“A riveting look at the birth of a new science.” —Daniel H. Pink, author of Drive
When he was eight years old, Dan Hurley was labeled a “slow learner” because he still couldn’t read. Three years later, he had become a straight A student.
Until the publication of a major study in 2008, psychologists believed that intelligence is fixed at birth, that IQ is like a number tattooed on the soul. The new study showed that people can increase their “fluid” intelligence through training.
Hurley, who grew up to become an award-winning science journalist, first explored the topic in The New York Times Magazine. In Smarter, he digs deeper by meeting with the field’s leading researchers—and becoming a human guinea pig. After just three months of playing computer brain-training games, joining a boot-camp exercise program, learning to play the Renaissance lute, practicing mindfulness meditation and and even getting his brain zapped in the name of science, Hurley improved his fluid intelligence by sixteen percent.
With humor and heart, Smarter chronicles the roiling field of intelligence research and delivers practical findings to sharpen the minds of children, young adults, seniors, and those with cognitive challenges.
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Dan Hurley is a science writer and journalist. He lives in Montclair, New Jersey.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof.***
Copyright © 2013 by Dan Hurley INTRODUCTION
Danny and Julie Vizcaino, brother and sister, were born and raised in a poor neighborhood of Modesto, California, she in 1981, he in 1983. Their parents, immigrants from Mexico without high school diplomas, were typical of the local population: their mother worked in a canning factory, and their father worked in construction until he died in an accident when the kids were young. With an older brother who had dropped out of high school and gotten into trouble with the law, Julie was left back in second grade and took it for granted that she was, in a word, stupid.
“I was never really good at reading and writing,” she told me. “Or at anything.”
Then, in 1991, Julie entered fourth grade and found herself in the class of a new teacher, Kevin Cripe, who had the outlandish idea that his students were capable of great things.
“When I talked to older teachers,” Cripe told me, “they said that Julie was just not very smart. One of her older brothers was in and out of jail. She had been left back. Her younger brother, Danny, had also been left back. And she was not a great reader.”
But Cripe had been a lifelong chess player, and when he decided to start a chess club, he invited Julie to participate.
“I had no idea what it was,” she said. “I called it ‘chest.’ I had never heard of it, but I said sure.”
Cripe kept their training fun, but challenging, and Julie picked it up with a speed that surprised even Cripe. She began spending hours leaning over a chessboard, lost in thought, thinking not just two or three moves ahead, but ten or more. After two years of practice, when Julie was in sixth grade, Cripe decided that she and two other kids were good enough to enter a local tournament in Bakersfield.
“Here’s what I felt as we were going to that first tournament,” Cripe said. “There was this other kid named Jordy. A great kid. Both his parents were psychologists. Jordy was a prodigy. He had gone to private elementary schools and played the piano in concerts. His parents had done all the right things. I thought, here’s Jordy, he has all this stuff, he speaks French, and here’s Julie. Cognitively, I have to think that her brain has never been fully activated or whatever you want to call it. Sort of like a kid who’s never really run, never been pushed to do something athletic. I thought, what would happen if we just treat her brain as if it’s going to be like his at some point? So I just decided to treat all the kids in the chess club like they’re going to be as smart as all the other kids in these tournaments, the ones from the elite private schools. If I didn’t believe that, then it’s all hopelessness, right? You might as well burn up all the books.”
After the students did well at the Bakersfield tournament and at a number of others in California, Cripe decided he would take Julie and the rest of his team to a national chess championship held in Charlotte, North Carolina.
“Don’t do this,” a fellow teacher begged him. “You will only embarrass these children.”
But Cripe took them, and out of eighty teams, his scored in the top fifteen. Among the hundreds of students participating, Julie ended up among the tournament’s top ten.
“I didn’t start winning till I was thirteen or fourteen,” she said. “When I was fourteen, I won a lot of money playing in the tournaments. That’s how I bought my first car.” Eventually, in her age group, Julie was ranked among the top fifty female players in the United States.
Then her younger brother, Danny, joined the team and soon became its best player. At a national championship held in Tucson, Danny reached the last round, his team clinging to the hope of scoring in the top ten, when the stress got to him.
“He throws up before the last round because he’s nervous,” Cripe said. “He was the leader. I said, ‘Okay, Danny, if you are truly sick, I’ll call your mom; we’ll withdraw you from the tournament. But if you’re nervous, here’s what I want you to think about. You have earned this. Everybody else is as nervous as you are. And I want you to enjoy this moment, because there are seven hundred other people here today who have no chance to win a trophy. So what do you want me to do?’ And he said, ‘I want to try to play.’ Then I gave him one last piece of advice: ‘If you throw up again, aim for the floor, because if you hit the board, it’s going to be hard to play with the chess pieces.’
“He won his game fairly quickly. Every single other student on our team who came out after him also won. They watched Danny win after he threw up. It almost makes me cry every time I talk about it. He was one of the ‘dumb ones,’ and he finished in the top ten of the national chess championship that year. And our team finished in fifth place. We were ahead of Hunter College Elementary School that year. That’s the school in New York City that’s always among the best. They were in sixth or seventh place.”
Danny went on to graduate from the University of the Pacific with a degree in mechanical engineering. He now works as an engineer for an international manufacturing firm. Julie graduated from the University of Mississippi and is now a homemaker living with her husband, Calbemar, and a young daughter, Isabel.
“I definitely think chess improved my thinking abilities,” Julie told me. “And it definitely improved the thinking abilities of other kids in the chess club. We all got better in our grades and everything else. It just had to do with how hard you worked. You get pretty good at it. You sit there for so long. You’ve got to picture the moves in your head. At the beginning, you can’t really think that far into it. When I was really practicing, I could think fifteen, even twenty moves ahead. You have to sit there for hours and try to think through all these different scenarios. And you’re just thinking of different consequences. You take that and put it into your own life. If I do this, then this can happen. If I do that, then that can happen. And then you just make the best decision from there.”
What, really, is the meaning of intelligence anyway?
“There are some really ignorant people out there,” Julie told me, “the people who are prejudiced and think that just because some kids are from a poor area, and their parents didn’t have an education, they automatically have to be stupid. And we’re not stupid. I’m not stupid. There are lots of smart kids out there. There’s lots of things we could get into. It just has to do with the choices you make. That’s why I said chess definitely helped me make the right choices.”
On the other side of the country, among the most affluent of New York City’s parents, another approach to increasing intelligence is being pursued by those able to pay a couple hundred dollars per hour. Founded in 2009, Bright Kids NYC now has as many as five hundred children enrolled at any time, most of them four-year-olds seeking to gain admission to the public schools’ gifted and talented program. Although admission was once decided by each individual school district in the city, leading some to question its fairness, in 2008 a uniform, citywide standard was created, based on standardized test scores. (Yes, there are standardized tests for preschoolers.) To gain admission to a neighborhood gifted and talented program, children would have to score in the 90th percentile on the tests. To gain access to the highly sought-after citywide program, with space for just four hundred students in five schools, they would have to score in the 99th percentile. The explicit goal of the new program was to increase the number of accepted children coming from less affluent areas, but it had the opposite effect: more kids overall, and more rich ones than ever, were accepted. So the New York Board of Education tried another fix. In 2013, a new test was added: the Naglieri Nonverbal Ability Test, designed to assess cognitive ability independent of cultural background. The result: even more kids overall, and more rich kids in particular, passed the test. What could be causing the disparity? Although Bright Kids NYC was not the only new tutoring program aiming to help children score well on the tests, it was certainly the largest and most sophisticated, and it had truly stunning results: 94 percent of the children who prepped with Bright Kids scored in the 90th percentile on the tests, and 49 percent of them—?nearly half—?scored in the 99th percentile. The results suggest a real-life Lake Wobegon, the fictional hometown of Garrison Keillor on his long-running radio show, where “all the children are above average.”
As recently as 2008, the consensus among mainstream intelligence researchers was that human intelligence is just too complex, and too closely linked to innate characteristics of the brain, to be significantly modified by any straightforward training method. Sure, they agreed that exposing children to an enriched environment does generally improve their chances for reaching their potential. But not by much. Because unlike a test of physical strength, which measures only how you performed today, intelligence tests have always been pitched as an upper limit on what you can ever do: a cognitive glass ceiling, a number tattooed on the soul.
And that’s why most of us have come to think of intelligence researchers as a bunch of jerks and the IQ test as just plain un-American. Because who wants to be told that we can work and sweat all we want, we can train to run a marathon or learn a new language, we can set a goal and achieve it—?but intelligence is the one mountain we can never climb? Then again, perhaps the belief that intellectual disability is heritable and beyond remediation is just the other, darker side of the American spirit: it was in the United States, after all, that the pseudoscience of eugenics had its birthplace, where some sixty thousand sterilizations were performed in the twentieth century, continuing into the 1960s, most of them forced, many of them involving people deemed to be “imbeciles” or “feeble-minded.” Championed by the likes of Margaret Sanger, J. H. Kellogg, and Alexander Graham Bell, sanctioned for a time by the U.S. Supreme Court, and funded by such august bodies as the Carnegie Institution and the Rockefeller Foundation, the eugenics movement in this country was credited by Nazi leaders, including Adolf Hitler himself, as inspiring their “war on the weak.” Yet even to this day, there remain academics who continue to harp away on the supposed intellectual superiority of one racial or ethnic group over another. As recently as 2009, a dissertation for a Harvard doctorate in public policy asserted: “Immigrants living in the U.S. today do not have the same level of cognitive ability as natives. No one knows whether Hispanics will ever reach I.Q. parity with whites, but the prediction that new Hispanic immigrants will have low-I.Q. children and grandchildren is difficult to argue against.” Four years later, the writer of that dissertation, Jason Richwine, authored a study for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, that criticized immigration reform.
Given all the above, it is not surprising that the general public’s view of IQ has pretty well gone down the toilet. In business-speak: intelligence has a brand problem. Popular culture these days has consigned it to the same dark corner into which it has cast pesticides, bullying, and Lindsay Lohan. I caught a whiff of the ill wind blowing against IQ these days in an e-mail from my brother Dave in Maine, who’s been ribbing me ever since he heard about the subject of this book:
Mister Schmarty: Dan, just promise if you get any schmarter, you won’t turn into an evil super bad guy like Lex Luthor. Hey, can you add making people nicer to schmarter? James Holmes, schmart, not very nice, the same for Ted Kaczynski. Mister Rogers: very nice, how schmart who knows but wouldn’t you like him as your neighbor?
He raises a serious point: a populist vein of American culture has long equated “genius” with “evil” and celebrated a lack of learning as evidence of honesty and decency. These days, even the intelligentsia disdain intelligence, none more so than the writers Daniel Goleman, Malcolm Gladwell, and Paul Tough. In 1995, Goleman published his groundbreaking and hugely influential bestseller, Emotional Intelligence, arguing that the ability to “rein in emotional impulse; to read another’s innermost feelings; to handle relationship smoothly” is as important as, or more important than, intellectual capacity. Then in 2008 Gladwell published Outliers: The Story of Success, in which he made famous psychologist K. Anders Ericsson’s research showing that talent plays virtually no role in accomplishment, and that what matters—?all that matters—?is hard work, specifically ten thousand hours of practice in one’s given field. Most recently, in 2012, Tough came out with How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, based on research by psychologist Angela Duckworth and others examining the powerful role of characteristics like self-control, conscientiousness, and determination.
Wonderful insights, all. Hard work, grit, and emotional poise are definitely important to success in life. Nobody can argue with that. But wait a minute: does the importance of those qualities mean that intelligence has no value at all? Certainly IQ is not everything; perhaps it’s not even the most important thing, but it’s definitely one of them. As we all knew in elementary school and can see in our workplaces and on the front pages of the newspaper every day, intelligence, or smarts, or whatever you want to call it, does matter. Intelligence distinguishes humans from our fellow creatures on Earth. Intelligence—?not just knowing a lot of dumb facts, but having the ability to understand and analyze those facts, to learn, to make sense of things, to turn information into knowledge, to turn knowledge into profit, to find meaning in chaos—?is power. It’s how, tens of thousands of years ago, we mastered fire and learned to farm rather than forage. It’s not the only reason, but it’s one of the reasons that Warren Buffett, Mark Zuckerberg, and Bill Gates are richer than you are. (Both Zuckerberg, who founded Facebook, and Sergey Brin, who cofounded Google, were selected in adolescence, in part on the basis of scoring high on standardized tests, to attend the Center for Talented Youth at Johns Hopkins, as was Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta, better known as Lady Gaga.) It’s how Malcolm Gladwell, Daniel Goleman, and Paul Tough wrote such awesome books. Because they’re smart, and because, as politically incorrect as it has become in polite society to say so, intelligence still matters.
And not just for school and career achievement. What’s surprising, given how we think of intelligence as being all in our heads, is how it contributes to the well-being of our bodies, in ways that are not yet fully understood. A recent study of 1,116,442 Swedish men whose IQs were tested at age eighteen, for instance, found that after twenty-two years, those who scored in the bottom 25 percent were over five times more likely to have died of poisoning, three times more likely to have drowned, and over twice as likely to have been...
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