Overweening Generalist

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.

16 comments:

SatoriGuy said...

Fascinating stuff. I think training one's memory is a huge part of intelligence increase. A couple of my intellectual heroe's such as Terence McKenna and RAW seemed to have to have an amazing ability to recall the obscure and esoteric. No doubt, they must have taught themselves some sort of memory mnemonic system along the way.

Here's McKenna talking about the Memory Palace.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0meQd0iq1nk

michael said...

Good lawd. I'd never heard that bit from Terence, but it was about as apt a clip to add in a comment for this piece as imaginable. Thanks, Satori Guy!

Almost everything except recalling the psychedelic trip by using the memory palace or other devices is written about in Foer's book. Peter of Ravenna (15th century) is generally credited with the idea of making the image-associations as shocking and lewd as you can, the better for the mind to keep hold of them...

It makes sense that Terence was familiar with Yates and all that: from the first time I heard him (on KPFK in LA, late at night, around 1987), I was astonished at how he could go on for 75 minutes, riffing on a topic and never get boring.

I asked RAW about his mnemotechnic (a word I first saw in Ulysses), and he said he didn't use it anymore, but for a long time he placed ideas on the kabbalah Tree of Life.

Reading Foer - a young, brilliant science journalist who was still living at his parent's house when he stumbled upon the group of memory wizards - I realized this book was a stealthy way to make a major aspect of magick seem "cool" to all kinds of people who would probably never think of reading Crowley or RAW or McKenna, or even Eliphas Levi.

Again: thanks for that link to Terence. Perfect-o!

michael said...

Hey here's a thought: If I can somehow score some Provigil, I'll go for the trifecta: meditation for an hour a day, Provigil, and a minimum of an hour of mnemotechnics every day for a year...But then I know what you're thinking: To what end?

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

To what end? To frighten the rest of us who already think you are really smart! To write the best blog posts in the galaxy!

Royal Academy of Reality 1132 said...

"Limbic deficit" seems similar to the Cosmic Schmuck principal. How low can you go?

Royal Academy of Reality 1132 said...

People who "quickly want to get smarter in their own games" remind of musicians who frequently only want to practice what they can do well as opposed to what they struggle with. (I fall into this camp too, alas.)

michael said...

@Cleveland Okie: If I desire frightening anyone, 'tis only in a Halloween-y way. Your kind remarks filtered into auditory system, affected the limbic system, appealed to the frontal cortex (which likes to hear things like this about ITSELF, thinking IT is THE brain/self...the frontal cortex flatters itself...from the frontal, spreading activation via much slower backroads to the limbic, a brief stop for a dash of dopamine (compliments/rewards/kindnesses), and...I find myself writing this.

Maybe never quite feeling smart "enough" is a necessary precondition for Intelligence squared? Which leads us to:

@Royal Academy of Reality 1132: Wonderful connexion! Cosmic Schmucks w/o any radically organic reason for their limbic deficits probably do make markedly bad life-decisions. The neuro-lit is chockfull of ex-epileptics and victims of horrible accidents or viruses (one famous case: herpes simplex ran amok and ate away most of the hippocampus, which is vital for storing short tem memories so they can become long-term; almost everyone reading this has herpes simplex: ever get a cold sore on your lip?

Anyway: we've learned an awful lot from the misfortunes of others and their limbic deficits.

Others who seem to have "no excuse"...it's up to us to get RAW's terrific dormant meme of the Cosmic Schmuck Principle out there, methinks. You put in a decent day, then go home, non illegitimati carborundum...

michael said...

@Prof. Wagner: "practicing at their own game" reminded me of my musicianship too. A fantastic psychologist who specializes in expertise and how to get it, K.Anders Ericsson, has a lot to say on this.

In any area - chess playing/musicianship/basketball...anything we practice at for years to get "better"...we reach a plateau. That's when you can do a host of certain things almost automatically. You're quite proficient in a few areas. But there are those scary players above. How do they do it? Ericsson says: intense, deliberate practice on what you have noted are "hard" stuff. It's more complex than that, but this largely separates the good from the great.

The seductiveness of practicing what you're already good at seems human, all-too human to me. I do it.

Royal Academy of Reality 1132 said...

Today for Ash Wednesday I played a video of the Grateful Dead playing "Throwing Stones" ("Ashes, ashes all fall down.") Watching Jerry play made me want to learn to play guitar better, and your post made me think of the processes which led him to his particular way of playing

Loba said...

hey michael....this is such an interesting and evolving topic but the term is so misused. It has become synonymous with "superior", even though we agree less and less on what constructs intelligence as we learn more about the brain. Everyone has talents and strengths, weaknesses and challenges... so even those who are brilliant in some narrow way can make incredibly stupid decisions. Talented athletes can be terrible communicators and smart politicians can make really dumb personal decisions. Or not.
Howard Gardener said it well. Sternberg, too.
http://www.decodedscience.com/how-does-science-define-intelligence/1759#comments

michael said...

To extensionalize "intelligence" is to easily bring out at minimum 20 semantic senses of the term, and I'm confining it to neurobiology on up to psychology.

Clearly we could devote an entire blog to this one idea in myriad facets, an article a day for a year and by the end have only barely touched on it the concept. I think this is the biggest problem with the term.

One a certain level, we marvel at the evolved processes that we're totally unaware of in our day-to-day doings, and yet when we look at the neuroscience of it all, it's marvelously intelligent. Or at least it seems that way to many of us. On another level, we encounter a novelty that appears witty or creative, someone intended this thing, and we say, "How intelligent!"

Aside from "all that," there are widespread discussions of the intelligence of crowds, gene-pools, and even a seemingly intelligent self-correcting, homeostatic "intelligent" aspect to Gaia herself.

At this point, the only thing I resist is some "expert" telling us all what the one true definition of "intelligence" "really" "is."

Loba said...

I avoid the term in practice, actually, and all the so-called experts in the world don't agree about what it means....

michael said...

@Loba: Timothy Leary, if he had a "god," it was "intelligence." Each person seems to have their own private semantic sense of the term, and some want to flesh it out and tell us how they delineate the idea.

In this I'm very much influenced by John Dewey, who said that truth is something that "happens to an idea." when someone calls someone or something or some action "intelligent," we seem to be learning more about the utterer than "intelligence." Or at least that's my main working model to approach the idea, as of today's date.

Personally, I get a vibe, a "feeling" about intelligence. And that's usually a turn-on, sexy. Intelligence in so many of its facets is sexy to me. A "plain"-looking woman who has something to say, a live, inquisitive mind, a dazzling series of speech acts: VERY sexy to me. Not that anyone asked...

leogang said...

Ah, thank you for reviving my interest in the racetams! Having read more about them now, they seem like a worthwhile endeavor.

michael said...

@leogang: I hope you get the best stuff and really notice a difference. I have heard first-hand of numerous good experiences with piracetam.

Has anyone reading this tried Hydergine?

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