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

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 »

Brain Fitness Survey: We Need More Brain Awareness Weeks!

If you sub­scribe to our month­ly newslet­ter, you may remem­ber we ran a sur­vey in Jan­u­ary. Well, the response rate and the qual­i­ty of the respons­es were noth­ing short of spec­tac­u­lar, in many dimen­sions. The respons­es from over 2,000 par­tic­i­pants (out of 21,000 sub­scribers) rein­force the need for pub­lic aware­ness ini­tia­tives and qual­i­ty infor­ma­tion to help eval­u­ate and nav­i­gate prod­uct claims.

I have been pre­sent­ing the results from one of the ques­tions (see below), yes­ter­day at the ASA/ NCOA (Amer­i­can Soci­ety on Aging) event, today at IHRSA (Inter­na­tion­al Health, Rac­quet and Sports­club Asso­ci­a­tion), as part of more com­pre­hen­sive pre­sen­ta­tions of what is going on in the brain fit­ness and cog­ni­tive health field.

An obvi­ous impli­ca­tion for the sur­vey result rein­forces the need for brain-relat­ed pub­lic aware­ness cam­paigns such as the ongo­ing Brain Aware­ness Week. Every year, land­mark research find­ings open new oppor­tu­ni­ties to help main­tain life­long cog­ni­tive health and brain fit­ness. The oppor­tu­ni­ty is immense — but we will need to ensure the mar­ket­place matures in a ratio­nal and sus­tain­able man­ner, help­ing con­sumers and pro­fes­sion­als sep­a­rate hope from hype and make informed deci­sions.

Robin Klaus, Chair­man of Club One Fit­ness Cen­ters (the com­pa­ny is a client, he is an advi­sor), just gave us a nice quote say­ing that “as our pop­u­la­tion ages the fields of phys­i­cal fit­ness and brain fit­ness will nat­u­ral­ly merge and, as this hap­pens, a whole new field of val­ued added ser­vices will emerge for our mem­bers. High qual­i­ty infor­ma­tion­al resources such as Sharp­Brains’ are cru­cial to the suc­cess of this merg­er.”

The Sur­vey: Results to Key Ques­tion

Asked, “What is the most impor­tant prob­lem you see in the brain fit­ness field and how do you think it can be solved?” respon­dents iden­ti­fied the fol­low­ing six prob­lems in rank order:

#1: Pub­lic Aware­ness (39%)
— “Get­ting peo­ple to under­stand that hered­i­ty alone does not decide brain func­tion­ing.”
— “An expec­tant pub­lic will first want to believe that a “mir­a­cle” drug is to be soon avail­able (to pre­vent Alzheimer’s Dis­ease).”

#2: Nav­i­gat­ing Claims (21%)
- “How to sep­a­rate mar­ket­ing hype from stuff that real­ly works?”
— “The lack of stan­dards and clear def­i­n­i­tions is very con­fus­ing, and makes a lot of peo­ple scep­ti­cal.”

#3: Research (15%)
— “Deter­min­ing what activ­i­ties are most ben­e­fi­cial to Read the rest of this entry »

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