Two short planks?

It’s National Brain Training Awareness Month, according to the Metro.

I couldn’t remember the name of the month (I still thought it was July) or the name of the Prof* who’s promoting it (Ian Robertson), without finding my copy of the Metro and copying it down. So this brain training stuff might be becoming a matter of urgency.

Ian Robertson said

“Studies show our average IQ rose all the way through the 20th century, but has declined over the last ten years.”

I have to admit that this seems more than mildly spurious, given that IQ is not exactly reliable evidence of much (The field is dominated by shady bad-scientists from Birt to Eysenck and doesn’t show anything except the ability to do well on IQ tests.)** But, given that the claim fits so smoothly in with my own prejudices, I’m happy to run with the ball here.

I do indeed feel that people in general are getting noticeably stupider. I would be happy to argue the toss all day about what factors could be responsible – from the after effects of the lead in the petrol when today’s young adults were growing brain-tissue, through a lowest-common-denominator education system that rewards conformist office skills and discourages imagination, shot through with constant testing.

But, this diatribe must have some word limit, so I’ll stick to the synergistic effects of an increasingly stupid culture. According to Robertson, the brain is a muscle that needs exercising throughout life.

Few of us are doing work that exercises it. (Working in a call centre uses much less of the brain than a traditional manual labourer used to exercise.) Few of us have interests that expand our consciousness or physical or mental skills.

The more stupid we become, the more stupid things get rolled out for our entertainment, the more we imbibe them uncritically, the more stupid we come.

*Cue Whiney codgerish rant*

It used to be said that the Sun newspaper was aimed at people with a reading age of 11, hence its mass market appeal. Now, that’s already starting from a pretty low base.

But, we now have television that makes reading the Sun seem like an intellectual pursuit. (It involves READING, ffs.)

Dull and self-obsessed “ordinary” people locked up with others of their ilk while they compete ever more bitchily for our attention. Talent shows with z-list music-biz judges, where both contenders and judges compete bitchily for our attention. And so on. Dull Z-list celebs learning to dance. Dull z-list celebs eating raw worms. 10 sexiest male singers. 100 greatest TV advert characters……..

We are basically socially reinforcing every tendency towards stupidity that we can muster. And we are making ourselves as stupid as we possibly can at a time when we really need our brains. We are living in a time of extreme crisis – in terms of wars, resources, the natural environment, population pressure. And we are all busy doing the “fiddling while Rome burns” thing – switching off our intelligence to avoid noticing that all the threats that have been looming for decades haven’t gone away.

*Cue Gushing rave*

From another perspective, though, there is lots of evidence that some people have been getting much smarter over the past ten years. The Internet didn’t even really exist a little more than ten years ago. And it’s spawning works of genius all the time. The people designing software and net tools are expanding the world’s possibilities every day. Just plain old Internet users are taking these inventions and creating miraculous things in terms of communication and art. (Witness the atheist blogroll, some of the things on You-tube, the arcane worlds of linux fanatics and hax0r groups, brilliant blogs, amazing photography, stunning 3d rendering, etc)

So I suspect that average intelligence hasn’t actually fallen. The average brain capacity has just become polarised. The people with the working brain tissue are getting exponentially smarter and the mentally challenged are giving up the fight to become fully human.

(* Not sure what his job is. The Metro says “Dean of NeuroScience at the University of Dublin”. Some training site that cites his research says “Professor of Psychology at Trinity College Dublin.” Maybe a promotion plus a change of specialty? )
** Coincidentally, Pharyngula expresses his problem with doubting the validity of IQ while wanting to go along with IQ-based research that matches what he wants to hear – in his case, that atheists have 5 points higher IQs than believers. Well, he’s only pretending to be torn. Of course he doesn’t accept it as ‘true’, enticing as the idea is. there is an interesting discussion of IQ, with some good comments. The post was picked up on WhyDontYou tumbler and Planet atheism as well.
*** How brainy is this, hey? Three footnotes. On a blog? đŸ™‚ In your face, stupid people.