Saturday, July 31, 2004

Nurture and Nature - the heart of the intellect

This is a big topic, and so this is a big post - the product of my thoughts over many years and many hours typing. I have considered writing a book about intelligence, and perhaps one day I shall. I am sure you will find this commentary as interesting as it is opinionated. It covers psychology, human development, education, and parenting - to add a speck of thought away from the theological and closer to the practical.

Nature or nurture is a topic has been debated much, with much research that allegedly 'prooves' this or that. I believe it goes beyond an academic level, to all areas of a person's life - mind, heart, personality, and character. I will not answer either one way or the other, but my answer will seek to illuminate the true hand-in-hand relationship between both external and internal influences on the intellect.

But a few caveats (qualifications) first: I am biased toward thinking it is our own decisions that make us intelligent or otherwise. Secondly, I am probably biased due to being a comparatively educated and intellectually successful person who has been raised by good parents. I suspect there are more than a few who would differ in opinion because they may not like the implications of what I'm about to say.

Those caveats being said, let us begin. Intelligence can be divided into roughly seven categories; linguistic, logical/mathematical, musical, visual, kinesthetic, interpersonal, and intrapersonal (see this page). I will define intelligence as the ability to learn - not the level of proficiency in each of the above categories - for I believe this should be the true measure of intelligence. Though I have no formal qualifications toward this topic, I believe my observations hold some truth. There are several crucial factors that I believe heavily influence intelligence. These factors are: intellectual stimuli, teaching, character, and metacognitive ability (explained below). I will discuss each of these below, but first, we must look at the concept of learning.

The essence of learning is shown in using two pieces of knowledge to determine another piece of knowledge. Leaning is like a brick wall, you use two blocks of knowledge you understand to create a block that rests on top. That block in turn can be used as the foundation for more. Simple. You cannot be told what the blocks of knowledge are, for memorisation of information is not nderstanding - each block can only be created by using only the blocks beneath. I believe this process of learning applies in every area of our seven or so forms of intelligence. Some people are better builders than others, and some intellectual walls soar with majestic elegance while others simply do the job, but why?

With few expections, most people are equiped a birth with a mind capable of the greatest feats of learning. At birth, our mind is remarkably adaptable - our thought processes are not rigidly formed and our brain must begin to make sense of the world. Even if a significant portion of our brain is lost or damaged at this age, the rest of the brain can relearn and fully compensate in most cases. And so our mind begins to form thinking paradigms which form what I like to learning strategies. These learning strategies are the processes by which our brain attempts to learn.

It is in the first few years of life that our brain develops these learning strategies. During these years the brain is effectively hardwiring core components into place, because the baby needs to use them reliably to develop functional understanding of themselves and their surroundings. I believe the brain also has a safety mechanism - these hard-wired core components are designed to be self-stabilising. Such stable systems are essential so that our brain doesn't get itself into trouble. The net effect of this self-stabilisation is that the more stable they become, the harder they are to modify.

So it is in the first years of life that none other than our parents (or our politically correct 'caregivers') provide us with the resources our brains require to form effective thinking systems. By the time we are 8, it is very difficult to change some essential thinking systems - and by the time we are 18, it is practially impossible. On this justification, the current educational system can be strongly critised. Millions of our dollars are poored at high-school level into trying to teach a world of imagery to the intellectually blind, and yet what is done for babies and toddlers when such vision would spark their mind to life?

It is the parents role to spark the mind of their child by providing stimuli to enable the intellectual growth of the child - this is the true role of a teacher. Intellegence can never be taught, for it is only learned. The role of a teacher is to help and guide and motivate the child on that path of learning. Only a part of that role involves being a fountain of knowledge which quenches the thirst of the child's questions, for most of a child's knowledge comes from other things. Children learn huge amounts when they play, when they talk, when they learn to kick a ball. Teachers must help them learn from the things they enjoy.

By the time a child reaches high-school, it is largely too late. At that age, the brain is largely hard-wired and self-stabilising toward the thinking systems that child has learned at a young age. And it is at this age where a third factor governs further development, character. Some may critisize this assessment, but I have seen ample evidence for it with my own eyes. It is those who have the determination, the patience, the self-disipline, and the vision who continue to learn. Essential elements of character are instilled in the child at an early age by non-other than the parents, and at this time its fruit is truely revealed.

We have all seen it too many times. The trouble student. The bully. The intelligent-but-ill-behaved brat. Sadly, it is largely too late for them also, for character can also become hard-wired in our brains. Without the motivation, drive, and self-disciple to learn, they see little purpose in their school work and seek other ways of filling their time. And there are all too many options these days, not only can one misbehave without fear of any real discipline - for gone are the days of the cane - but one can experiment with drugs and alcohol far more readily. Students know drugs and alcohol are not the answer, but they dull they question. In fact, once a student reaches the barrier of self-discipline, they tend to go one of two directions - to answer the questions, or to ignore the questions. Both work for a time.

Sometime between birth and death, there is a fourth critial element to learning intelligence that I believe is crucial. The earlier it is attained, the better, and I believe it too is learned and grown given appropriate stimulus from parents and teachers. This factor is the skill of metacognition. The term metacognition refers to the act of thinking about thinking, or the cognition of cognition. It is the ability for you to know what you are thinking, and thus control your own thoughts. Confused? Metacognition includes the ability for you to control, 1) person variables (knowledge about one's self, and others' thinking), 2) task variables (knowledge that different types of tasks demand different types of thinking), and; 3) strategy variables (knowledge about cognitive and metacognitive strategies for enhancing learning and performance).

I strongly believe metacognition is a learned skill, one which can be acquired if directed by good teaching - particularly during primary-school years. However, the class-room is no place for the individual guidance required to develop metacognition, and so it again falls to the parents. There is a strong correlation between metacognitive ability and academic success - and I suggest similar correlations with other categories of intelligence. It is only once a person understands what they are thinking that they can do much about thinking a better way, and seek to improve their learning strategies. Once a person becomes skillful at finding ways to improve their learning strategies, the process feeds back into itself, and the mind grows to be skillful not only at learning, but at learning to learn.

So as you can see, I believe internal (our nature) and external (nurture) influences work hand in hand in learning development. There is evidence to suggest our genetics influence our intelligence, and indeed in some congenital cases this is unquestionable. But I believe we should accept the things we cannot change, but change the things we cannot accept. Parenting, and its influence, has been given far too undervalued, and high-school level teaching programs have been grossly overemphasised as the answer to a deep-seated problem. The problem with our education is not in our schools, but in our homes - not in the classroom, but in the push-chair.


Philotas said...

You know, you and Jean Piaget would get along famously! :) most of his theories on childhood mental development closely follow what you have written here.

He says that there are a few main stages that the brain establishes in the early years
- Sensory-motor stage
- Pre Operational stage
- Concrete Operations
- Formal operations
that covers the years from about 0-8. and once these are formalised they cannot be changed except through rigourous psychological conditioning.

He also argues (woah, pulling out knowledge from a year and a half ago here! :P) that there are four main external influences on a child's development: Maturation, Experience, Social Interaction and Equalisation (i think?). this helps form the basis of the child's intellectual development. and its very hardwired into the surrounding environment as you were suggesting.

I loved the mention about the multiple intelligences. I think, like you that intelligence is the individual's learning capacity or ability, wheras these intellegences are more like skills.. damn your theories you academics! :D

And as a Teacher in Training, id like to say a big HELL YES to your last statements about actions in the home being very very undervalued at the moment.
Its true that students will learn with their teachers for much of their young life, but this does not mean that the parents are just shoved out of the picture. A child's home environment has the greatest impact on their development, and instead of focusing on this, emphasis is placed on teachers to mould children when the parents should be playing an equal if not greater role!

Oh, and by the way Reuben, has there been something wrong with my Computer? because for the last few days all ive seen is the post on 'who we are', and now thats like 3 posts back! :P and now i log in and see woah! :D three new posts! all very cool! man, Very RESTEC-P to you mate! :) you should be a teacher! :D

incognito said...

Blogger was not letting me post for a few days so I had to save my thoughts to disk =)

Nathan said...

For what its worth:
It is a well proven fact that you can have irreversable damage from the impoverished environments. For example, they got cats, put them in different environments before a set age, and found in one of the environments they didn't develop depth perception. Ruth can probably give numerous lingusitic examples. (e.g. bilingualism)

So in these cases abnormal impairment can be irreversible. What happens is that the system isn't formed at all, the neural connections are not established. However, it is conceivable that this is binary - provided a decent amount of stimulation is recieved, intelligence modules are formed, which then can be further trained.

So, I guess you could clarify what you mean by intelligence. Do you mean general intellect, the abilities to think in different ways, or intelligence, the thing measured by IQ tests?

Is there a conflict between what you are saying in the first caveat, and the rest of the post? In the caveat: We get to chose our intelligence. In the post: Our parents determine our intelligence.

"I have seen ample evidence for it with my own eyes" - This argument doesn't hold a lot of water...
If you were planning on writing a book it might be a good idea to find some objective evidence?

It is possible that children get locked into an unintelligence cycle, where they are treated as unintelligent, and so they don't have any reason to do any better. They accept that they are not intelligent, so don't bother trying. I accept that there are plenty of predispositions that we learn, but I don't believe a great amount of them are fixed, unless we make them fixed by not giving them the chance to learn (which is what could happen if we were to accept this idea).

Kelly said...

On a semi-related side note -
My Mum works with disabled kids at a primary school and gets very annoyed at the govt pouring in money to kids who are so disabled they don't have a chance, while the ones that could actually benefit from a little extra help get nothing. That might sould harsh labelling kids as not having a chance, but to explain myself, I'm talking about the ones my Mum works with most who are basically vegetables, they can't talk, control any body movements or understand anything said to them, they can't tell their own parents from any other random stranger. Very sad, but their being at school is more for their parents benefit than their own, they learn nothing. While some kids are obviously disabled (as in, more than just neglected or having learning difficulties), yet can't receive government funding because they're not disabled 'enough', or not diagnosed with a specific problem, so they pretty much just fall through the cracks, even though their parents, teachers and teacher aides know that there is something wrong.
Suckity-suck-suck-suck, maybe we need to change some of these policies, vote Reuben for PM!

incognito said...

Nathan, I did state what I was defining as intelligence - the ability to learn (in each of the relatively seperate seven categories).

The caveat is to point out the direction of my bias - meaning my ideas could be biased in that direction.

I am not seeking to academically justify my view - there is not space here. I was refering to the many people I have seen to which my statement applied - evidence was probably the wrong word.

Finally, you are quite right - what difference does it make whether a child is actually 'hard-wired' or whether they simply believe that they are? None. They will not try to change if they believe change is impossible.

Nathan said...

I think it makes a big difference if its hard-wired. If they just believe they have crap-for-brains, the beliefs can be corrected, and they can be fixed. If they do have crap-for-brains, then we may as well send them away to do manual labour.

Hehe... you did define intelligence... oops...

The reason I questioned what you said about attitude being set was because of a friend of mine who failed half his papers while doing a degree, so when he got a job, he left tech early, but then he came back later and aced the course. An example of plasticity.

michelle said...

Kelly - vote me for PM!! im gonna run one day, with my friend Dave... he's the "male in the right role" face, and im the soothing gentle female face (har!)

Nathan - bilingualism is pretty much definate in kinda before they are 6 years old, thats the generally accepted time of aquisition, and between about 6 and 12 it depends almost on each individial case as to whether they pick up both languages with equal competency.

Reubz - i dont have time to read all your post now, but from what i've skimmed over, it reminds me of what my youth pastor is often saying- if you tell kids that they were created by a big bang, not by an intelligent designer, that they evolved into who they are, and create their own future, instead of were specially designed with carefully chosen dreams and desires...
if you tell them that they come from nothing, then they will believe that they are nothing. We've gotta start sewing good seeds into the children and youth of today - start telling them they're worth something, tell them they're beautiful, that God loves them no matter what, that there is a hope and a future... Start nurturing them properly instead of just leaving them to work it out for themselves, in a survival-of-the-fittest kind of race....

michelle said...

and by the way, Nathan, in the first line or so of my comment, thats sposed to be Kids who gain bilingualism up until age 6, not kinda *he he*

EONsim said...

A couple of quick notes. Though your heading is Nurture and Nature to me it appears that you have to a large extent ignored the Nature part by which I mean the genetic basis that to a degree intellignce is inherited.

It's worth noting that to some degree your genetic basis but's certain "limits" on the intelligence of individuals as well as other related things. Nurture has a lare effect but it's base is the genetic and there phenotype of the individual. If theres nothing to work with then Nurture can do very little if there is a massive potential to work with then nurture can do quite alot either by helping stimulate intellegence or by suppressing it.

Couple of interesting figures about this from twin studies are. These are based on IQ tests which covers only some of the things you defined as intellegence.

MZT show a correlation of ~0.82 on average
MZA show a correlation of ~0.75 on average
DZT shows ~0.22 on average
DZA shows ~0.38 on average

MZ means Monozygotic twins ie identical twins, Twins resulting from the fertilisation of ONE egg therefore sharing 100% of their DNA.
DZ means Dizygotic twins ie non identical, Twins resulting from the fertilisation of Two egg's therefore sharing 50% of their DNA.
T stands for reared togeather.
A stands for reared apart.

It's hard to explain correlation in a genetic sence so I'll give an example that hopefully explains it.
Eg if a gene or genes were found that had a ~50% correlation to a certain crime being commited. And a person comitted that crime the correlation does not mean that the person had a 50% chance of commiting that crime rather that if they did commited the crime 50% of why they commited could be explained by the genes.

Any way what the numbers suggest is that intelligence (as meassured by IQ tests) is inheritable or has a strong genetic basis. This is determined by looking at the high correlation value for the MZ Twins. Those reared appart only sharing there DNA have a correlation for IQ of ~ 70% while non identical twins who are reared apart only show a correlation of ~38% a much lower figure.

Another interesting example of the effect genetics can have on behaviour can be seen in mice.
Mice contain a gene called fosB which is expressed in the brain. Mice with normal (wild type) fosB act normally after giving birth making a nest, collecting their pups up, crouching over them to warm them and nursing them.

Those Mice that have a damaged version of fosB act quite differently though. After giving birth they simply ignore there pups leaving them scattered around the area untill they die.

Thankfully no similar gene has been found in humans :). But that does give you a good Idea of the effect genes (nature) can have on behaviour.


IQ test like the once used in the twin studies are designed to test a different deffinition of intelligence the definition they use is.
"It is a constellation of mental abilities including the skills needed to 1) define and understand words, 2) think of words rapidly, 3) analyze mathematical relationships, 4) analyze spatial releation-ships,5) memorise and recall information, 6) percive similarities and difference among objects, and 7) formulate rules, principles, and concepts for solving problems and understanding situations.

Any way this is a very genetical view of Intelligence and some what tangential to your main post/point.

incognito said...

Ah yes, someone was bound to bring up the twin studies. Yes, they have indeed been much heralded as proof of the influence of nature... This is why I said I was biased =) and why I said it's no real use in trying to change the genetic side of it anyway.

Perhaps there is more in the genes than I think, but perhaps they are wrong... like so many other scientists =)

Nathan said...

Hey Chad, doesn't a correlation of r =.75 roughly equate to a variance accounted for of .75 squared or 9/16, roughly 50%?

Nathan said...

With regard to genes not telling everything, it could be that genes cause people to be more likely to be taught. For an example, good looks. A good looking baby will recieve more attention, and thus might develop more intelligent. So the genes did influence the development of intelligence, but we haven't established whether this is direct or indirect.

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