Naked Science - Intelligence
“I told her how I’d handle the problem if I was her; but her mood worsened. I said I felt sorry she was in this mess and she smiled.”
“What makes people’s brains tick? I heard that flossing teeth might slow development of dementia?”
“I was on a train and suddenly realised the strangers sat around me must have stories. Maybe some are nurses, some are train drivers; some might have gone to the same secondary school as me….”
“I walked along Langstrasse road, turned right and walked straight for a while, then turned right and walked straight for a while; to my surprise, I arrived back where I had started from!”
“I read about materials I can recycle so that I am kind to the environment when I go shopping. I mainly buy products with plastic which decomposes. That is my best choice based on the available knowledge; how was I to know that the plastic needs oxygen to biodegrade but the bin collectors do landfill – so oxygen does not break it down!”
Naked Science is a way of thinking which seeks to improve the mind. One of those branches of thinking is Intelligence; and this book is about Intelligence.
There are said to be different types of intelligence but this work is about the intelligence of clarity of thought and problem solving.
Other types of intelligence include musical ability and athleticism which are enviable skills. This work is about IQ as logical thinking; but also about the creative process that introduces new material to be logical about.
Intelligence is generally measured through the use of tests. By practising those tests often enough, a person can achieve very good scores but still not show great intelligence in other walks of life. Intelligence is not just about doing well in tests; it is about thinking in a way that allows one to be intelligent in many different situations.
It is perhaps bizarre that someone can be fantastic at doing their daily job or routine but fail at an activity which is 99% the same because of the inability to see that it is essentially the same task.
An example of two activities being very similar but different is the classic game of ‘noughts and crosses’ compared with a magic square grid of 3 by 3: i.e. 9 squares. A ‘magic square’ has a rule that the numbers along a line must total the same total as any other line of numbers across the square. With a magic square, you can not put any old number into any square; and you can only win in ‘noughts and crosses’ by having a line of three symbols be the same. These constraints turn out to have a lot of similarity.
I bet nobody learns what a ‘magic square’ is, at school, any more! Maybe it is a bad example.
OK, how about football and rugby and basketball. They are different sports but the strategic thinking of one game might benefit how you play one of the other games. For instance, it is undesirable to become trapped in a corner. You can say that about the king in chess too, perhaps! Since the king is so important, it is good to have other pieces be sacrificed to save him. That sounds a bit like American Football where people get in the way so that the guy who throws the ball a long way has time to throw it properly.
I think sport then is a good way of demonstrating the idea that very different activities can also be very similar if you filter them or classify them in a new way.
Maybe someone learning to drive a car and learning to check the mirror before changing lanes will, when a pedestrian, start to look over their shoulder when shifting across a broad pavement. I think that it is human nature to carry behaviours from one discipline and to apply them in another discipline – but some people just do it better.
It think that intelligence has a lot of components to it but one of them is that ability to look at two different systems (such as basketball and football) but to see the pattern that makes the laws of one help you to think about the nature of the other).
Maybe there is a habit of ‘abstracting’ the system you are looking at:
Rugby is a sport.. and so is football.. and so is basketball.
The ‘quarter back’ in American football is a player; and so is the striker in soccer or the .. I don’t know… whatever you call the defensive people in basketball!
By the habit of abstracting, one then has a chance of comparing systems well.
I bet that most people would agree with what I am saying but how does someone get better at that thinking skill? Perhaps by deliberately taking time out of one’s day to ‘abstract’ things: to force the habit to develop.
We probably agree that people can learn new skills and habits; and often what seems like an impossible skill might be acquired through the patience of repetitive training. So why couldn’t someone think with more clarity by deliberately practising good thinking habits?
Let’s face it, we all get caught out. The brightest people occasionally do something incredibly stupid. That is what it is like, being human, unfortunately; but we can definitely improve ourselves: make a particular kind of mistake less frequently.
I often get caught out by predicting pedestrians. For instance, I see someone jogging along a straight pavement; and I come to expect the person to be travelling all the way along the street; but he might suddenly turn into a driveway because that is his home and he is reaching the end of his jog.
Maybe, because I am so used to joggers bobbing along and disappearing into the distance, that becomes an expectation; and it is a useful generalisation. For the most part, that prediction will be true and help me to predict my interactions as I walk along the street. And that is a type of cleverness; but how can I compete with the other type of clever person?: the type of person who has not committed to ‘knowing’ where the jogger is going to go next?
A related idea to someone failing to see the relatedness of systems is an inability to push oneself to learn new things: I can’t do that because I have never done it before. For instance, a friend of mine could play so many more songs on his guitar if he would just learn the B minor chord!
At present, particular fingers are unpractised at that chord position on his guitar and yes he will fail to produce a nice sound consistently. It is the practice that takes us from inability to ability.
I believe that intelligence can be learned and generally improved through the adoption of good thinking habits which this book teaches.
Good thinking is broadly about :
avoiding making mistakes;
remembering relevant past information; and
being good at problem solving
A vocabulary is needed for the ideas of these chapters to be communicated efficiently. The main vocabulary is introduced in the chapter What is Thinking ?
There is a main chapter on Mistakes and then there are chapters dedicated to particular areas in which mistakes happen: Mistakes in Mathematics and Communicating.
The Choice Stores chapter concerns the areas of information which are worth memorising to help us to think efficiently about a subject.
The Problem Solving chapter gives general advice on the task of solving problems.
Personally, the intelligence I am pleased with is my creative intelligence. I don’t see myself as a good mathematician. There is a condition called dyscalculia where someone tries to do maths with the numbers in one’s head but the numbers can’t be held in place and the wrong answer is arrived at. Maybe I have a mild version of that. If I slow down to a speed I am happy with, and use paper, my maths is generally very good but I know my limits. I am no wunderkind!
At the same time, I think I am smart and I am introspective. I look at where I fail and ask myself what I could do next time to be better at the task. I will never be as good a mathematician as someone who is a natural at carrying numbers in their head; but I can have my own comfortable way of reaching the same answer – albeit a little slower.
With all the habits one probably needs to be very intelligent, if I can improve slightly at many of those habits then surely my intelligence will noticeably increase: I will be correct more often – even if not as often as the wunderkind.
Even that heading, about different brains not seeing things the same, presents an interesting concept: the language we use to express ourselves can constrain us; and what causes me to use the word ‘see’ in the phrase ‘see things the same’?
It is said that some people, when they think, see the written words of what they are thinking, while they are thinking; or saying the words of what they are thinking while they are thinking. Other people are said to have a very visual way of thinking where there is no need to slow down thoughts to the speed of a word dictator.
Some people are said to visualise timelines differently: if asked to draw time passing through a year, different camps of people will have different ways of drawing time passing: maybe a line from left to right or a line from right to left; or not even a straight line.
So a bunch of people can be sat around discussing an issue and agreeing with each other on what they are talking about but their brains are representing the information in different ways.
Maybe you have seen a psychology test for colour-blindness where a canvas of coloured dots displays a different number to different people despite it being the same image on paper: the reader’s ability to see certain colours decides what number they are capable of reading.
That is a different type of ‘people seeing the world differently’ because the concept the different people are thinking about is an entirely different number.
And what if someone shouts out a word across a room and we both interpret the word differently. You hear a ‘B’ but I hear a ‘P’? In English, I hear ‘pin’ but you hear ‘bin’. Or we both hear ‘Help’ but you think someone is in trouble and needs help whereas I think someone is asking for assistance but is not actually in trouble.
There is probably a thinking habit to allow us to entertain the idea that ‘help’ has more than one interpretation but mishearing a word is probably a lot harder to resolve.
When I think, “Oh, someone is asking me for help”, what would be good would be a ‘deconstruction by challenge’:
- What does help mean?: help in an emergency; or help out with a task?
- Someone is calling out ‘help’ but why do I think they are calling to me specifically?
Now you might be thinking that I have tricked you here. Maybe the way I phrased the description of ‘the person asking for help’ leant towards the idea that the person is talking to you and me.
But that is another intelligence habit to develop:
What if the person telling me the facts (facts for me to think about) is:
- misunderstood by me; or
- incorrect in their facts (perhaps even deliberately trying to confuse me)
Let’s call this ‘doubt the orator’.
I think that it is very powerful to give a name to discrete thinking habits. For one thing, it helps us to organise a schedule of thinking habits to try to be better at; but also, these concepts are a little nebulous and take time to more-or-less define through examples. A name cuts right through to focus on a concept.
Although, I saw a video where one of the smartest people of the 20th Century said that there is weakness in giving something a name because it makes us think that we know it and understand it. We have classified it but the classification might miss some truth about what the thing really is.
How about a book classed as ‘Non fiction’ but the author is wrong about things?: the things he says are a fiction but placed in a ‘non fiction’ part of a library! The book ‘is what it is’ regardless of how the librarian has categorised it; but the librarian is incorrect to call it factually correct: the librarian would in that case, have floundered because of the subtlety the label. So that is going beyond the idea of classification: we are going further than that and seeing something being wrongly understood.
These chapters are essentially about learning good habits for good thinking. This requires you to think in ways which you would not normally think in. There are many habits described in this book but some are so central to good thinking that I will describe them in this early chapter.
We can imagine things in our heads with such vividness that they are very believable ideas.
For instance, I can imagine that my door key is in my left pocket. It is very plausible. I am one step away from believing it without actually checking my pocket for real to see if my key really is there.
If an idea is simple then it is easy to imagine. Usually, it is easier to imagine one of something than it is to imagine many of something and so I claim that we often believe that there is only one of something. It all stems from how believable our imagination makes ideas seem.
But what if two keys are in that pocket? You might argue, “Well that doesn’t change facts. When I want my key, I will find it in that pocket.” But you limited your thinking options by visualising a count of one key. Maybe it is because, typically, there is no harm done from the mistake that it is easy to be lazy in our thinking and not have a habit of ‘challenging one’.
“But it wasn’t a mistake!”, you might argue. “You’re splitting hairs!”, you might argue. I would say that you’re missing the point of this book: to have habits that improve your chances of clarity of thought and of problem solving.
Which type ?
There will be times when there are many types of something but you get a picture in your head of one type and believe that there are no other types to be considered. For instance, someone asks you to buy a carton of milk. There is semi-skimmed, full fat and other types of milk but you might not think of that variety and so you reach the shop and only then realise that you do not know which type of milk the person wanted.
If you have a habit of asking, "Which type?" then you can see that there are different types before reaching the shop. Even if in reality there was only one type of milk in shops, it would still be worth asking, "Which type ?" because until you ask it you do not recall that there is only one type of milk.
Fine. But how does one develop a habit of asking, “Which type?’ ?
I claim that you need to dedicate a portion of your day to meditating and playing with one of these bold font concepts: which type? or challenging one. Otherwise, how would you improve?
Which one ?
You may be given directions which involve going up some stairs and going through a door and so on. At the top of the stairs, you see a door and go through it. You do not look around in a circle to see if that was the only door. Perhaps the instructions referred to some other door.
If you have a habit of asking, "Which one?" then you give yourself the opportunity to see your options.
“Hang on! Isn’t this a lot like the many types of milk example?”
Er, yes. It is down to you whether you classify two things as being different varieties or two units of exact same things. Are the doors just ‘door units’ or two different varieties? An interesting question!
Note: There can be identical but different items.
e.g. Shampoo bottles off a production line.
There can be 2 different items of the same type. e.g. The shampoo bottles of 2 different companies.
There can be 2 items which turn out to be the same unique one item: the idea of them being separate items was an error. Eg. You see a man drive a blue car and later see a woman drive a blue car; and not realise that they share the car: it is one car and not two cars.
2 similar objects can be classified as not being of the same class. e.g. One painting is a masterpiece - the other painting is a forgery. Or 2 disparate items might be classified as being the same. Eg. A statue can be classed as a masterpiece alongside the painting masterpiece.
So answering the question ‘Which’ requires that you realise that there is potentially more than one of an object of the same class - but you must be careful how you define what ‘being in the same class’ is.
I remember at school, a teacher using blue and red cars and vans as an example: you could classify vehicles on a road as being vans or as being blue. I suppose that we are applying the filter but what is on the road ‘is what it is’; and maybe that is what the clever guy I mentioned earlier was saying about the weakness of giving something a label.
In the story where you go to the shops to buy some milk, there is the assumption that there is only one type of milk. You allow yourself to imagine that as being the truth and then believe the vivid picture. You build a simple model in your head of what the real world is like.
You should ask yourself, "Are the details that simple ?" so that you have the chance to imagine another picture and that picture might bring your attention to the ‘full fat’ detail which was previously not thought about.
Another example of a simple model is imagining yourself taking a walk and deciding to do it. In reality, there will be drizzle later and you will get very wet without a coat. However the image of walking on its own does not alert you to the issue of weather. A habit of asking, "Are the details just those? Is there a dead zone of missing knowledge?" gives you a chance to see the issue of getting wet.
You are stood with someone you’ve known for years and he answers his phone; and he starts talking in a foreign language and with a very different accent. “Well how was I supposed to know he speaks two languages?!” [three actually].
I suppose you can’t know he speaks a second language; and you can’t hold up your realtime day pondering all the things your friend might or might not be; but you can develop a general awareness of simplistic model.
A simple model is not a bad thing though. You can have a fun day out with your friend even if you have convinced yourself that he only speaks your language. Everything works ok for the purposes of what you are doing. All I am saying is that it limits where your clarity of thought and problem solving can arrive at.
On the other hand, what if you pull back the bath curtain of your bath and step into a bath toy and hurt your foot? The simple model here is the simple idea that the bath is, as it usually is, empty.
Strength of Evidence
A vivid picture in your imagination is not the same as proof or of strong evidence. You need the habit of asking yourself, "How strong is the evidence for this vivid picture?"
The answer you give yourself needs evidence too. Let me give you an example;
You think that a bus will arrive shortly at the bus stop which you are at because it is a vivid imagined expectation. Your habit of asking, "How strong is the evidence for this vivid picture ?" makes you stop and think, "Is this just a vivid imagining / What is my evidence for believing that the bus will come soon?"
You see a bus timetable and look down it and see that a bus is scheduled to arrive in the next few minutes.
So all seems well but it is very efficient to question how strong a bus timetable is as evidence of the bus coming soon: the evidence itself needs evidence to support it.
How could a timetable not be strong evidence of the time of arrival of a bus ? Well the timetable might apply to the months January to April and you might be in May. In other words the timetable may be out of date. That would make it poor evidence and not strong evidence of the bus’s arrival time. So you see that anything which you are about to believe needs evidence.
And, beyond that, what if the bus has broken down some miles away. Even if it is has been punctual without fail for many years, today might be the day that the timetable is not reliable.
One lecturer talked about something similar: the expectation that the sun will rise at dawn tomorrow because that is all it has ever done. Now that seems like a stupid challenge: of course the sun will rise tomorrow!; and yet it is a good example because we seek to overcome our tendency to bluster, “Of course such-and-such will happen!”
The same clever guy I mentioned earlier.. he is/was a physicist. In Physics, very odd things happen. They run experiments for things which they ‘know’ can not possibly happen; and sometimes the thing happens!
This is particularly important in Physics because reality is being tested for bizarre oddities. Nowadays, physicists say that two stopwatch observers can observe and record different times while spectating the same event. An article I read said that gravity on a mountain top is different strength to gravity at the foot of a mountain; and time passes differently at the locations, as a result. I don’t really understand it, to be honest. They say that two particles miles apart can have a weird connection with each other. So if you stimulate one of the particles then the other one changes status too.
We know the sun will rise tomorrow. We ‘know’ things because we ‘know’ reality; but these physicists are saying that we just thought we knew reality.
Even the world we observe can mislead. The colour of a mountain in the distance might be a different colour when we stand close up to it. Having a distorted view of the mountain might still be valuable for planning a route; it is only a simple model but still helpful.
And all that is without applying the philosophical question: is reality real? Are you actually playing a virtual reality game called life? Maybe the human brain is not brain-shaped at all but the game presents it as such; maybe you are not a human! I won’t really dwell on that line of reasoning – except to add that thinking had better be a valid thing or else even me writing logically about how we think might be flawed even if my logic is correct! Wibble!
Some things are well worth memorising. For instance [Note: I wrote this paragraph in the late 1980s or in the 1990s!], the wash cycles on the washing machine I use are represented by numbers. It is worth remembering which number represents a cycle for white clothes, which number is for fast coloureds, etc.. If I memorise that information in a confused way then my memory will work against me. I might wash my coloureds on a whites wash.
What is really important is the ability to memorise well the things which empower correct decisions; like, at school, learning the ‘times tables’ really well and then getting the benefits years later.
What adds to the difficulty of memorising is the common problem we have in realising that a fresh piece of information is very forgettable. Eg. If I see a 4 digit number in front of me and look away, I can easily say the number out loud: I have remembered it and have trouble imagining me forgetting it. But the next day, the number is forgotten. At some point in time, current information of which we are vividly aware becomes forgotten.
Perhaps it is arrogance or laziness or a lack of realism that makes us tend not to acknowledge how forgettable information is.
Or maybe we just bob along through life quite successfully with the limited thinking habits we have. OK, so I might ruin my clothes in the washing machine and laugh about it some time later; and, on the whole, I do things right. So what’s the big issue? Again, this book is about peeling back the limitations on our thinking abilities.
Dusting off a chess board, it is probably a good thing to run through a list of good practices for the game about to start. Remember, before letting go of the piece you are moving, to have one final look at your queen piece’s level of safety. It is a simple little rule but the pay-off from it is considerable. A list of good practices is an example of what I call a cache or memory store. It is the considered learnings of how best to interact with a system; and you take the time to memorise the cache so that you up your performance.
A knowledge of the psychology of revision is surely helpful here: the idea that we learn best by revising what we want to memorise; and, even, once we know something well, it is still good to occasionally test that the memory still stands.
On top of that, it is good to understand what is a valid check that you remember something. If you read the material you wish to revise and say, “Yep! That’s how I remember it!” then that is not strong revision. It feels 100% like you have just successfully revised it but all you’ve done is confirm that information is familiar to you; there is in no way a guarantee that you could produce that knowledge from memory.
To me, strong revision is writing on a blank canvas the items you intend to revise; and to find that you have memory gaps; and only then to revisit the information itself.
Just to add to what I said about caches or memory stores:
Sometimes the benefit of memorising an ordered list of points or learning a formula (that the average person would not really bother with) is a contentedness that one has a mind like a tidy house; information has been assigned a place and is indexed for use if so needed.
I have read a few things over the years about Japanese factory practices and special steps some production lines put in place to increase efficiency.
And one thing I like from that is the widely known idea of ‘a place for everything and everything in its place’: a tidy ordered system for locating items.
You probably know someone who has an untidy home but they say that they know where everything is though. So maybe physical clutter is not the point I am making. It is more to do with:
- how many ideas we can hold in our heads at any one time; and
- how long our concentration works well for before declining significantly
Time spent looking for a necessary item is a waste of concentration power plus if your mind is partly occupied with seeking out the item then that leaves you with slightly less focus for some other thinking matter.
And although that will often be trivial, these things can add up; a bit like two pretty evenly matched tennis players but, over several hours, the small difference in ability shows itself so that their match history shows 95% wins by one player over the other.
In fact, I will challenge the guy with the cluttered home; only in so much as:
I have an important thing to do in my job and so I write it on my paper notepad beside my computer. I then look at my smartphone and place it down near me (on top of the notepad); and consequently, I do not see my ‘do not forget’ reminder.
Physical clutter can have an impact on information delivery so that someone might say that I am a bit stupid for not doing the most important task. I could say, “Hey! I’m not stupid! It was an accident with leaving my phone on the notepad! I had the reminder all laid out on my notepad! I didn’t really forget!”; clutter introduces weakness.
I said just now that the effort of seeking an item is using up concentration. Concentration is a real limitation for us humans. A computer can just keep going and consistently carry out its tasks correctly (well, sort of! That’s another story!); but you humans (ha!) can believe you’re still fit for duty but actually your performance is about to dip because of low concentration.
The net effect of good thinking habits is less mistakes. Mistakes are a huge drain on concentration. Even if you rectify a mistake, you might then go on to make fresh mistakes because of the impact on your concentration.
And again, it can cause a defensive, “Don’t say I made loads of mistakes today! On another day, given the same task, my performance would be miles better. Today was a blip.”
Spotted mistakes are a huge enemy of sustained good thinking because:
- they waste concentration
- they might actually be right and your mistake is to think you made a mistake!
- Your fix for the mistake might itself be mistaken. Remember that your concentration is often already low at the time a mistake is spotted: low concentration probably helped to introduce the mistake; and now, with lower concentration, you are attempting to fix it. So there is a chance that your fix (for the mistake) is wrong; and when you revisit the fix, your concentration will dip even more!; and then you will return to the main unfinished task with a much higher chance of more mistakes occurring along the way. And you may ask yourself, “Was it ever wrong in the first place? It’s so complicated! My concentration is shot now! This is so hard to solve – not because it is difficult but because I have no thinking power left!”