Thursday, December 31, 2015

Short Stack

I was intrigued to discover there is now a stack exchange for cognitive science. As a software developer, I make use of the computer programming stack exchange several times each week, and I think many of my colleagues would agree with me it is one of the more valuable tools available to our profession.

I would also argue that the main reason the computer programming stack exchange is so successful is that around 98% of the time, the question actually has an answer. In the case of a cognitive science stack exchange, I would guess the percentages are just about reversed.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015


[Edit 02/11/2017: The final version of this essay can be found here.]

There is a widespread misunderstanding, common among laypeople and many academicians too, that genius is the equivalent of great intelligence. This can be seen for instance in the tendency to categorize high IQ scores, such as those above 150, as falling within a genius range, and reciprocally it can be seen in the anachronistic practice of doling out impressive IQ scores—usually in the neighborhood of 200 or so—to well-established geniuses such as Mozart and Newton. To be fair, many researchers recognize that the possession of a high IQ is not sufficient to establish genius, that other factors must also be brought to bear. Creativity frequently gets mentioned as a necessary concomitant to genius, and others have noted the tendency towards aloofness and oddity that many geniuses seem to exude. Still, it is hard not to conceive a direct relationship between genius and greater intelligence—in many respects the relationship seems so blatantly obvious—and in this age of the Flynn effect, where intelligence is everywhere measurably on the rise, it is becoming something of a puzzle as to why genius is not blossoming around every corner, indeed why it has almost entirely disappeared.

The irony here is that there is a direct relationship between genius and greater intelligence—the blatantly obvious turns out in this case to be actually true—and yet this direct relationship remains entirely misapprehended. The trouble lies perhaps not so much with the concept of genius itself, a concept that remains fluid enough to still be amended. The trouble lies more fundamentally with the concept of intelligence, a concept that has now hardened into intransigent dogma. Humanity thoroughly misunderstands what intelligence is, and thus in turn, it thoroughly misunderstands what genius is.

Intelligence is a neural activity, it is what humans produce inside their evolutionarily superior brain—no statement it would seem is in less dispute. When humans applaud a high IQ score (and in the same breath applaud genius), they are paying homage to the activities of someone's brain, they are giving due to an example of neural excellence. People are born smart, everyone surely knows that by now, and if someone has managed to improve their intelligence through education or some other means, it is because they have rewired the intricate workings inside their skull, they have leaned heavily on that marvelous and practically miraculous concept known as neural plasticity. In the same way that weightlifters harvest the strength of their over-sized muscles, intelligent thinkers brandish the power of their super-connected neurons. This has become the unquestioned dogma of the land.

Like other well-entrenched dogmatic mistakes, this one began honestly enough with a grain of truth. That there exist natural intelligence differences from person to person would have been apparent even before the dawn of civilization, and now with the advent of intelligence exams and psychometric analysis, these observable distinctions have not only been experimentally confirmed, they have also been broadly linked to genetic and neurological foundations. So the brain certainly plays an important role in human intelligence, of that there can be no doubt. But that the brain plays the entire role in human intelligence, or even the most significant role—well, that is something that could have been doubted from the very beginning.

The first indication that intelligence cannot be explained by human neurology alone is the Flynn effect, the observation that intelligence scores have been increasing population wide since first being measured (and by logical extension, probably long before that). If intelligence is entirely a brain-based neurological activity, then the Flynn effect strongly implies that human neurology must be rapidly and tangibly changing, becoming physically and substantially more effective with each generation. Scientists of course hesitate before such a notion, because it defies every known characteristic of biology, genetics and evolution. As an alternative, scientists offer up other explanations—a grand plethora of other explanations—designed to bridge the seemingly insurmountable gap between biology and observation. Heterosis, better nutrition, social multipliers, video games, increased schooling, test familiarity, fast and slow life—just about everything except the kitchen sink has been guessed so far, and in one final desperate all-encompassing guess, the suggestion has been put forth that the Flynn effect is in fact caused by all of the above, working in some kind of orgiastic combination. But despite the twisting and turning about, not one of these efforts has proven to be even remotely plausible or the slightest bit convincing, and thus the Flynn effect is now awaiting an inevitability, awaiting that moment when scientists finally tire of banging their heads against a wall. The unavoidable fact is this: the Flynn effect is incompatible with an entirely neurological human intelligence, meaning that ultimately one of those two concepts must go. And the Flynn effect of course is an observation, while an entirely neurological human intelligence is merely a prejudice.

Plus it is more than just the Flynn effect that votes a resounding nay against the notion of a brain-based intelligence. Genius too is utterly incompatible with the concept. Because if intelligence really were exclusively a brain-based neurological activity, then the common wisdom regarding genius would of necessity be true, genius would consistently belong to the domain of those with the most effective neural structures, and in this era of an ever increasing intelligence, genius would now be as plentiful as springtime rain. The continuing allure of this common wisdom speaks volumes about the ongoing and widespread acceptance of a brain-based intelligence, but the observable and obvious inaccuracy of this common wisdom speaks volumes about the blindness of that acceptance. The non-equivalence of genius and high intelligence has always been a puzzle, as puzzling in fact as the Flynn effect, and it is a puzzle that stems from the exact same root. The characteristics of genius simply do not fit to the characteristics of an entirely neurological human intelligence, meaning that ultimately one of those two concepts must go. And the characteristics of genius are derived from observation, while an entirely neurological human intelligence is merely a prejudice.

This author has detailed elsewhere a description of intelligence that rejects any primary reliance upon a brain-based, neurological foundation. In this new description, intelligence is defined quite literally as the amount of pattern, structure and form tangibly contained within the human environment. The network of highways, the symmetry of buildings, the repetition of clocks, the arrangement of letters on a page—all this and so much more—these mostly artificial environmental features constitute the material substance of intelligence itself, directly observable, directly measurable, directly defined. Intelligence palpably exists around a human, it does not exist primarily inside his head. Humans of course differ in their ability to absorb and respond to this surrounding intelligence, a difference that shows up quite nicely on the relative scores of an IQ exam, a difference with genetic and neural basis. But the overall level of human intelligence is not determined by individual abilities, the overall level of intelligence has nothing to do with the human brain. Human intelligence grows via the concrete addition of pattern, structure and form into the human environment, and this physical accretion of intelligence is the direct source, the direct driver, the direct cause, of the Flynn effect.

Plus this new description of intelligence provides more than just an accounting of the Flynn effect, it also produces a straightforward and observable definition of genius. Accumulation of intelligence into the human environment does not happen magically; in order for new intelligence to accrue within the human surroundings something must put it there. A large portion of this accretion can be accomplished via replication, by copying the already existent pattern, structure and form from one context into another. Blueprints, books, education, communication, plus a myriad of other means—all these serve to take the intelligence already embodied within the environment and then spread it further around. But replication can only go so far; if intelligence is to continue to grow, then novel pattern, structure and form must eventually be introduced. And while replication can be achieved by almost anyone (it is humanity's greatest shared activity), the introduction of novel intelligence is an activity exceptionally rare. No other animal species has managed to construct new intelligence within its own environment, and humans themselves did not do so for a very long time. What is required for this unusual feat is an individual with an exceptionally unusual eye, an individual with the ability and inclination to perceive the world not as it already is and not as others already perceive it, but to perceive the world quite differently from everyone else, to cast the world into a whole new paradigm. And when these anomalous perceptions have been promulgated far enough, after they have been copied a sufficient enough times, as they significantly increase the overall amount of pattern, structure and form contained within the human environment—that is to say, as they significantly increase the overall level of human intelligence—then the source of these catalyzing perceptions is finally recognized, often very much in retrospect, and the originating individual is given the name he or she most accurately deserves, is given the name of genius.

In short, genius is the unforeseen spark that fires the Flynn effect.

One of the first characteristics to recognize about individual genius is that it does not require superior intellectual ability; genius requires only a sufficient understanding of the domain of interest. A high IQ in fact mostly hinders genius, because superior intelligence implies superior command of the pattern, structure and form already contained within the environment, but this superior command can easily obscure any perception of intelligence as it might possibly be. The individual genius is more apt to possess an uneven or contrarian intelligence profile, as though there is some degree of confusion or dissatisfaction with conventional answers.

An even more telling characteristic of genius is its deep fascination with non-biological pattern, structure and form—the material substance of intelligence itself—a fascination often bordering on the aberrant. This characteristic already establishes the rarity of genius, because for the vast majority of the human population, the primary focus is not on non-biological pattern, structure and form; for the vast majority of the human population, the primary focus is on other people. This is in keeping with the powerful hold that biological perception and conspecific awareness have upon nearly every animal organism, a hold that is entirely essential to survival and procreation but is effectively blinding to the possibilities of new intelligence. The individual genius is one who has been loosened from this conspecific grip and who in compensation has turned hungrily towards the structural details of the external world. This perceptual mismatch between the individual genius and the remainder of humanity explains in large measure the oft-mentioned secondary traits of genius: iconoclastic, abrasive, aloof, a little bit strange. The individual genius simply does not perceive the world as does everyone else—genius and humanity are fundamentally at odds.

The characteristics of genius align closely to the characteristics of the condition known as autism. In each case, these are individuals conspecifically distanced from the remainder of the population. In each case, these are individuals focused primarily on non-biological pattern, structure and form (not focused primarily on other people). In each case, these are individuals often misunderstood and frequently disdained by conventional wisdom. For those who have callously written off the autistic population, including nearly the entire research and scientific community, the alignment of genius and autism must seem nothing short of outrageous. But the observable characteristics speak for themselves, characteristics that align with typicality hardly at all.

The retrospective acclaim that attaches to genius is perhaps its most ironic feature. Although genius truly earns and deserves all its recognition, it is not because there is always something exclusive or essential about the ingenious act. In a context of accruing intelligence, nearly every moment of genius is a discovery destined to be made sooner or later anyway. Take Newton for instance: if Newton had not returned home in his twenty-third year but instead had traveled to London and therein succumbed to the Great Plague, it does not mean that the differential calculus, the laws of motion and the theory of gravitation would have never seen the light of day. Other individuals of eccentric perception would have eventually promoted these notions, and today such individuals would be heralded as genius. As far as is known, there might have been several predecessors to Newton all capable of the exact same feats, but who through unfortunate circumstance never gained the opportunity.

The more authentic reason to celebrate genius is that it is an act of individual defiance and individual courage. All the approbation showered on genius is done so from the safety of retrospective time. At its moment of birth, novel intelligence always cuts against the common grain and gathers no immediate stamp of approval. What novel intelligence usually garners is a heaping dose of neglect, scorn and derision, because humanity is content with what it already knows, feels the safest with what it can perceive in unison—each revision is an unwelcome intruder. To bring pristine pattern, structure and form into the human environment, the individual genius must weather a storm of rebukes from without and a flood of doubts from within; the introduction of new intelligence is one of the loneliest acts imaginable.

This past century has seen a grand scale movement to accommodate genius to a much broader population. Perhaps motivated by the retrospective acclaim, and certainly unaware of the requisite isolation, humanity has been pooling its efforts in an attempt to distill genius's indispensable merits into dispensable recipe. Scientific method and artistic technique have emerged as the templates of choice, and the academic institutions, once home to the most bizarre and misanthropic of creatures, now attract gregarious millions, each eager to play a role in the next great discovery. Optimism is announced daily by press release, pending results form the backbone of nearly every grant proposal, but there is a silence now surrounding the din of these swelling universities, it is the silence of genius having walked away from these overcrowded academic halls.

The ever more tightly prescribed requirements of scientific method have led to all too predictable results, a tidal-wave of bland minutiae, more monotonous and more dogmatic with each publication. The increasingly rote specifications of artistic technique have led to similarly predictable results, an avalanche of trivial art for trivial art's sake, more self-conscious and more self-congratulatory with each debut. Having pooled their efforts to be part of something intelligently grand, today's university denizens find themselves herded along in an increasingly frantic push for more: more requirements, more specifications, more standards, more ethics, more committees, more peers, more reviews, more co-authors, more citations, more statistics, more funding, more methods, more techniques. Everyone must stick together, everyone must follow the routine, and if all just play their role as specified, then the promise of genius can flow forth like manna and honey, flow forth as the combined product of everyone's evolutionarily superior brain.

The grand scale movement has turned into a music hall comedy, full of bathos and farce.

Genius attaches to individuals, it does not arise from groups. Genius appears only in those who have mastered that rarest characteristic of all, the willingness to dare to go it alone. Although scientific method and artistic technique will always have their place, as tools in the massive replication of intelligence—still the honorable work of all mankind—nonetheless, scientific method and artistic technique cannot inspire genius. And as the academic institutions become increasingly shoulder to shoulder, as they sink further into a slavedom of prescribed routine, expect the individual genius to continue to hasten away. Expect the next great discovery to come from someplace unexpected.