Thursday, September 15, 2011

Flynn Effect 104

A paper recently published in the journal Intelligence, “The Flynn effect puzzle: A 30-year examination from the right tail of the ability distribution provides some missing pieces” (Wai and Putallaz 2011), serves a valuable purpose—it makes it more difficult for scientists to dismiss the Flynn effect.

I think most scientists would agree that the Flynn effect—the persistent, well-documented rise in raw intelligence scores across nearly every measured population—is a phenomenon that has yet to be explained very well; the words “mystery” and “puzzle” frequently get bandied about in association with the Flynn effect. Perhaps uncomfortable with the idea of a mystery or a puzzle sitting right in the middle of all the psychometric progress they’ve been making in recent years, some cognitive scientists seem content to mostly dismiss the Flynn effect, describing it as little more than a twentieth-century anomaly, driven perhaps by some underprivileged populations catching up to the norm and raising the mean, a process that may have already run its course, thereby allowing the Flynn effect to calm down and politely go away. The slightly understated suggestion is, why bother to explain a blip?

But (Wai and Putallaz 2011) shouts a great big No! to all that. (Wai and Putallaz 2011) provides evidence that the Flynn effect holds just as strongly among those of high intelligence and advanced intellectual ability as it does across the remainder of the population, and (Wai and Putallaz 2011) also provides evidence that, at least for the population being studied, the Flynn effect continues to hum along at a significant pace. The unmistakable conclusion from this new study is that the Flynn effect appears to be both ubiquitous and relentless; it shows no evidence of being anything like a blip.

I can't say I'm surprised by that conclusion. By my reckoning, the Flynn effect has been both ubiquitous and relentless for at least the last fifty thousand years.

In considering explanations for the Flynn effect that would possess the necessary characteristics of being both widespread and ongoing, some discussions surrounding (Wai and Putallaz 2011) highlight the impact of an increasing level of environmental complexity. This notion is generally described as a set of fast-paced, highly structured items the population (children in particular) gets routinely exposed to and that helps individuals acquire the kinds of skills that translate well to problem-solving abilities on intelligence tests. The two most commonly cited examples are the increased use of video games and the increasingly complex and multivariate nature of movie and television show plots.

Highlighting increased environmental complexity is certainly a step in the right direction, but it is also clear from the context of these discussions that what’s being made is a small and tentative step, one not quite sure of where it's going. Therefore let me take this opportunity to convince the tentative proponents of environmental complexity that they can take a much larger step, and take it with a good deal more confidence.

The first problem I see with discussions surrounding environmental complexity is that they tend to focus on things in the environment instead of considering the impact of the environment as a whole. No matter what thing or set of things is being contemplated—including video games and entertainment plots—one immediately realizes huge swaths of the population never get exposed to that particular thing or set of things, and yet they too fall under the full sway of the Flynn effect. Indeed, the Flynn effect was working its magic long before there even were video games and television sets, and the Flynn effect continues to be prominent in locales where video games and sophisticated dramas have yet to take much hold. Suggesting alternative candidates for environmental complexity would fail to solve the problem as well: anything (any thing) we might mention is going to betray the same weakness, is going to be not universal or timeless enough to explain the Flynn effect's widespread and nonstop power.

But the repair to this problem is actually quite simple: just put all the things together.

From the beginning of man's great leap forward and across nearly the entirety of this planet's surface, the types of environmental complexity have varied greatly from time to time and from place to place, but the one consistent observation that can be made about environmental complexity is that no matter what time and no matter what place is under consideration, the total amount of environmental complexity is nearly always on the rise. Man has been accumulating an ever-increasing supply of non-biological pattern, structure and form into his surroundings, has been absorbing these surroundings and responding constructively to them, and through these means has exhibited an increasingly sophisticated set of behaviors. As the hypothetical example in Flynn Effect 101 demonstrates, the total quantification of environmental intelligence is all that is needed to drive population-wide raw intelligence gains. No particular piece of environmental complexity need ever be mentioned; it is the accumulative impact of environmental complexity that produces the Flynn effect.

The second problem I see with discussions surrounding environmental complexity is that everyone feels compelled to translate environmental complexity into a lasting physical impression upon the human brain. Playing video games, for instance, is seen as expanding the capacity of working memory; modern movie plots form a larger number of connections within our logical neural circuitry. It's as though environmental complexity is useless as it is; its only purpose is to prompt restructuring inside our neurons, spawn massive rewiring between our ears. This notion is certainly scientifically popular, but it also betrays an extremely poor conception of biology.

At bottom, the human neural system is simply the biological means of stimulus and response, just as it is for all the other animals, just as it was for early Homo sapiens. The human brain can produce behavior, including intelligent behavior, but it cannot store quantities of content, including the content of intelligence. There are three compelling reasons why the material form of human intelligence will not be found inside the human skull:

  1. There is no concrete evidence for it. Although neuroscience has certainly produced a prodigious amount of data, statistics and pictures, it has produced not even the first step towards describing how connected sets of neurons produce anything from a simple hello to the theory of relativity. That description is yet only a distant hope, certainly not an accomplishment.
  2. It would require an evolutionary miracle. Nearly everything man counts as intelligent behavior (nearly everything man measures on intelligence tests) had its human origin within only the last several thousand years. Early Homo sapiens—biological equivalents to ourselves—displayed almost nothing of what we currently describe as intelligent behavior. Thus if the human brain is to be conceived of as both the physical source and the physical location of human intelligence, then the current structure of the human brain must have sprung up all at once population wide, in violation of everything we know about biological evolution.
  3. It would be utterly superfluous. Every aspect of human intelligence can be described by appealing to something material within the human environment. Language, mathematics, logic—every feature of human intelligence has a tangible and lasting form within the physical surroundings, form that thoroughly defines the feature. To repeat that tangible and lasting form within the structures of the human brain would be, to put it mildly, excessively redundant.

The desire to translate the effects of environmental complexity into physical impacts upon the human brain is nothing but the consequence of a scientific prejudice—a prejudice without evidence, likelihood, or need.

In summary, those who are proponents of increasing environmental complexity as an explanation for the Flynn effect are certainly on the right track, but to arrive at their destination, they must learn to be more bold. In particular:

  • They must stop emphasizing things or sets of things when characterizing environmental complexity. It is the total amount of environmental complexity—that is to say, the landscape-wide accumulation of environmental intelligence—that has been the continuous force driving the Flynn effect.
  • They must accept that the combined elements of environmental complexity are quite literally the material form of human intelligence itself. They must quit looking for intelligence within our neurons, they must not stop expecting to find intelligence inside our heads.

(Wai and Putallaz 2011): Wai, Jonathan; Putallaz, Martha. 2011. “The Flynn effect puzzle: A 30-year examination from the right tail of the ability distribution provides some missing pieces.” Intelligence (in press).

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