Human intelligence varies astonishingly. Why didn’t evolution make us all geniuses, and why do even those with high IQ act like fools?
“EARTH has its boundaries, but human stupidity is limitless,” wrote Gustave Flaubert. He was almost unhinged by the fact. Colourful fulminations about his fatuous peers filled his many letters to Louise Colet, the French poet who inspired his novel Madame Bovary. He saw stupidity everywhere, from the gossip of middle-class busybodies to the lectures of academics. Not even Voltaire escaped his critical eye. Consumed by this obsession, he devoted his final years to collecting thousands of examples for a kind of encyclopedia of stupidity. He died before his magnum opus was complete, and some attribute his sudden death, aged 58, to the frustration of researching the book.
Documenting the extent of human stupidity may itself seem a fool’s errand, which could explain why studies of human intellect have tended to focus on the high end of the intelligence spectrum. And yet, the sheer breadth of that spectrum raises many intriguing questions. If being smart is such an overwhelming advantage, for instance, why aren’t we all uniformly intelligent? Or are there drawbacks to being clever that sometimes give slower thinkers the upper hand? And why are even the smartest people prone to – well, stupidity?
It turns out that our usual measures of intelligence – particularly IQ – have very little to do with the kind of irrational, illogical behaviours that so enraged Flaubert. You really can be highly intelligent, and at the same time very stupid. Understanding the factors that lead clever people to make bad decisions is beginning to shed light on many of society’s biggest catastrophes, including the recent economic crisis. More intriguingly, the latest research may suggest ways to evade a condition that can plague us all.
The idea that intelligence and stupidity are simply opposing ends of a single spectrum is a surprisingly modern one. The Renaissance theologian Erasmus painted Folly – or Stultitia in Latin – as a distinct entity in her own right, descended from the god of wealth and the nymph of youth; others saw it as a combination of vanity, stubbornness and imitation. It was only in the middle of the 18th century that stupidity became conflated with mediocre intelligence, says Matthijs van Boxsel, a Dutch historian who has written many books about stupidity. “Around that time, the bourgeoisie rose to power, and reason became a new norm with the Enlightenment,” he says. “That put every man in charge of his own fate.”
Modern attempts to study variations in human ability tended to focus on IQ tests that put a single number on someone’s mental capacity. They are perhaps best recognised as a measure of abstract reasoning, says psychologist Richard Nisbett at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. “If you have an IQ of 120, calculus is easy. If it’s 100, you can learn it but you’ll have to be motivated to put in a lot of work. If your IQ is 70, you have no chance of grasping calculus.” The measure seems to predict academic and professional success.
Various factors will determine where you lie on the IQ scale. Possibly a third of the variation in our intelligence is down to the environment in which we grow up – nutrition and education, for example. Genes, meanwhile, contribute more than 40 per cent of the differences between two people.
These differences may manifest themselves in our brain’s wiring. Smarter brains seem to have more efficient networks of connections between neurons. That may determine how well someone is able to use their short-term “working” memory to link disparate ideas and quickly access problem-solving strategies, says Jennie Ferrell, a psychologist at the University of the West of England in Bristol. “Those neural connections are the biological basis for making efficient mental connections.”
This variation in intelligence has led some to wonder whether superior brain power comes at a cost – otherwise, why haven’t we all evolved to be geniuses? Unfortunately, evidence is in short supply. For instance, some proposed that depression may be more common among more intelligent people, leading to higher suicide rates, but no studies have managed to support the idea. One of the only studies to report a downside to intelligence found that soldiers with higher IQs were more likely to die during the second world war. The effect was slight, however, and other factors might have skewed the data.
Alternatively, the variation in our intelligence may have arisen from a process called “genetic drift”, after human civilisation eased the challenges driving the evolution of our brains. Gerald Crabtree at Stanford University in California is one of the leading proponents of this idea. He points out that our intelligence depends on around 2000 to 5000 constantly mutating genes. In the distant past, people whose mutations had slowed their intellect would not have survived to pass on their genes; but Crabtree suggests that as human societies became more collaborative, slower thinkers were able to piggyback on the success of those with higher intellect. In fact, he says, someone plucked from 1000 BC and placed in modern society, would be “among the brightest and most intellectually alive of our colleagues and companions” (Trends in Genetics, vol 29, p 1).
This theory is often called the “idiocracy” hypothesis, after the eponymous film, which imagines a future in which the social safety net has created an intellectual wasteland. Although it has some supporters, the evidence is shaky. We can’t easily estimate the intelligence of our distant ancestors, and the average IQ has in fact risen slightly in the immediate past. At the very least, “this disproves the fear that less intelligent people have more children and therefore the national intelligence will fall”, says psychologist Alan Baddeley at the University of York, UK.
In any case, such theories on the evolution of intelligence may need a radical rethink in the light of recent developments, which have led many to speculate that there are more dimensions to human thinking than IQ measures. Critics have long pointed out that IQ scores can easily be skewed by factors such as dyslexia, education and culture. “I would probably soundly fail an intelligence test devised by an 18th-century Sioux Indian,” says Nisbett. Additionally, people with scores as low as 80 can still speak multiple languages and even, in the case of one British man, engage in complex financial fraud. Conversely, high IQ is no guarantee that a person will act rationally – think of the brilliant physicists who insist that climate change is a hoax.
It was this inability to weigh up evidence and make sound decisions that so infuriated Flaubert. Unlike the French writer, however, many scientists avoid talking about stupidity per se – “the term is unscientific”, says Baddeley. However, Flaubert’s understanding that profound lapses in logic can plague the brightest minds is now getting attention. “There are intelligent people who are stupid,” says Dylan Evans, a psychologist and author who studies emotion and intelligence.
What can explain this apparent paradox? One theory comes from Daniel Kahneman, a cognitive scientist at Princeton University who won the Nobel prize in economics for his work on human behaviour. Economists used to assume that people were inherently rational, but Kahneman and his colleague Amos Tversky discovered otherwise. When we process information, they found, our brain can access two different systems. IQ tests measure only one of these, the deliberative processing that plays a key role in conscious problem-solving. Yet our default position in everyday life is to use our intuition.
To begin with, these intuitive mechanisms gave us an evolutionary advantage, offering cognitive shortcuts that help deal with information overload. They include cognitive biases such as stereotyping, confirmation bias, and resistance to ambiguity – the temptation to accept the first solution to a problem even if it is obviously not the best.
While these evolved biases, called “heuristics”, may help our thinking in certain situations, they can derail our judgement if we rely on them uncritically. For this reason, the inability to recognise or resist them is at the root of stupidity. “The brain doesn’t have a switch that says ‘I’m only going to stereotype what restaurants are like but not people’,” Ferrell says. “You have to train those muscles.”
Because it has nothing to do with your IQ, to truly understand human stupidity you need a separate test that examines our susceptibility to bias. One candidate comes from Keith Stanovich, a cognitive scientist at the University of Toronto in Canada, who is working on a rationality quotient (RQ) to assess our ability to transcend cognitive bias.
Consider the following question, which tests the ambiguity effect: Jack is looking at Anne but Anne is looking at George. Jack is married but George is not. Is a married person looking at an unmarried person? Possible answers are “yes”, “no”, or “cannot be determined”. The vast majority of people will say it “cannot be determined”, simply because it is the first answer that comes to mind – but careful deduction shows the answer is “yes”.
RQ would also measure risk intelligence, which defines our ability to calibrate the likelihood of certain probabilities. For example, we tend to overestimate our chances of winning the lottery, says Evans, and underestimate the chance of getting divorced. Poor risk intelligence can cause us to choose badly without any notion that we’re doing so.
So what determines whether you have naturally high RQ? Stanovich has found that unlike IQ, RQ isn’t down to your genes or nurture factors from your childhood. More than anything, it depends on something called metacognition, which is the ability to assess the validity of your own knowledge. People with high RQ have acquired strategies that boost this self-awareness. One simple approach would be to take your intuitive answer to a problem and consider its opposite before coming to the final decision, says Stanovich. This helps you develop keen awareness of what you know and don’t know.
But even those with naturally high RQ can be tripped up by circumstances beyond their control. “You individually can have great cognitive abilities, but your environment dictates how you have to act,” says Ferrell.
As you have probably experienced, emotional distractions can be the biggest cause of error. Feelings like grief or anxiety clutter up your working memory, leaving fewer resources for assessing the world around you. To cope, you may find yourself falling back on heuristics for an easy shortcut. Ferrell says this may also explain more persistent experiences such as “stereotype threat”. That’s the feeling of anxiety that minority groups can experience when they know their performance could be taken to confirm an existing prejudice; it has been shown time and again to damage test scores.
Perhaps nothing encourages stupidity more than the practices of certain businesses, as André Spicer and Mats Alvesson have found. Neither were interested in stupidity at the time of their discovery. Spicer, at the Cass Business School in London, and Alvesson at Lund University in Sweden, had set out to investigate how prestigious organisations manage highly intelligent people. But they soon had to tear up their thesis.
Over and over, the same pattern emerged: certain organisations – notably investment banks, PR agencies and consultancies – would hire highly qualified individuals. But instead of seeing these talents put to use, says Spicer, “we were struck by the fact that precisely the aspects they’d been trained in were immediately switched off”, a phenomenon they branded “functional stupidity”.
Their findings made sense in the context of bias and rationality. “We didn’t initially see Kahneman as the backbone to our work,” Spicer says. “But we started to notice interesting connections to the kind of things he observed in the lab.” For example, organisational practices regularly shut down the employees’ risk intelligence. “There was no direct relationship between what they did and the outcome,” says Spicer, so they had no way to judge the consequences of their actions. Corporate pressures also amplified the ambiguity bias. “In complex organisations, ambiguity is rife – and so is the desire to avoid it at all costs,” says Spicer.
The consequences may be catastrophic. In a meta-analysis last year, Spicer and Alvesson reported that functional stupidity was a direct contributor to the financial crisis (Journal of Management Studies, vol 49, p 1194). “These people were incredibly smart,” Spicer says. “They all knew that there were problems with mortgage-backed securities and structured commodities.” But not only was it was no one’s problem to look at them; the employees faced discipline if they raised their concerns, perhaps because they seemed to be undermining those with greater authority. The result is that potentially brilliant employees left logic at the office door.
The Republic of Stupidity
In light of the economic crash, the findings would seem to confirm some of Flaubert’s fears about the power of stupid people in large groups, which he referred to in jest as The Republic of Stupidity. It also confirms some of van Boxsel’s observations that stupidity is most dangerous in people with high IQ – since they are often given greater responsibility: “the more intelligent they are, the more disastrous the results of their stupidity”.
This may explain why, according to Stanovich, the financial sector has been clamouring for a good rationality test “for years”. At the moment the RQ test cannot give a definitive score, like an IQ, because you need to compare a large number of volunteers before you can develop a steadfast scale that will allow comparison between different groups of people. However, he has found that merely taking this kind of test improves our awareness of common heuristics which can help us resist their siren song. In January, he began the process of developing the test, thanks to a three-year grant from the philanthropic John Templeton Foundation.
Whether anyone will finish what Flaubert started is another question. Van Boxsel will be calling it quits after his seventh book on the topic. But the US Library of Congress has, perhaps unwittingly, taken up the baton by deciding to archive every tweet in the world.
For the rest of us, knowledge of our foolish nature could help us escape its grasp. Maybe the Renaissance philosophers, such as Erasmus, fully understood stupidity’s capacity to rule us. Below depictions of Folly, or Stultitia, you will see the acknowledgement: “Foolishness reigns in me.”
This article appeared in print under the headline “Stupid is as stupid does”
Sally Adee is a features editor at New Scientist
March 14, when written as 3.14, is the first three numbers of pi (π). To commemorate the (completely artificial) confluence of the world’s most famous and never-ending mathematical constant with the way we can write the date, math enthusiasts around the country embrace their inner nerdiness by celebrating π, the ratio of the circumference of a circle and its diameter.
The date–which also happens to be Einstein’s birthday–inspires celebrations every year. Today. the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is posting password-protected decision letters on its admissions office site–would-be attendees can view whether they gained admittance at 6:28 pm (approximately equal to 2π, or the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its radius). Not to be outdone, Princeton’s celebrations of pi span an entire week, complete with a pie eating contest, an Einstein look-alike contest and a π-themed video contest (videos extolling pi and Einstein’s birthday must be less than 3.14 minutes; the winner will be announced at 3:14 today and will receive–you guessed it–$314.15).
Just why are people crazy about pi? The number–three followed by a ceaseless string of numbers after the decimal point, all randomly distributed–is the world’s most famous irrational number, meaning that it cannot be expressed as through the division of two whole numbers. In fact, it is a transcendental number, a term which boils down the idea that it isn’t the square root, cube root or nth root of any rational number. And this irrationality and transcendental nature of pi appeals, perhaps because pi’s continuous flow of numbers reflects the unending circle it helps to trace.
Pi has held an almost mystical quality to humans throughout time. Its unspoken presence can be felt in the circular ruins of Stonehenge, in the vaulted ceilings of domed Roman temples, in the celestial spheres of Plato and Ptolemy. It has inspired centuries of mathematical puzzles and some of humanity’s most iconic artwork. People spend years of their lives attempting to memorize its digits–they hold contests to see who knows the most numbers after the decimal, write poems–”piems,” if you will–where the number of letters in each word represents the next digit of pi, compose haikus (pikus)…the list goes on and on like pi itself.
Here are some notable moments in the history of pi:
1900-1650 BC: A Babylonian tablet gives a value of 3.125 for pi, which isn’t bad! In another document, the Rhind Mathematical Papyrus, an ancient Egyptian scribe writes, in 1650 BC “Cut off 1/9 of a diameter and construct a square upon the remainder; this has the same area as the circle” This implies that pi is 3.16049, “which is also fairly accurate,” according to David Wilson of Rutgers University’s math department.
800-200 BC: Passages in the Bible describe a ceremonial pool in the Temple of Solomon: “He made the Sea of cast metal, circular in shape, measuring ten cubits from rim to rim and five cubits high. It took a line of thirty cubits to measure around it” (I Kings 7:23-26). This puts pi at a mere 3.
250 BC: Archimedes of Syracuse approximates the area of a circle by using the Pythagorean Theorem to find the areas of two shapes–a 96-sided polygon inscribed within the circle and an equally faceted polygon within which the circle was circumscribed. The areas of the 96-sided shapes sandwiched the area of circle, giving Archimedes upper and lower bounds for the circle’s extent. Though he knew that he had not found the exact value of pi, he was able to approximate it to between 3 1/7 and 3 10/71.
Late 1300s: Indian mathematician and astronomer Madhava of Sangamagrama first posits the idea that pi could be represented as the sum of terms in an infinite sequence–for example, 4 – 4/3 + 4/5 – 4/7 + 4/9…His work helped inspire branch of mathematics that examines the results of mathematical operations performed over and over on a never-ending stretch of numbers.
1706: Welsh mathematician William Jones began to use π as a the symbol for the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. Famed Swiss mathematician Leonhard Euler adopted this usage in 1737, helping to popularize it through his works.
1873: Amateur English mathematician William Shanks calculates pi out to 707 digits–his number was written on the wall of a circular room–appropriately named the Pi Room–in the Palais de la Découverte, a French science museum. But his number was only correct to the 527th digit–in 1946, the error was finally caught, and in 1949, the number was corrected.
1897: Lawmakers in Indiana almost pass a bill that erroneously labels the value of pi to 3.2. Cajoled by an amateur mathematician Edwin Goodwin, the Indiana General Assembly introduced House Bill 246, which introduced “a new mathematical truth” for sole use by the state. The “truth” was an attempt to square the circle–a puzzle which requires that a circle and square of the same area be constructed using only a geometrical compass and a straightedge. The bill unanimously passed the house, but the senate and hence the state was spared from embarrassment by C.A. Waldo, a Purdue mathematics professor who coincidentally happened to be in the State House that day. “Shown the bill and offered an introduction to the genius whose theory it was, Waldo declined, saying he already knew enough crazy people,” Tony Long of Wired wrote. Waldo gave the senators a math lesson, and the bill died.
1988: Larry Shaw of San Francisco’s Exploratorium inaugurates the first Pi Day celebration. This year, even as it prepares for its grand re-opening in April, the museum holds its 25th annual Pi Day extravaganza.
2005: Chao Lu, then a graduate student in China, becomes the Guinness record holder for reciting digits of pi–he recited the number to 67,980 digits. The feat took him 24 hours and 4 minutes (contest rules required that no more than 15 seconds could pass between any two numbers).
2009: Pi Day becomes official! Democratic Congressman Bart Gordon of Tennessee’s 6th congressional district, along with 15 co-sponsors, introduced HR 224, which “supports the designation of a Pi Day and its celebration around the world, recognizes the continuing importance of National Science Foundation math and science education programs, and encourages schools and educators to observe the day with appropriate activities that teach students about Pi and engage them about the study of mathematics.” The resolution was approved by the House of Representatives on March 12 of that year, proving that a love of pi is non-partisan.
TALKS | TEDX
Shabana Basij-Rasikh: Dare to educate Afghan girls
Imagine a country where girls must sneak out to go to school, with deadly consequences if they get caught learning. This was Afghanistan under the Taliban, and traces of that danger remain today. 22-year-old Shabana Basij-Rasikh runs a school for girls in Afghanistan. She celebrates the power of a family’s decision to believe in their daughters — and tells the story of one brave father who stood up to local threats.(Filmed at TEDxWomen)
Shabana Basij-Rasikh helps girls and young women in Afghanistan get an education. Full bio »
Ever since webcomic XKCD made Every Major’s Terrible (below), fans have been making musical adaptations for the genius parody of college indecision (and Gilbert & Sullivan).
This is probably the best. If he doesn’t mention your major, you’re probably better off.
“The real enemy is the man who tries to mold the human spirit so that it will not dare to spread its wings.”
In an age obsessed with practicality, productivity, and efficiency, I frequently worry that we are leaving little room for abstract knowledge and for the kind of curiosity that invites just enough serendipity to allow for the discovery of ideas we didn’t know we were interested in until we are, ideas that we may later transform into new combinations with applications both practical and metaphysical.
This concern, it turns out, is hardly new. In The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge (PDF), originally published in the October 1939 issue of Harper’s, American educator Abraham Flexner explores this dangerous tendency to forgo pure curiosity in favor of pragmatism — in science, in education, and in human thought at large — to deliver a poignant critique of the motives encouraged in young minds, contrasting those with the drivers that motivated some of history’s most landmark discoveries.
Yet, denied citizenship in his United Arab Emirates birthplace, he has become one of a number of stateless people in the oil-rich country who have acquired the nationality of a group of islands with which they have no ties. His goal: to secure the official identity he needs to travel and access basic services.
“We’re seeing much more of a security state in the Gulf,” says Kristian Ulrichsen, a Gulf expert at the London School of Economics. “Regimes feel more threatened and more concerned over who is in and who is out.”
Ahmed’s unusual tale holds a mirror to the legal and social troubles that face hundreds of thousands of stateless people, known as “bidoun”, across the Gulf, which have intensified with the uprisings across the Arab world. In Kuwait, some members of the 105,000-strong bidoun population have been arrested after street protests against the government’s reluctance to offer citizenship. In the UAE, rights activists have raised concerns over what they say is the possible deportation of a bidoun political campaigner detained last month.“Either I should bury myself and die or try to survive,” Ahmed says of the decision.
The term bidoun – “without” in Arabic – refers to long-time residents whose ancestors failed to apply for formal identity papers as the discovery of oil prompted the rapid transformation of the region from a Bedouin culture to an urban economy. Without these basic documents, they have since struggled without secure healthcare, education and jobs.
While the public demonstrations of Kuwait’s bidoun that began early last year have not been repeated in other countries, stateless people are found across the Gulf. The UN estimates that Saudi Arabia is home to 70,000 of them. Between 30,000 and 100,000 more are estimated to live in the UAE.
Uprisings across the Arab world have widened the schism between the bidoun and the region’s wealthy nationals. Increased spending by Gulf states on salaries and subsidies to quell the possibility of unrest – with pay rises of up to 120 per cent last year for some government workers – have made it increasingly attractive to be a citizen.
“As the value of having Gulf citizenship has increased, the disparity between the haves and the have-nots has gone up,” Mr Ulrichsen says.
The Arab revolts have also made the bidoun more vulnerable to security-conscious governments suspicious of perceived outsiders and alleged enemies within. Kuwaiti authorities, for example, say the bidoun have been infiltrated by imposters from countries such as Iraq and Syria, who destroy their passports so they can ultimately claim nationality.
In the UAE, the bidoun’s difficulties have surfaced in the curious case of the Comoros passports. At least a thousand stateless residents have taken the documents, says Zoubert A Soufiane Al Ahdal, Comoros ambassador to the UAE.
Bidoun in the UAE say the Comoros documents make it easier for them to meet tougher official identity requirements for securing papers such as vehicle renewals – and perhaps even eventually, somewhat paradoxically, a UAE passport.
It is unclear who is paying for the passports: two of four bidoun interviewed by the Financial Times said they thought the UAE government had paid for theirs. Ambassador Ahdal denied this, while the UAE authorities declined to comment.
While the Comoros passports seem on one level to offer a little respite for the bidoun and a convenient partial solution for the UAE government, some rights activists say moves by stateless people to secure foreign nationality have a darker dimension that has grown in significance since the Arab uprisings began.
Disturbed by small murmurings of political dissent and in particular by the activities of suspected Islamists, the UAE authorities have begun using nationality as a legal tool as Qatar did in 2005, when it revoked the citizenship of as many as 6,000 people.
The UAE government last year revoked the citizenship of seven members of al-Islah, an Islamist organisation, turning them into bidoun and arresting many of them later for refusing to sign undertakings that they would take on a new passport.
“Wherever citizenship is exclusive it can be used as a weapon,” says Michael Stephens, Gulf expert at the Royal United Services Institute in Doha.
In another UAE case, Human Rights Watch said last month that Ahmed Abd al-Khaleq, a detailed UAE-born bidoun campaigner, now fears deportation on the basis of his recently acquired Comorian nationality. Mr Abd al-Khaleq was one of five pro-democracy activists imprisoned last year for insulting the UAE’s leaders and later pardoned.
The UAE authorities declined to comment on Mr Abd al-Khaleq’s case. Officials have previously said thousands of other bidoun have been given UAE nationality, after a 2006 pledge by Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the president, to resolve the problem once and for all.
WHEN I was just a newborn baby, my mother gazed down at me in her hospital bed and did something that was to permanently change the way my brain developed. Something that would make me better at learning, multitasking and solving problems. Eventually, it might even protect my brain against the ravages of old age. Her trick? She started speaking to me in French.
At the time, my mother had no idea that her actions would give me a cognitive boost. She is French and my father English, so they simply felt it made sense to raise me and my brothers as bilingual. Yet as I’ve grown up, a mass of research has emerged to suggest that speaking two languages may have profoundly affected the way I think.
Cognitive enhancement is just the start. According to some studies, my memories, values, even my personality, may change depending on which language I happen to be speaking. It is almost as if the bilingual brain houses two separate minds. All of which highlights the fundamental role of language in human thought. “Bilingualism is quite an extraordinary microscope into the human brain,” says neuroscientist Laura Ann Petitto of Gallaudet University in Washington DC.
The view of bilingualism has not always been this rosy. For many parents like mine, the decision to raise children speaking two languages was controversial. Since at least the 19th century, educators warned that it would confuse the child, making them unable to learn either language properly. At best, they thought the child would become a jack-of-all-trades and master of none. At worst, they suspected it might hinder other aspects of development, resulting in a lower IQ.
These days, such fears seem unjustified. True, bilingual people tend to have slightly smaller vocabularies in each language than their monolingual peers, and they are sometimes slower to reach for the right word when naming objects. But a key study in the 1960s by Elizabeth Peal and Wallace Lambert at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, found that the ability to speak two languages does not stunt overall development. On the contrary, when controlling for other factors which might also affect performance, such as socioeconomic status and education, they found that bilinguals outperformed monolinguals in 15 verbal and non-verbal tests (Psychological Monographs, vol 76, no 27, p 1).
Unfortunately, their findings were largely overlooked. Although a trickle of research into the benefits of bilingualism followed their study, most researchers and educators continued to cling to the old ideas. It is only within the last few years that bilingualism has received the attention it deserves. “For 30 years I’ve been sitting in my little dark room doing my thing and suddenly in the last five years it’s like the doors have swung open,” says Ellen Bialystok, a psychologist at York University in Toronto, Canada.
In part, the renewed interest comes from recent technological developments in neuroscience, such as functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) - a form of brain imaging that acts as a silent and portable monitor, peering inside the brains of babies as they sit on their parents’ laps. For the first time, researchers can watch young babies’ brains in their initial encounters with language.
Using this technique, Petitto and her colleagues discovered a profound difference between babies brought up speaking either one or two languages. According to popular theory, babies are born “citizens of the world”, capable of discriminating between the sounds of any language. By the time they are a year old, however, they are thought to have lost this ability, homing in exclusively on the sounds of their mother tongue. That seemed to be the case with monolinguals, but Petitto’s study found that bilingual children still showed increased neural activity in response to completely unfamiliar languages at the end of their first year (Brain and Language, vol 121, p 130).
She reckons the bilingual experience “wedges open” the window for learning language. Importantly, the children still reached the same linguistic milestones, such as their first word, at roughly the same time as monolingual babies, supporting the idea that bilingualism can invigorate rather than hinder a child’s development. This seems to help people like me acquire new languages throughout our lives. “It’s almost like the monolingual brain is on a diet, but the bilingual brain shows us the full, plump borders of the language tissue that are available,” says Petitto.
Indeed, the closer the researchers looked, the more benefits they discovered, some of which span a broad range of skills. Bialystok first stumbled upon one of these advantages while asking children to spot whether various sentences were grammatically correct. Both monolinguals and bilinguals could see the mistake in phrases such as “apples growed on trees”, but differences arose when they considered nonsensical sentences such as “apples grow on noses”. The monolinguals, flummoxed by the silliness of the phrase, incorrectly reported an error, whereas the bilinguals gave the right answer (Developmental Psychology, vol 24, p 560).
Bialystok suspected that rather than reflecting expertise in grammar, their performance demonstrated improvement in what is called the brain’s “executive system”, a broad suite of mental skills that centre on the ability to block out irrelevant information and concentrate on a task at hand. In this case, they were better able to focus on the grammar while ignoring the meaning of words. Sure enough, bilingual kids in subsequent studies aced a range of problems that directly tested the trait. Another executive skill involves the ability to switch between different tasks without becoming confused, and bilinguals are better at these kinds of challenges too. When categorising objects, for instance, they can jump from considering the shape to the colour without making errors (Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, vol 13, p 253).
A second viewpoint
These traits are critical to almost everything we do, from reading and mathematics to driving. Improvements therefore result in greater mental flexibility, which may explain why the bilingual people performed so well in Peal and Lambert’s tests, says Bialystok.
Its virtues may even extend to our social skills. Paula Rubio-Fernández and Sam Glucksberg, both psychologists at Princeton University, have found that bilinguals are better at putting themselves in other people’s shoes to understand their side of a situation. This is because they can more easily block out what they already know and focus on the other viewpoint (Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition, vol 38, p 211).
So what is it about speaking two languages that makes the bilingual brain so flexible and focused? An answer comes from the work of Viorica Marian at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, and colleagues, who used eye-tracking devices to follow the gaze of volunteers engaged in various activities. In one set-up, Marian placed an array of objects in front of Russian-English bilinguals and asked them to “pick up the marker”, for example. The twist is that the names of some of the objects in the two languages sound the same but have different meanings. The Russian word for stamp sounds like “marker”, for instance, which in English can mean pen. Although the volunteers never misunderstood the question, the eye-tracker showed that they would quickly glance at the alternative object before choosing the correct one (Bilingualism: Language and Cognition, vol 6, p 97).
This almost-imperceptible gesture gives away an important detail about the workings of the bilingual brain, revealing that the two languages are constantly competing for attention in the back of our minds. As a result, whenever we bilinguals speak, write, or listen to the radio, our brain is busy choosing the right word while inhibiting the same term from the other language. It is a considerable test of executive control - just the kind of cognitive workout, in fact, that is common in many commercial “brain-training” programs, which often require you to ignore distracting information while tackling a task.
It did not take long for scientists to wonder whether these mental gymnastics might help the brain resist the ravages of ageing. After all, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that other forms of brain exercise can create “cognitive reserve”, a kind of mental padding that cushions the mind against age-related decline. To find out, Bialystok and her colleagues collected data from 184 people diagnosed with dementia, half of whom were bilingual. The results, published in 2007, were startling - symptoms started to appear in the bilingual people four years later than in their monolingual peers (Neuropsychologia, vol 45, p 459). Three years later, they repeated the study with a further 200 people showing signs of Alzheimer’s disease. Again, there was around a five-year delay in the onset of symptoms in bilingual patients (Neurology, vol 75, p 1726). The results held true even after factors such as occupation and education were taken into account. “I was as surprised as anyone that we found such large effects,” Bialystok says.
Besides giving us bilinguals a brain boost, speaking a second language may have a profound effect on behaviour. Neuroscientists and psychologists are coming to accept that language is deeply entwined with thought and reasoning, leading some to wonder whether bilingual people act differently depending on which language they are speaking. That would certainly tally with my experience. People often tell me that I seem different when I speak English compared with when I speak French.
Such effects are hard to characterise, of course, since it is not easy to pull apart the different strands of yourself. Susan Ervin-Tripp, now at the University of California, Berkeley, found an objective way to study the question in the 1960s, when she asked Japanese-English bilinguals to complete a set of unfinished sentences in two separate sessions - first in one language, then the other. She found that her volunteers consistently used very different endings depending on the language. For example, given the sentence “Real friends should…” a person using Japanese replied “…help each other out,” yet in English opted for “…be very frank”. Overall, the responses seemed to reflect how monolinguals of either language tended to complete the task. The findings led Ervin-Tripp to suggest that bilinguals use two mental channels, one for each language, like two different minds.
Her theory would seem to find support in a number of recent studies. David Luna from Baruch College in New York City and colleagues, for example, recently asked bilingual English-Spanish volunteers to watch TV adverts featuring women - first in one language and then six months later in the other - and then rate the personalities of the characters involved. When the volunteers viewed the ads in Spanish, they tended to rate the women as independent and extrovert, but when they saw the advert in English they described the same characters as hopeless and dependent (Journal of Consumer Research, vol 35, p 279). Another study found that Greek-English bilinguals reported very different emotional reactions to the same story depending on the language - finding themselves “indifferent” to the character in one version, but feeling “concerned” for his progress in the other, for example (Journal of Multilingual and Multicultural Development, vol 25, p 124).
One explanation is that each language brings to mind the values of the culture we experienced while learning it, says Nairán Ramírez-Esparza, a psychologist at the University of Washington in Seattle. She recently asked bilingual Mexicans to rate their personality in English and Spanish questionnaires. Modesty is valued more highly in Mexico than it is in the US, where assertiveness gains respect, and the language of the questions seemed to trigger these differences. When questioned in Spanish, each volunteer was more humble than when the survey was presented in English.
Some of the behavioural switches may be intimately linked to the role of language as a kind of scaffold that supports and structures our memories. Many studies have found that we are more likely to remember an object if we know its name, which may explain why we have so few memories of early childhood. There is even some evidence that the grammar of a language can shape your memory. Lera Boroditsky at Stanford University in California recently found that Spanish speakers are worse at remembering who caused an accident than English speakers, perhaps because they tend to use impersonal phrases like “Se rompióel florero” (“the vase broke itself”) that do not state the person behind the event (Psychonomic Bulletin Review, vol 18, p 150).
The result seems to be that a bilingual person’s recollections will change depending on the language they are speaking. In a clever but simple experiment, Marian and Margarita Kaushanskaya, then at Northwestern University, asked Mandarin-English bilinguals a general knowledge question, first in one language then the other. For instance, they were asked to “name a statue of someone standing with a raised arm while looking into the distance”. They found people were more likely to recall the Statue of Liberty when asked in English, and a statue of Mao when asked in Mandarin (Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, p 14, vol 925). The same seems to occur when bilinguals recall personal, autobiographical memories. “So childhood memories will come up faster and more often when you are reinstating that language,” Marian says.
Despite the recent progress, the researchers may just be seeing the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the impact of bilingualism, and many questions remain. Chief among them will be the question of whether any monolingual person could cash in on the benefits. If so, what better incentive to bolster language education in schools, which is flagging in both the UK and US.
Much has been made of the difficulties of learning a new language later in life, but the evidence so far suggests the effort should pay off. “You can learn another language at any age, you can learn it fluently, and you can see benefits to your cognitive system,” says Marian. Bialystok agrees that late language-learners gain an advantage, even if the performance boost is usually less pronounced than in bilingual speakers. “Learn a language at any age, not to become bilingual, but just to remain mentally stimulated,” she says. “That’s the source of cognitive reserve.”
As it is, I’m grateful that particular challenge is behind me. My mother could never have guessed the extent to which her words would change my brain and the way I see my world, but I’m certain it was worth the effort. And for all that I just have to say: Merci!
Catherine de Lange is a writer based in London
A proud product of the American education system: if Travis asks Chelsea how long it takes a car travelling 80 miles per hour to go 80 miles, and Chelsea is really, really slow, how long will it take her to answer correctly?
TEDxUW - Larry Smith - Why you will fail to have a great career
Throughout his three-decade career here at the University of Waterloo, Larry Smith has inspired legions of students to take up the mantle of economics with his passionate and homespun tales of economic wizardry. A renowned story-teller, teacher and youth leadership champion, Larry has also coached and mentored countless numbers of students on start-up business management and career development strategies.
Having taught introductory microeconomics, macroeconomics and entrepreneurship classes, he recently celebrated assigning his 29,000th grade earlier this year.
Recipient of the Distinguished Teacher Award, Larry has also coached several of his former students to help them position and develop their businesses, the most famous of which is Research in Motion (RIM), maker of the revolutionary BlackBerry wireless mobile smartphone. Larry also sits on the advisory panels of start-ups to provide his guidance on financing and negotiation with investors and venture capitalists.
The makers of two high-profile new devices, India’s Aakash tablet and Raspberry Pi Foundation’s Model B both chose the same target price for their low-cost creations, and set out to change education with innovative technology. But while the two devices share some fundamental similarities, each has a future that is looking dazzlingly different.
The $35 Tablet Timeline
// May 2009
Raspberry Pi Foundation officially registered.
// Early 2010
IIT J’s Prem Kumar Kalra and team begin building a low-cost prototype in earnest.
// October 5, 2011
Minister Kapil Sibal unveils the Aakash at a press conference. Pilot tests continue. “There are 100 million Indians who use the Internet who but can’t afford the cost of the connectivity or device,” Suneet Singh Tuli tells Fast Company in October. “As a product for accessing the internet, the hope is that [Aakash] will act as a strong equalizer in delivering a better quality educational experience. It’s not a magic pill.”
// December 15, 2011
DataWind opens pre-orders for Aakashand picks up 1.4 million pre-orders in two weeks.
// January 17, 2012
Differences of opinion between IIT J and DataWind surface. “These are minimum standards which they cannot accept,” Kalra tells Fast Company.
// Late Jan/Early Feb 2012
Kapil Sibal transfers the responsibility of choosing the manufacturer and drawing up a tender of specifications from IIT J to other government bodies. “It will definitely make things more efficient and save time,” Kalra tells Fast Company in January. “It will be done by the public sector who has legal teams and resources.”
// February 21, 2012
Kapil Sibal announces that they have had problems with DataWind, but that they can still bid to manufacture version 2.0.
// February 29, 2012
Ten thousand units of Raspberry Pi Model B go on sale and sell out in a matter of hours.
// March 2, 2012
Unnamed sources tell the Indian Expresssay IIT J will no longer be involved with the Aakash project, but responsibility will be moved to another campus.
Aakash is a low-cost tablet, and Raspberry Pi Model B is an ultra-cheap, customizable computer. Both tech innovations have education and economy as their central goals. Both have big potential, too. Aakash could fundamentally change the way Indian students and most of rural India connects with the Internet. The Raspberry Pi, directed at budding computer engineers in (for a start) the U.K., could alter the way the next generation thinks about coding and building in the computer universe. Early demand for both devices has been strong. The Raspberry Pi Model B launched Wednesday, sold out, and crashed suppliers’ websites. When a version of the Aakash went on sale, it met with an equally cheerful response (complete with website crashes), hitting 1.4 million preorders in two weeks.
Aakash was first out the door, with version 1.0 launching at a generously publicized high-profile event last year. But while future versions wait in the wings, developments over the past few weeks has brought progress for Aakash 1 to a grinding halt. Manufacturing is stalled as the tablet makers (Canadian/U.K. companyDataWind) and designers (IIT Jodhpur)disagreed over the tablet’s minimum requirements and price. Also, the government body overseeing the project (India’s Ministry for Human Resource Development), who’vecultivated a reputation for themselves as serial squashers of budding technologies, reassignedroles and responsibilities and recently decided to find a new manufacturer for the next round of tablets.
While the government dawdles on, competition for a low cost educational tablet for India has caught up. Indian Telecom giant BSNL justannounced three low-price tablets, starting at $70. They’re not alone—AcrossWorld Education, partnering up with Delhi company Go Tech will start selling the A-Tab, an Android tablet, to schools and colleges in March.
Meanwhile, the initial government order for the 100,000 Aakash tablets from DataWind remains unfilled (only 10,000 have shipped). But the tablet may see brighter times outside India—Angolan telecom provider Movicel has signed a purchase order for 100,000 3G customized 7-inchers.
The Raspberry Pi Foundation, also a non-profit like IIT J, seems to have avoided the jam Aakash finds itself in (at least so far) by handing off manufacturing to their two suppliers and staying out of their way. They don’t have the added bother of government intervention, have kept a clear of super-sized goals, and spent 6 years developing before launching even just the first of their two designs. (One criticism of the Aakash project has been that the launch of the tablet was premature, and the tablet troublesare symptomatic of a device that’s not quite ready.)
Raspberry Pi’s target market is also a little different. First in line to buy the Model B will likely be hobbyists and DIY tech enthusiasts, who’ll want to rig up the bare-bones device to perhaps play music or maybe stream TV. The Pi foundation hopes it will stretch to include school kids, who will be swayed by the simplicity of the computing platform and its inherent customizability (you even have to bring your own keyboard) and approach computer science and coding as swashbucklers. Proceeds from the sales of the Model B will go back to the foundation, to do more outreach for computer science education, something that’s seen promise in early tests with live 12-year olds.
Eben Upton and his team at Project Pi have figured out how to keep their goals in sight while solving the problem of price and scale. Their licensing agreement, the BBC observes, helps them funnel back proceeds from the sale of the device into educational outreach, and their status as a non-profit has encouraged donations and contributions that has gotten the project off the ground. The ability, freedom, or prescience to set things up similarly has so far eluded the Aakash team.
The future of education in America: Dohn Community High School, a dropout recovery charter school in Cincinnati, is attempting a novel method of persuading student to come to class: Paying them.
The school says it has teamed up with donors and the Easter Seals to offer seniors who arrive on-time every day $25 a week. Lower grades are eligible to receive $10 a week.
“You have students who we haven’t seen in a week or two coming to school,” says principal Ramon Davenport. “So that tells me that this incentive that we’re trying is actually working.”
Donate a Word
It looks like the Miami Ad School is producing some great talent of late, and here is another nice conceptual piece from current students Lisa Zeitlhuber and Katharina Schmitt, designed to create a new way to donate money for child education.
It’s the “Donate A Word” campaign for UNICEF that utilises the spelling feature inside Google Chrome to trigger donation prompts. With each miss-spelt word adding a “Donate This Word To UNICEF” option when users right-click the red underline to amend spelling mistakes…
After taking you through a donation process, that word appears on a globally aggregated “EDUCATION” statement filled by the worlds most commonly miss-spelt words, directly helping to fund education for kids in need. What a great concept, if that was to be introduced directly into Google tools, that page would need to be a whole lot bigger! Nice job ladies!