What is intelligence, and how can you get more of it?

Just a note that I have written a post over at Tools for Thinkers with brief reviews of some of my favorite books about intelligence and how to improve it if you so desire. I review books by Tony Buzan, Jeff Hawkins, Daniel Golemen, and Joshua Foer. See “Some Great Books About Intelligence.”

ARB — 2 Nov. 2013


Are We All on the Autism Spectrum?

Something Nassim Nicholas Taleb says in The Black Swan on page 194 raises the question whether we are all on the autism spectrum in some sense:

This mental block about the future has not yet been investigated and labeled by psychologists, but it appears to resemble autism…. Autistic people cannot put themselves in the shoes of others, cannot view the world from their standpoint…. Interestingly, autistic subjects, regardless of their “intelligence,” also exhibit an inability to comprehend uncertainty.

Just as autism is called “mind blindness,” this inability to think dynamically, to position oneself with respect to a future observer, we should call “future blindness.”

To me this raises the question whether in some respect we are all on the “autism spectrum,” but that those we diagnose as autistic are at the extreme in exhibiting a disability shared by all.

Interested in comments: Does this make sense?

Autism Spectrum

AB — 24 April 2010

Great comic strips about schizophrenia and bipolar disorder

A student mental health nurse who is also a cartoonist is creating a book about mental illness. Calling himself “Tall Guy,” he has published his chapters on schizophrenia and bipolar disorder on his LiveJournal blog.

These comic strips are very informative as well as entertaining, and I think they are very accurate — I have studied counseling and abnormal psychology and worked for several years as a counselor and mental health worker in a psychiatric institution. I have also worked as a volunteer helper for mentally ill people and have friends and family members who suffer from mental illnesses.

Having befriended many people suffering from these disorders, I like to see others educate themselves about them. Tall Guy’s cartoons are a very accessible way to do that.

Here are links to his blog entries on schizophrenia and bipolar disorder:

Schizophrenia cartoon Bipolar cartoon

One source says Tall Guy’s name is Daryl Cunningham and that his book will be called Psychiatric Tales, to be published in 2010.

As an aside, for an alternative viewpoint on psychiatric medications, Crazy Meds is an interesting web resource. It’s a user-oriented web site “by crazy people for crazy people,” maintained by Jerod Poore, who calls himself “Chief Citizen Medical Expert.”

AB — 24 Sept. 2009

Video of Oliver Sacks discussing hallucinations

TED Talks has posted a video of neurologist Oliver Sacks discussing hallucinations — particularly Charles Bonnet hallucinations, which occur among many visually-impaired people.

Oliver Sacks is known for his investigation of neurological disorders that result in bizarre experiences and behavior. One of Sacks’s early books was calledAwakenings, which was made into a movie of the same name, with Robin Williams playing a doctor based on Sacks, and Robert Deniro playing a catatonic patient who ‘comes back to life’ through an experimental treatment.

Some of my favorite Sacks books are The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat andAn Anthropologist on Mars. Sacks is a great writer, and his books are very entertaining as well as informative.

The video is about 18 minutes — see “Oliver Sacks: What Hallucination Reveals About Our Minds.”

AB — 17 Sept. 2009

Phantom limbs and the wiring of the neocortex

A story from NPR this morning, “How Do You Amputate a Phantom Limb?,” got me thinking about the amazing integration of the body and the brain.

Most of us have heard about the phenomenon of phantom limbs experienced by many people who have had limbs amputated. On the NPR segment, Radio Lab interviewers review a story told by Dr. V.S. Ramachandran of the University of California at San Diego, who had a patient plagued by pain in his phantom arm. Ramachandran was able to use a mirror to simulate the missing limb and teach the patient’s brain that the limb was really gone, after which the pain ceased.

For me, this resonates with the brain theory propounded by Jeff Hawkins in his book On Intelligence. Hawkins is best known as the computer architect who founded Palm Computing, but he is also educated as a neuroscientist. His book makes an interesting case that intelligent machines are possible but that the conventional artificial intelligence (AI) model is wrongheaded.

However, in discussing how brains work, he helps the reader to appreciate that the makeup of the brain of any creature is very much determined by that creature’s physical and sensory makeup.

The traditional, rather stereotyped idea of the brain is that brains are mapped out according to various cognitive and sensory functions. And on one level that is true. But Hawkins makes the point that the cortex is an extremely flexible structure:

… the wiring of the neocortex is amazingly “plastic,” meaning it can change and rewire itself depending on the type of inputs flowing into it. For example, newborn ferret brains can be surgically rewired so that the animals’ eyes send their signals to the areas of cortex where hearing normally develops. The surprising result is that the ferrets develop functioning visual pathways in the auditory portions of their brains … they see with brain tissue that normally hears sounds.

Commenting on human brains, Hawkins writes that

Adults who are born deaf process visual information in areas that normally become auditory regions. And congenitally blind adults use the rearmost portion of their cortex, which ordinarily becomes dedicated to vision, to read braille. Since braille involves touch, you might think it would primarily activate touch regions — but apparently no area of cortex is content to represent nothing. The visual cortex, not receving information from the eyes like it is “supposed” to, casts around for other input patterns to sift through — in this case, from other cortical regions.

What this shows, he maintains, is that “brain regions develop specialized functions based largely on the kind of information that flows into them during development.”

Ramachandran’s results with phantom limb pain support the idea that the brain maintains its flexibility in adulthood and its sensory areas can be rewired in dramatic ways.

AB — 18 March 2009