Our Intelligence Comes Just As Much From Our Environment As Our Brains

human brain connectome

[credit provider=”Human Connectome Project, Science, March 2012. “]

We like to think our intelligence is self-made; it happens inside our heads, the product of our inner thoughts alone, writes psychologist Tom Stafford on the BBC’s website. But if you look at the evidence from psychological studies, it suggests that much of our intelligence comes from how we coordinate ourselves with other people and our environment. Stafford continues:

“An influential theory among psychologists is that we’re cognitive misers. This is the idea that we are reluctant to do mental work unless we have to, we try to avoid thinking things though fully when a short cut is available.

“If you’ve ever voted for the political candidate with the most honest smile, or chosen a restaurant based on how many people are already sitting in there, then you’ve been a cognitive miser. The theory explains why we’d much rather type a zip code into a sat-nav device or Google Maps than memorize and recall the location of a venue – it’s so much easier to do so.

“Research shows that people don’t tend to rely on their memories for things they can easily access. Things like the world in front of our eyes, for example, can be changed quite radically without people noticing.

“Experiments have shown that buildings can somehow disappear from pictures we’re looking at, or the people we’re talking to can be switched with someone else, and often we won’t notice—a phenomenon called ‘change blindness.’

“This isn’t as an example of human stupidity—far from it, in fact – this is an example of mental efficiency. The mind relies on the world as a better record than memory, and usually that’s a good assumption.

“As a result, philosophers have suggested that the mind is designed to spread itself out over the environment. So much so that, they suggest, the thinking is really happening in the environment as much as it is happening in our brains.

“The philosopher Andy Clark called humans ‘natural born cyborgs,’ beings with minds that naturally incorporate new tools, ideas and abilities. From Clark’s perspective, the route to a solution is not the issue—having the right tools really does mean you know the answers, just as much as already knowing the answer.

“Having minds that work this way is one of the great strengths of the human species. Rather than being forced to rely on our own resources for everything, we can share our knowledge and so pool our understanding. Technology keeps track of things for individuals so we don’t have to, while large systems of knowledge serve the needs of society as a whole.

“So as well as having a physical environment—like the rooms or buildings we live or work in—we also have a mental environment. Which means that when I ask you where your mind is, you shouldn’t point toward the centre of your forehead.

“As research shows, our minds are made up just as much by the people and tools around us as they are by the brain cells inside our skull.” (Read more here.)

There are so many things I love in this essay. First, the idea that we are “cognitive misers”—using as little of our brainpower as necessary to solve a problem.

Second, the idea that “the world [is] a better record than memory,” and so instead of mentally mapping every feature, we count on the world staying relatively the same—usually, but not always, a valid assumption.

And third, the idea that we have a “mental environment”—the array of people and tools around us that constitute our extended mind. It makes sense that we’d want to make that mental environment as rich and useful as possible, instead of focusing all our energies on what’s going on inside our brains—but that’s not usually how we think of it. See my post from yesterday for more about the importance of the “learning situation.”