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Can You Outsmart Your Genes? An Interview with Author Richard Nisbett

(Editor’s Note: inter­view­ing Richard Nis­bett, author of the excel­lent Intelligence and How to Get Itrecent book Intel­li­gence and How to Get It: Why Schools and Cul­tures Count, was in our To Do list. We then found that fel­low blog­ger David DiS­alvo was faster than we were and did a great job, so here we bring you David’s inter­view and take.)

While the debate over intel­li­gence rages on many fronts, the bat­tle over the impor­tance of hered­ity rages loud­est. It’s easy to see why. If the camp that argues intel­li­gence is 75 to 85 per­cent genet­i­cally deter­mined is cor­rect, then we’re faced with some tough ques­tions about the role of edu­ca­tion. If intel­li­gence is improved very lit­tle by schools, and if the IQ of the major­ity of the pop­u­la­tion will remain rel­a­tively unchanged no mat­ter how well schools per­form, then should school reform really be a priority?

More to the point, if our genes largely deter­mine our IQ, which in turn under­lies our per­for­mance through­out our lives, then what is the role of school? For some in this debate the answer to that ques­tion is sim­ply, “to be the best you can be.” But that seems lit­tle com­fort for those who aspire to “be” more than what their IQ cat­e­gory pre­dicts they will.

Those on the other side of this debate ques­tion whether hered­ity plays as big a role as the strong hered­i­tar­i­ans claim. And for the role it does play, they ques­tion whether hered­itabil­ity implies immutabil­ity. Hered­ity of height, for exam­ple, is about 90 per­cent, and yet aver­age height in sev­eral pop­u­la­tions around the world has been steadily increas­ing due to non-genetic influ­ences, like nutri­tion. If such a strong hered­i­tary trait can be rad­i­cally altered by envi­ron­men­tal factors–and height is but one exam­ple of this–then why is intel­li­gence different?

It is not, argues the camp that might best be described as intel­li­gence opti­mists. For them, the pes­simism that col­ors the strong hered­i­tar­ian posi­tion isn’t only dis­cour­ag­ing, it’s dan­ger­ous. Too much is hang­ing in the bal­ance for pes­simism about the poten­tial of our chil­dren to prevail.

Richard NisbettRichard Nis­bett is a cham­pion of the intel­li­gence opti­mist camp, and with his lat­est book, Intel­li­gence and How to Get It: Why Schools and Cul­tures Count , he has emerged as the most per­sua­sive voice mar­shalling evi­dence to dis­prove the heredity-is-destiny argu­ment. Intel­lec­tual advance­ment, Nis­bett argues, is not the result of hard­wired genetic codes, but the province of con­trol­lable fac­tors like schools and social environments–and as such, improv­ing these fac­tors is cru­cially impor­tant. Read the rest of this entry »

Change Your Environment, Change Yourself

(Editor’s note: one of the most com­mon ene­mies of get­ting qual­ity cog­ni­tive exer­cise is being on The Daily Trading Coach, by Brett Steenbarger“men­tal autopi­lot”. I recently came across an excel­lent new book, titled The Daily Trad­ing Coach: 101 Lessons for Becom­ing Your Own Trad­ing Psy­chol­o­gist, by trad­ing per­for­mance expert Dr. Brett Steen­barger, which explic­itly calls for address­ing the “men­tal autopi­lot” prob­lem in his Les­son 4. Even for those of us who are not traders, Dr. Steen­barger advice pro­vides excel­lent guid­ance for peak cog­ni­tive per­for­mance. Dr. Steen­barger gra­ciously gave us per­mis­sion to share with you, below, Les­son 4: Change Your Envi­ron­ment, Change Your­self. Enjoy!).

Human beings adapt to their envi­ron­ments. We draw on a range of skills and per­son­al­ity traits to fit into var­i­ous set­tings. That is why we can behave one way in a social set­ting and then seem like a totally dif­fer­ent human being at work. One of the endur­ing attrac­tions of travel is that it takes us out of our native envi­ron­ments and forces us to adapt to new peo­ple, new cul­tures, and new ways. When we make those adap­ta­tions, we dis­cover new facets of our­selves. As we’ll see shortly, dis­crep­ancy is the mother of all change: when we are in the same envi­ron­ments, we tend to draw upon the same, rou­tine modes of thought and behavior.

A few months ago I had an attack of acute appen­dici­tis while stay­ing in a LaGuardia air­port hotel await­ing a return flight to Chicago. When I went to the near­est emer­gency room at Elmhurst Hos­pi­tal out­side Jack­son Heights, Queens, I found that I was seem­ingly the only native Eng­lish speaker in a sea of peo­ple await­ing med­ical care. After some dif­fi­culty attract­ing atten­tion, I was admit­ted to the hos­pi­tal and spent the next sev­eral days of recu­per­a­tion nav­i­gat­ing my way through patients and staff of every con­ceiv­able nation­al­ity. By the end of the expe­ri­ence, I felt at home there. I’ve since stayed at the same air­port hotel and rou­tinely make vis­its into the sur­round­ing neighborhoods—areas I would have never in my wildest dreams ven­tured into pre­vi­ously. In adapt­ing to that envi­ron­ment, I dis­cov­ered hid­den strengths. I also over­came more than a few hid­den prej­u­dices and fears.

The great­est enemy of change is rou­tine. When we lapse into rou­tine and oper­ate on autopi­lot, we are no longer fully and actively con­scious of what we’re doing and why. That is why some of the most fer­tile sit­u­a­tions for per­sonal growth—those that occur within new environments—are those that force us to exit our rou­tines and actively mas­ter unfa­mil­iar challenges.

In famil­iar envi­ron­ments and rou­tines, we oper­ate on autopi­lot. Noth­ing changes.

When you act as your own trad­ing coach, your chal­lenge is to stay fully con­scious, alert to risk and oppor­tu­nity. One of your great­est threats will be the autopi­lot mode in which you act with­out think­ing, with­out full aware­ness of your sit­u­a­tion. If you shift your trad­ing envi­ron­ment, you push your­self to adapt to new sit­u­a­tions: you break rou­tines. If your envi­ron­ment is always the same, you will find your­self grav­i­tat­ing to the same Read the rest of this entry »

Epigenetics: Nature vs. Nurture?

In yesterday’s inter­view with Michael Pos­ner, he says:

- “There is a grow­ing num­ber of stud­ies that show the impor­tance of inter­ac­tion between our genes and each of our envi­ron­ments. Epi­ge­net­ics is going to help us under­stand that ques­tion bet­ter, but let me share a very inter­est­ing piece of research from my lab where we found an unusual inter­ac­tion between genet­ics and parenting.”

- “Good par­ent­ing, as mea­sured by dif­fer­ent research-based scales, has been shown to build good effort­ful con­trol which, as we saw ear­lier, is so impor­tant. Now, what we found is that some spe­cific genes reduced, even elim­i­nated, the influ­ence of the qual­ity of par­ent­ing. In other words, some children’s devel­op­ment really depends on how their par­ents bring them up, whereas oth­ers do not — or do to a much smaller extent.”

Now check out this fas­ci­nat­ing arti­cle in the Econ­o­mist:Domes­ti­ca­tion and intel­li­gence in dogs and wolves | Not so dumb animals

- “Monique Udell of the Uni­ver­sity of Florida … won­dered whether learn­ing rather than evo­lu­tion explained his obser­va­tions. Her team there­fore worked with a mix­ture of pet dogs, dogs from ani­mal shel­ters that had had min­i­mal inter­ac­tion with peo­ple, and wolves raised by humans.”

- “As they report in Ani­mal Behav­iour, the wolves out­per­formed both shel­ter dogs and pets. Indeed, Read the rest of this entry »

Cognitive, Brain News RoundUp

Brain Health NewsInter­est­ing recent news:

For more on these news, and com­men­tary: Read the rest of this entry »

Peace Among Primates– by Robert Sapolsky

(Editor’s Note: One of the most orig­i­nal minds we have ever encoun­tered is that of Robert Sapol­sky, the Stanford-based neu­ro­sci­en­tist, pri­ma­tol­o­gist, author of A Primate’s Mem­oir, and more. We highly rec­om­mend most of his books. Above all, for any­one inter­ested in brain health, this is a must read and very fun: Why Zebras Don't Have Ulcers- Robert SapolskyWhy Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers: An Updated Guide To Stress, Stress Related Dis­eases, and Cop­ing. We are hon­ored to bring you a guest arti­cle series by Robert Sapol­sky, thanks to our col­lab­o­ra­tion with Greater Good Mag­a­zine.)


Peace Among Pri­mates

Any­one who says peace is not part of human nature knows too lit­tle about pri­mates, includ­ing ourselves.

–By Robert M. Sapolsky

It used to be thought that humans were the only sav­agely vio­lent pri­mate.  “We are the only species that kills its own, nar­ra­tors intoned por­ten­tously in nature films sev­eral decades ago. That view fell by the way­side in the 1960s as it became clear that some other pri­mates kill their fel­lows aplenty. Males kill; females kill. Some use their tool­mak­ing skills to fash­ion big­ger and bet­ter cud­gels. Other pri­mates even engage in what can only be called war­fare, orga­nized, proac­tive group vio­lence directed at other populations.

Yet as field stud­ies of pri­mates expanded, what became most strik­ing was the vari­a­tion in social prac­tices across species. Yes, some pri­mate species have lives filled with vio­lence, fre­quent and var­ied. But life among oth­ers is filled with com­mu­ni­tar­i­an­ism, egal­i­tar­i­an­ism, and coop­er­a­tive child rear­ing. Read the rest of this entry »

Is Intelligence Innate and Fixed?

iq test, intelligenceGiven the recent James Wat­son “race and IQ” con­tro­versy, I took on to read Stephan Jay Gould’s clas­sic book The Mis­mea­sure of Man, in which he debunks IQ (and the under­ly­ing “g”) as mea­sure of defined, innate, “intel­li­gence”. Fas­ci­nat­ing read­ing overall, very tech­ni­cal in some areas.

The key take-away? In the last chap­ter, A Pos­i­tive Con­clu­sion, he writes that

- “Flex­i­bil­ity is the hall­mark of human evolution…In other mam­mals, explo­ration, play and flex­i­bil­ity of behav­ior are qual­i­ties of juve­niles, only rarely of adults. We retain not only the anatom­i­cal stamp stamp of child­hood, but its men­tal flex­i­bil­ity as well…Humans are learn­ing animals”

He then relates this story from T.H. White’s novel The Once and Future King

- God, he recounts, cre­ated all ani­mals as embryos and called each before his throne, offer­ing them what­ever addi­tions to their anatomy they desired. All opted for spe­cial­ized adult features-the lion for claws and sharp teeth, the deer for antlers and hoofs. The human embryo stepped forth last and said: Please God, I think that you made me in the shape which I now have for rea­sons best known to Your­selves and that it would be rude to change. If I am to have my choice, I will stay as I am. I will not alter any of the parts which you gave me…I will stay a defence­less embryo all my life, doing my best to make myself a few fee­ble imple­ments out of the wood, iron, and the other mate­ri­als which You have seen fit to put before me..” “Well done”, exclaimed the Cre­ator in delighted tone. “Here all you embryos, come here with Read the rest of this entry »


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