Book review of Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined

Ungifted_KaufmanJust a cou­ple weeks ago I had a dis­cus­sion with sev­er­al psy­chol­o­gists and neu­rol­o­gists who seemed to share the opin­ion that “brain fit­ness” is a mean­ing­less con­cept and pur­suit. On the one hand, they thought, intel­li­gence is a fixed trait and no inter­ven­tion has shown so far to reli­ably increase it. On the oth­er hand, noth­ing has been shown to pre­vent the pathol­o­gy of Alzheimer’s Dis­ease. Accord­ing to this mindset…why bother?

Well, what if such men­tal frame­work was wrong or, worse, misleading?

Our own efforts at Sharp­Brains are geared towards bring­ing a new per­spec­tive based on neu­ropsy­chol­o­gy, cog­ni­tive and affec­tive neu­ro­science, and actu­al cur­rent evi­dence. What seems to mat­ter in our jobs and lives is not so much a gen­er­al trait called “intel­li­gence,” or the pres­ence or absence of AD pathol­o­gy, as the range of brain func­tions that serve as impor­tant “men­tal mus­cles” need­ed to be “fit” for mod­ern life: atten­tion, work­ing mem­o­ry, infor­ma­tion pro­cess­ing, emo­tion­al self-regulation…

No doubt, it is going to take a while for this new cul­ture to take hold.

The good news: here comes a new book that does an excel­lent job at debunk­ing old the­o­ries and prac­tices around intel­li­gence and development.

Ungift­ed: Intel­li­gence Rede­fined (424 pages; June 2013), writ­ten by cog­ni­tive psy­chol­o­gist Scott Bar­ry Kauf­man, pro­vides a com­pre­hen­sive, detailed and often sur­pris­ing view into how the con­cept of IQ was devel­oped in the 19th cen­tu­ry, and how it spread afterwards…well beyond the inten­tions of the orig­i­nal cre­ators. The book chal­lenges many com­mon assump­tions and prac­tices in the fields of intel­li­gence, learn­ing dis­abil­i­ties and gift­ed­ness, reviews the emerg­ing lit­er­a­ture on delib­er­ate prac­tice, self-reg­u­la­tion, and cre­ativ­i­ty, and con­cludes with a new and more intelligent–in my mind–definition of Intelligence.

What I found most inter­est­ing about the book is how it is well anchored around the first-hand life­long expe­ri­ences of the author. This is not a the­o­ret­i­cal, enter­tain­ing conversation…it is one full of prac­ti­cal, and often unin­tend­ed, con­se­quences. Let’s hear this child­hood mem­o­ry by Prof. Kauf­man: “I’ve been tak­en out of the nor­mal class­room and placed in spe­cial education…I feel bored. I feel like I am capa­ble of more, but because oth­ers don’t believe in me, it’s hard to believe in myself…my fate sealed by a sin­gle test.”

With that as start­ing point, let’s hear some of the authors reflec­tions and con­clu­sions along the thought-pro­vok­ing book journey:

  • Michael Jor­dan did­n’t pop out dunk­ing a bas­ket­ball from the free-flow line. Full-blown abil­i­ties and traits aren’t prepack­aged at birth. That’s because our genes don’t code for traits; they code for the pro­duc­tion of proteins…This is why it’s cru­cial to inter­vene as ear­ly as pos­si­ble and set the tra­jec­to­ry of the child’s genes for the better.”
  • Dweck and col­leagues iden­ti­fied two dif­fer­ent mind­sets that stu­dents car­ry around with them: a fixed mind­set in which intel­li­gence is thought of as set in stone at birth, and a growth mind­set that views intel­li­gence as dynam­ic and capa­ble of improve­ment. She set out to inves­ti­gate how these dif­fer­ent mind­sets affect performance.”
  • Binet (one of the pio­neers of intel­li­gence test­ing) cau­tioned against the “bru­tal pes­simism” of view­ing intel­li­gence as a uni­fied and fixed trait. He cau­tioned that “With prac­tice, train­ing, an above all method, we man­age to increase our atten­tion, our mem­o­ry, our judg­ment and lit­er­al­ly to become more intel­li­gent than we were before.”
  • Indi­vid­u­als with low work­ing mem­o­ry, who have dif­fi­cul­ty keep­ing a few things in mind and inte­grat­ing, com­par­ing, or sequenc­ing them, are more like­ly to show mean­ing­ful improve­ment in train­ing, because for them work­ing mem­o­ry serves as a bottleneck.”
  • Even though the prodi­gies showed quite a bit of scat­ter in their abil­i­ties, there were some strik­ing com­mon­al­i­ties. Every sin­gle prodi­gy scored off the charts in work­ing memory…This may explain their abil­i­ty to main­tain prac­tice for extend­ed peri­ods of time with­out distraction.”
  • This pat­tern of brain acti­va­tion is con­sis­tent with a grow­ing num­ber of stud­ies sug­gest­ing that peo­ple who per­form well on tests of cre­ativ­i­ty have flex­i­ble atten­tion­al con­trol: they can flex­i­bly switch between con­ver­gent and diver­gent modes of thought depend­ing on the stage of the cre­ative process.”
  • Though teach­ers may find it frus­trat­ing to teach stu­dents who can’t sit in their seats…they should rec­og­nize that such “inat­ten­tive” chil­dren may just require a lit­tle exec­u­tive func­tion­ing train­ing to get on the path to cre­ative greatness!”
  • …the Fly­nn Effect serves as a reminder that when we give peo­ple more oppor­tu­ni­ties to pros­per, more peo­ple do prosper.”
  • An empha­sis on “mul­ti­ple intel­li­gences” and “learn­ing styles” can get in the way of us appre­ci­at­ing the stu­dent char­ac­ter­is­tics that tru­ly affect learning.””


Now, where does all this lead us to?

Peo­ple with all kinds of minds are capa­ble of accom­plish­ing extra­or­di­nary things in their own way and in their own time…It’s time to pull back all the labels, expec­tac­tions, and pre­con­cep­tions that have been in place over the past 100 years and final­ly rede­fine intelligence…One major theme is adap­ta­tion to the environment.

It is my belief that it’s time for a new def­i­n­i­tion of human intel­li­gence that takes all of these aspects of the human mind into account. One that empha­sizes the val­ue of an individual’s per­son­al journey…That arms stu­dents with the mind­sets and strate­gies they need to real­ize their per­son­al goals, with­out lim­it­ing or pre-judg­ing their chances of suc­cess at any stage in the process…From prod­uct to process. (more in this great book except)

Intel­li­gence is the dynam­ic inter­play of engage­ment and abil­i­ties in pur­suit of per­son­al goals.

All in all, this is a deep and impor­tant read, which large­ly deliv­ers on the ambi­tious promise set forth in the sub­ti­tle: “The Truth About Tal­ent, Prac­tice, Cre­ativ­i­ty, and the Many Paths to Greatness.”

About SharpBrains

SHARPBRAINS is an independent think-tank and consulting firm providing services at the frontier of applied neuroscience, health, leadership and innovation.
SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

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