Economist, here: "minimizing harm" and "maximizing the freedom to choose"); this argument has not worked for cannabis. So far the "we may need to go laissez faire in order to help the economy improve" argument hasn't worked in California, where cannabis is the number one cash crop. But this "economy" argument is being used for cognitive enhancers, and of course, I agree. Here's one example. The optimism I find refreshing.
Wikipedia's article on Nootropics (AKA "smart drugs") is HERE.
Erowid has trip reports, other articles, etc, on smart drugs HERE.
The Cognitive Enhancement Research Institute's site is HERE.
For the philosophically inclined, check out the quiet battles going on regarding technologically enhanced cognition, whether via computers and/or drugs, and "extended cognition." Being a bookish dude, I see the "Google is making us stupid"- like arguments. I am for some reason continually astounded by how many people I come into contact with who seem to think because they've got Siri, GPS, a MacBook Pro, and a smart phone...that they're "smart." Especially after reading about memory. What an illusion! Many of the people running around with these gadgets are preposterous dullards, without seemingly any sense of history or ideas, or wit. They are well-dressed, well-equipped apes. With bad manners. And they drive recklessly.
On the other hand: extended cognition isn't some viral theme that will fade by the first day of summer, and many who are decked out with all these fantastic gadgets know how to use them appropriately. I've seen young people who were astonishingly witty, inventive...intelligent....using this stuff. I cannot tar everyone unfairly, just because I'm not enamored of a GPS or Siri/Internet/email in your pocket. (See Kuszewski's article above on "doing things the hard way.")
This is one socio-philosophical debate that isn't going anywhere. "Extended Cognition." It seems a close cousin to Richard Dawkins' "extended phenotype."
There was so much more I wanted to touch on regarding Intelligence Increase in 2012, but I may as well end with something so marvelous - and potentially a harrowing paranoia-inducer because it can be done at a distance, with the subject not knowing! - that you'll have something to debate about over drugs and friends this and other weekends: Are we getting close to instant "Matrix"- style learning?
Here's Joshua Foer, talking about his book on memory. It's a little over 3 minutes.