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Intelligence Is a Process, Not a Thing

September 22, 2010

The human brain is incredible. Because of limitations on the size of a head that can fit through a female birth canal, our brains at birth are a mere 30% of eventual adult size. Between the ages from birth to 3 years, the brain adds 50% of its eventual adult size. 100 billion neurons exist in the average grain, transmitting and exchanging lots of information. A babies neurons are essentially unconnected at birth, and form phenomenal numbers of neural chemical pathways as it grows.

When I was in college, Dr. William Shockley, a Nobel Laureate in physics, proposed that intelligence was genetic, and that blacks were genetically inferior to whites. Roy Innis, national director of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), debated Dr. Shockley at Princeton in 1973, while I was an undergraduate. I did not attend the debate.

Dr. Shockley’s worldview of genetics has since been inalterably upended by science. A new generation of geneticists are discovering that genetics play a smaller role in intelligence than previously thought. What is more important is the interaction of environment with our genes, and the amount of effort put into developing ones intellect.

Mr. Shenk discusses a groundbreaking study in his book by researchers Rod Cooper and John Zubek in 1958. The Cooper-Zubek study compared maze dull and maze bright rats. Each strain had been identified by their lines performance in mazes. When the rats were raised in 3 different environments, enriched, normal and restricted, their performances normalized, and any meaningful difference disappeared. Performance was found to be more dependent on environment and its interaction with genes than on genes alone.

Every child born normal and healthy is a blank slate, with incredible potential. We do not know what our limits are, but through managing the environment our children grow up in, we can ensure that they achieve at very high levels.

When we accept that intelligence is a process, we can then manage that process to produce intelligence. As Chugachmiut pursues its Restoration to Health strategy, this knowledge will be central as we move forward to help our tribal members become healthier and happier.

[1] David Shenk, “The Genius in All of Us,” p. 22, Doubleday: NY (2010)

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