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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 »

Improving the world, and one’s brain, at the same time

My wife and I just came back from an inspiring Goldman Prize Award ceremony, where seven grassroots environmental changemakers were recognized for their work and resiliency, and shared their passion and purpose with everyone attending the event. We did hear too from Al Gore, Tracy Chapman, Robert Redford, and the founder of the awards 20 years ago, Richard Goldman.

The BBC recently published an Op-Ed by Mr. Goldman on the story behind the Awards themselves: article Here. He explains how…

  • – “One morning in 1989, as I sat with my daily breakfast and newspaper, I read about the most recent Nobel laureates and wondered if there was a comparable award for environmental work.”
  • – “We asked a staff member at our foundation to do some research and he found that nothing yet existed to recognise environmental work on an international stage, thus the Goldman Prize was born.”
  • – “Our choice to focus specifically on grassroots environmental leaders was unique at the time.”

Mr. Goldman, and the seven winners, are clearly helping improve the state of the world.

Now, the “state of the world” does include their very own brains – you may have seen this recent paper on how Volunteer Program Provides Health Benefits To Older Women

  • – “She and her colleagues found that EC volunteers showed greater improvements in memory and executive function than those who did not participate in the program. In fact, the older adults with the lowest baseline performance in these areas – those most at risk for health disparities – demonstrated the most significant gains.”
  • – “Both studies highlighted above show that everyday activity interventions (e.g., EC) can appeal to older adults’ desires to remain socially engaged and productive in their post-retirement years. Simultaneously, these activities provide measurable physical and cognitive health benefits.”

Of course, those benefits do not accrue only for older adults (or just for women), but may help all of us gradually build Cognitive Reserves through the added novelty, variety and challenge.

Talk about win/ win!

Related articles on social entrepreneurship:

“Everyone a Changemaker”, Ashoka and Google

Richard Dawkins and Alfred Nobel: beyond nature and nurture

Learning about Learning: an Interview with Joshua Waitzkin

In 1993, Paramount Pictures released Searching for Bobby Fischer, which depicts Joshua Waitzkin’s early chess success as he embarks on a journey to win his first National chessJoshua Waitzkin championship. This movie had the effect of weakening his love for the game as well as the learning process. His passion for learning was rejuvenated, however, after years of meditation, and reading philosophy and psychology. With this rekindling of the learning process, Waitzkin took up the martial art Tai Chi Chuan at the age of 21 and made rapid progress, winning the 2004 push hands world championship at the age of 27.

After reading Joshua’s most recent book The Art of Learning, I thought of a million topics The Art of LearningI wanted to discuss with him–topics such as being labelled a “child prodigy”, blooming, creativity, and the learning process. Thankfully, since I was profiling Waitzkin for an article I was fortunate enough to get a chance to have such a conversation with him. I hope you find this discussion just as provocative and illuminating as I did.

The Child Prodigy

S. Why did you leave chess at the top of your game?

J. This is a complicated question that I wrote about very openly in my book. In short, I had lost the love. My relationship to the game had become externalized-by pressures from the film about my life, by losing touch with my natural voice as an artist, by mistakes I made in the growth process. At the very core of my relationship to learning is the idea that we should be as organic as possible. We need to cultivate a deeply refined introspective sense, and build our relationship to learning around our nuance of character. I stopped doing this and fell into crisis from a sense of alienation from an art I had loved so deeply. This is when I left chess behind, started meditating, studying philosophy and psychology, and ultimately moved towards Tai Chi Chuan.

S. Do you think being a child prodigy hurt your chess career in any way?

J. I have never considered myself a prodigy. Others have used that term, but I never bought in to it. From a young age it was always about embracing the battle, loving the game, and overcoming adversity. Growing up as 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 »

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 »

The Gene Delusion: IQ and the environment

An anonymous reader of Andrew Sullivan’s blog writes a superb comment, reproduced here:

“One thing Watson and others forget is that the brain is highly malleable based on environment. Although he is the father of DNA he knows very little about neuroplasticity and neurogenesis. Previously it was thought that the human brain was ‘hardwired’ after a certain age. This is not true. Not only is not true, but the human mind is capable of adaptation but actual neuron growth even late in life. Ten years ago this was thought impossible.

Neurogenesis and neuroplasticity proves that a nurturing social and family setting shifts IQ, perspective, and emotional IQ. The so-called bell curve isn’t genetic. Oppressed Tibetans and Chinese ethnic minorities -whose test scores soar in the United States and Canada- are 20-30 points lower in their homeland. That 20-30 points deficit is in the same range of a lot of groups that are attacked or threatened (Muslims in France, Christians in Nigeria, Blacks in America). Conversely when oppressed groups are removed from their environment their IQ, emotional health returns to a normal rate, thus proving that is NOT genetic.

It is plastic, shifting and based upon the environment.

That is why people Read the rest of this entry »

Brain Health Newsletter, February Edition, and Brain Awareness Week

We hope you are enjoying the growing coverage of Brain Fitness as much as we are. Below you have the Brain Fitness Newsletter we sent a few days ago-you can subscribe to this monthly email update in the box on the right hand side.

In this post, we will briefly cover:

I. Press: see what CBS and Time Magazine are talking about. SharpBrains was introduced in the Birmingham News, Chicago Tribune and in a quick note carried by the American Psychological Association news service.

II. Events: we are outreach partners for the Learning & the Brain conference, which will gather neuroscientists and educators, and for the Dana Foundation’s Brain Awareness Week.

III. Program Reviews: The Wall Street Journal reviewed six different programs for brain exercise and aging, and the one we offer is one of the two winners. A college-level counseling center starts offering our stress management one. And we interview a Notre Dame scientist who has conducted a replication study for the working memory training program for kids with ADD/ ADHD.

IV. New Offerings: we have started to offer two information packages that can be very useful for people who want to better understand this field before they commit to any particular program: learn more about our Brain Fitness 101 guide and Exercise Your Brain DVD.

V. Website and Blog Summary: we revamped our home page and have had a very busy month writing many good articles. We also hosted two “Blog Carnivals”- don’t you want to know what that means?
Read the rest of this entry »

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