Are we getting smarter or dumber?

Mike Merzenich, a neuroscientist, investigates whether intelligence in the Internet age is really on the upswing.

Stefanie Olsen Staff writer, CNET News
Stefanie Olsen covers technology and science.
Stefanie Olsen
7 min read
"Too much information" may be the catchphrase of the Internet age.

That's why generations reared on Net technology may need to one day rely on the brain calisthenics being developed and tested by Mike Merzenich, a neuroscientist, software entrepreneur and self-described "applied philosopher."

Merzenich, who has a doctorate in neuroscience from Johns Hopkins, runs a think tank of scientists developing programs to keep your brain in shape. Why not? He's already developed software to help children with dyslexia and other disorders learn how to read, as founding CEO of Scientific Learning. And in the late 1980s, he was on a team that invented the cochlear implant.

Smarten up

For better or worse, high tech is helping shape human intelligence. Also in this News.com series:

As co-founder and lead scientist of San Francisco-based Posit Science--his latest venture--Merzenich oversaw testing programs centered on research he's done for three decades on brain plasticity. A field of neuroscience, brain plasticity deals with the ability of gray matter to adapt and change physically and functionally throughout life. Without invasive surgery or pharmaceuticals, Posit Science is testing programs on the elderly to engage brain plasticity and promote cognitive fitness.

CNET News.com spoke with Merzenich about how technology is affecting human intelligence.

Has intelligence changed at all in the era of the Internet?
Merzenich: Over the past 20 years or so, beginning before the Internet really took hold, the standard measure of "intelligence" (cognitive ability) has risen significantly (well more than 10 points). No one really knows what to pin this on, but it is a well-documented fact.

Are we getting smarter--or more lazily reliant on computers, and therefore, dumber?
Merzenich: Our brains are different from those of all humans before us. Our brain is modified on a substantial scale, physically and functionally, each time we learn a new skill or develop a new ability. Massive changes are associated with our modern cultural specializations.

The Internet is one of a series of aids developed over the last millennium or so that has increased the operational capacities of the average world citizen.

The Internet is just one of those things that contemporary humans can spend millions of "practice" events at, that the average human a thousand years ago had absolutely no exposure to. Our brains are massively remodeled by this exposure--but so, too, by reading, by television, by video games, by modern electronics, by contemporary music, by contemporary "tools," etc.

When humans first evolved from the chimp line, they were (of course) only slightly more advanced than their relatives. It took them 10,000 to 20,000 years to develop the first useful language; about 40,000 years to figure out how to make a sharp knife; maybe 55,000 years or so to develop a method of writing; another several thousand years before they figured out how to make something sensible and portable to write on; another couple of thousand years to invent punctuation; another thousand years or so to figure out how to make more than one copy of a book; another 200 years before the general populace was taught to read, and then in only some places in the world; another couple of hundred years before the invention of the radio, television, the movies; and so on.

In each stage of cultural development (and hundreds of separate lines of development could be tracked like this), the average human had to learn complex new skills and abilities that all involve massive brain change. Our brains are vastly different, in fine detail, from the brains of our ancestors.

We're seeing more and more people falling off the boat.

We have this wonderful ability to specialize--so powerful that each one of us can actually learn an incredibly elaborate set of ancestrally developed skills and abilities in our lifetimes, in a sense generating a recreation of this history of cultural evolution via brain plasticity, in a highly abstracted form, in every one of us.

With the Internet and contemporary technology evolving at a lightning pace over the past 40 years, the demands of uploading from our cultural history are incredible, and we're seeing more and more people falling off the boat.

Does this mean that our "intelligence" is greater?
Merzenich: The answer to that depends in part on your definition of "intelligence." In classical studies, it was argued that each one of us has a core ability that is not influenced by our education or culture. This may or may not be true, and it may or may not be the case that it is changing as our cultural resources expand (now almost exponentially).

What is getting better, undeniably, is the amount of information, and our access to

information, that can contribute to a reasoned decision by our brains.

Is the fact that we do not have to remember, but rather have the world's information at our fingertips, a liability to our intelligence?
Merzenich: Intelligence arises from three basic assets. First, we have a genetic endowment that enables and limits our cognition. Second, we learn a wide variety of basic skills and abilities that solidify, elaborate and crucially support our cognitive abilities, and that can impact the efficiency (accuracy, at speed) of our cognitive operations.

I suppose our abstract thinking abilities will be substantially superseded by machines.

Third, we each load our brains with hundreds of thousands of words and little episodes that we associate with one another in millions or tens of millions of ways.

Developing the skills and abilities that crucially support our refined cognitive abilities, and filling our brain dictionaries and constructing this myriad of probabilistic associations in (various) categories, are products of massive brain change. We are greatly facilitated in increasing this stored repertoire and in being guided in constructing our associative references by books, the media and in a particularly powerful and efficient way, by the Internet.

You cannot make associations about things that you have not recorded. In this respect, the Internet is one of a series of aids developed over the last millennium or so that has increased the operational capacities of the average world citizen.

In my use of the Internet or any other reference source, I do not turn my brain off. I'm gathering information and associating it in my very own computer, right along with my desktop computer and the Internet. If anything, these aids are helping my brain gather more information to get more answers right, and to see more possible associations than would otherwise be the case.

Will we be smarter with computers that can do abstract thinking for us? Or will that exacerbate a potential problem?
Merzenich: This is a difficult question to answer because it is difficult to see just how this will evolve. Personally, I see this triumph of technology, if it occurs on a broad scale, as a rather astounding defeat of its inventors, don't you? I suppose our abstract thinking abilities will be substantially superseded by machines.

One can imagine a future when the machine is consistently relied on for the answer, and in which, outside of setting up the question, the human is relatively redundant in this process. Of course, one can also imagine quite a few other scenarios.

In general, the brain needs to learn, to reason, to act. Without it, it deteriorates. I assume that we brain scientists understand this with increasing clarity, and whatever else the information explosion contributes to humankind, we'll understand, with increasing clarity, what the average individual has to do to maintain lifelong "brain fitness."

How does your research on brain plasticity affect intelligence?
Merzenich: One can measure intelligence before and after intensive training in a variety of different forms (e.g., with the tools that we've developed for school-age children and mature adults in their language, reading and cognitive abilities) and record very significant advances in those measures. We have been training 70- to 90-plus-year-olds to be more accurate aural-language receivers and language users. After 40 hours or so of training, the average trainee's cognitive abilities are rejuvenated by about 10 years, i.e., their performance on a cognitive assessment battery is like those of an average person who is 10 years younger.

Many individuals improve by 20 or 30 or more years in ability. Similar before-vs.-after effects have been recorded using basic cognitive measures in kids.

Is our brain still evolving, and can we do anything proactively to stay smart?
Merzenich: Culture is evolving, and that means that the challenges faced by brains are continuously changing and elaborating. Our brains are different. Different doesn't always mean "better." Different can be "worse."

Sure, we can and must do things to stay proactively "smart." We must exercise our brains as the learning machines that they are, and we must do this continuously through life. We must work hard to maintain our skills and abilities as accurate receivers and users of information from aural language, vision, body senses, movement control, etc.

With the help of many world neuroscientists, Posit Science is working as hard as possible to develop and apply brain fitness tools that can provide this crucial exercise. Brain fitness will be an important part of every future, well-organized life.