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The Genius Within

Book Notes

I spotted this book in a Waterstone in Amsterdam, but couldn't find it locally. Public libraries FTW!

I was expecting in this book a list of here are things you can do to increase your intelligence. In an ideal world, it would include variations based on gender, age, and weight - something like "do this, this, and that and you'll be smarter." Of course, one's expectations should be kept to a minimum, as life has a way of being, regardless of expectations.

The first part of the book is about defining intelligence (which isn't that easy to do, and we haven't done it well), and the history of defining intelligence, in all its ugly forms of repression and genocide that resulted. We humans really do like to create an us versus them about everything.

After defining intelligence, there were the ethics of what to do with intelligence, is it morally okay to increase one's intelligence? Atheletes are banned from performance enhancing drugs, is the mental realm any different when attempting to get an advantage?

The book did have three suggestions for increasing intelligence: modafanil, electric brain stimulation, and transcranial magnetic stimulation (which is a different way of getting the same as the electrical stimulation, just with a different electricity-producing mechanism, what with moving magnetic fields creating electric currents and all).

Experiments with increasing intelligence suffer the same fate as pretty much all cutting edge science: the bad results are ignored, the good results are emphasized, no one knows if things really work, there are no control studies, people are all different enough that we'll always have warnings, and it's all the wild west with the experimenting.

The book had a lot of anecdotes, most of which were amusing and interesting. The book was a fun, easy read, if not exactly satisfying in its lack of do this, this, and that to be smarter.

Teachers in these new schools were stunned. Large numbers of their pupils appeared unable or unwilling to learn. These teachers were some of the first to wrestle with a social problem that has split the field of education ever since: how to teach a class of children of mixed ability, while not ignoring the different needs of the children at the top and bottom.
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When school is mandatory, you will have people who don't want to learn in the school, making the classes difficult for those who do want to learn.

High IQ is linked to creativity, musical ability, securing patents and winning artistic prizes. The higher a person’s IQ, the less likely they are to hold racist and sexist beliefs. They are less likely to be religious and more likely to be interested in politics. They are less tolerant of authoritarian attitudes.
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This could explain the United States really well right now.

It does explain one sibling at least.

It is better to believe intelligence can be increased. Those children who believe the opposite, that intelligence is fixed (called the entity theory), are more anxious about how much intelligence they have, and it not being enough for them to succeed. These children refuse opportunities to learn if they carry a risk of doing poorly. They conceal or lie about their weaknesses, rather than identify and improve them. And they indulge in what psychologists call self-handicapping –procrastination and watching television the night before a test instead of studying. This gives them a ready-made excuse if they score badly.
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No idea who this could be describing.

Nope. None.

While that might demonstrate that repeated use and practice of a set of mental skills can grow a specific brain region, the conclusion doesn’t really work the other way around: finding an enlarged hippocampus in a plumber from Aberdeen wouldn’t guarantee she could tell you the quickest route to drive from London Bridge to King’s Cross Station.
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No, but it does demonstrate that repeated use and practice of a set of mental skills can grow a specific brain region. You might not know what those skills are, but you know they have been developed.

The most reliable group of people to sire intelligent children are, simply, intelligent adults (of all colours and nationalities), just as taller parents (of all colours and nationalities) tend to have taller kids. When it comes to intelligence, nature can be cruel and unsentimental, but it does not pick sides.
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The irony is that the smarter a society is, the fewer kids they will have.

Implicit skills are harder to teach, because attention has to be deliberately drawn away from performance. Tennis players, for example, can be taught implicitly to read the direction of an opponent’s serve by being asked to judge the speed and not the direction of the ball. In doing so, they learn to identify and act upon the visual cues that indicate direction, without knowing or being able to explain how they do so.
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I find this interesting, that artificially turning off the thinking brain can improve developing sports performance.

That’s a common feature of many forms of synaesthesia; people with the condition are often astonished to discover (and some discover it late in life) not everybody experiences the world the way they do.
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Britain was a kinder place then, many said, and less willing to ridicule people who were proud of their talents and abilities.
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When people say things like, ‘nearly half of Americans have an IQ of under 100’ as a criticism, they reveal more about their own intelligence than anyone else’s.
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This cracked me up.

We have a curious relationship with intelligence these days. Rather than looking down on people with lower IQs, as was common when the feeble-minded were ridiculed, much public scorn is reserved today for those towards the upper end of the scale. Perhaps this is down to envy and jealousy, as the benefits of mental ability become more pronounced, or maybe it’s a reflection of a society that has fallen out of love with expertise.
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With the Internet and answers immediately available, people have lost the ability to understand expertise, to understand the passion, to understand the effort involved with becoming an expert. They think oh, I can just look up the answer, instead of understanding the why of things.

Some surveys suggest as many as one in five girls and one in ten boys at secondary schools hide their ability at maths, chiefly to avoid being picked on and bullied.
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The tone of the coverage of such cases is almost gloating, as if these young prodigies somehow made claims with their early high achievement that they could not justify; as if their unusual intelligence was a deliberate ploy to annoy the rest of us. Of all the sins of youth, cognitive precociousness seems one of the hardest to forgive.
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People do love a fallen hero.

Common sense is typically described as a kind of practical intelligence.† It’s usually measured as a judgement on someone’s decision making, but the verdict on whether someone shows common sense or not seems to come down to whether or not the person doing the judging agrees with the particular decision made.
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They simply can’t resist the temptation to continue to deploy their abstract problem-solving skills in even familiar situations, for which the best options have already been approved by the rest of the community. They are driven to find novel solutions, at the expense of the tried and trusted common sense. And many of these ideas are wrong, or worse, ridiculous.
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This is the idea that intelligent people don't have common sense. That intelligent people want to improve things even when the rest of the community is okay with sufficient, is a good thing, not something to be scorned. But, hey, stupid people, they mock what they don't have.

‘Common sense,’ Einstein said, ‘is the collection of prejudices acquired by age eighteen.’
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To think rationally is to act according to one’s goals and beliefs. But it is also to form and hold beliefs supported by available evidence.
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Which is why any Republican who supports Cheetoh these days is clearly not thinking rationally.

One of the most important is the myside or confirmation bias –the way people gather and assess evidence tends to be in line with their existing opinions.
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Most of us get a single shot at most opportunities to prove ourselves, and we have to live with the results.
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Unearned privilege can be uncomfortable to associate with human value, for it carries too many reminders of the straitjacket of social stratification and the entitlement of the aristocracy. We prefer people to work for what they have, and expect rewards and status for those who do so.
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Cognitive enhancement offers a new twist on this century-old argument. If intelligence, in whatever form, is something people have to work for, if cognitive ability can be trained and improved and released with effort, then it’s pretty simple to make the case that neuroenhancement undermines this effort and is cheating. If one person has access to a short-cut others do not, then the playing field is tilted in their favour. Yet if intelligence is an immutable quality spread across the population, with some landing more in the heads of a fortunate minority, then the playing field is already biased against the rest. Why shouldn’t those who lose out in the lottery of life have the chance to turn to technology to close the gap? Only when all have the identical chance and the baseline is levelled, can the performance of any human ability be truly said to reflect value, or more accurately, can the difference in performance be said to reflect higher or lower value.
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