Tag Archives: intelligence

Rocket scientists and brain surgeons aren’t actually smarter than the general population

Credit: Picryl.

The phrases “It’s not rocket science” and “It’s not brain surgery” are commonly used to denote simple tasks that don’t require all that much thinking. The implication is that people who actually work in these fields are particularly intellectually gifted. Not so fast though, notes a new study that found aerospace engineers and neurosurgeons score on par with the general population on intelligence tests.

“We found, using a validated intelligence test that there was actually not much difference between the intelligence scores in rocket scientists, brain surgeons and the general population. This suggests that these phrases may put neurosurgeons and rocket scientists on an unnecessary pedestal,” Chari Aswin, an academic neurosurgical trainee at the University College London and the research lead for the neurosurgical charity Brainbook, told ZME Science.

In order to settle the debate of which of the two phrases is the most deserving for denoting trivial tasks, the researchers decided to assess and compare the intelligence of 329 aerospace engineers and 72 neurosurgeons with 18,257 members of the general public.

The testing was conducted on multiple cognitive domains, including emotional discrimination, working memory, spatial intelligence, and motor control. As such, these were no ordinary IQ tests but rather a battery of tests part of the Great British Intelligence Tests (GBIT) that are designed to measure and differentiate aspects of cognitive abilities more finely.

The GBIT has been completed online by more than 250,000 British people thanks to a successful public outreach campaign spearheaded by BBC Two’s Horizon program. Previously, data from unprecedented mass intelligence testing revealed some fascinating and counterintuitive insights. For instance, scientists found that people who take part in brain training gain very little advantage in their intelligence. However, those who regularly play video games seem to have an obvious edge when it comes to spatial intelligence and attention.

Since the GBIT had been completed by so many people, it provided an excellent opportunity for reliably comparing various cognitive characteristics between people of varying backgrounds, which in this case was their profession. Potentially influential factors such as years of experience (in aerospace or neurosurgery) and gender were taken into account in the analysis and adjusted accordingly.

“Classical IQ tests suggest that they measure one single measure of intelligence. However, the developers of GBIT (who were part of our study) think that intelligence is much more complex and cannot be reported as just one score. The individual domains we have measured are all distinct from each other and, in the GBIT, they found that most people have a range of abilities, being better at some tests and worse at others – this is different from some people being great at all tests and others being bad at all the test,” Aswin said, explaining why didn’t opt for typical IQ tests in this particular instance.

Long story short, aerospace engineers and neurosurgeons were found to be equally matched across most cognitive domains, with two notable exceptions: rocket scientists had slightly better mental manipulation and attention abilities while neurosurgeons showed better semantic problem-solving abilities.

But the most important finding was that both neurosurgeons and aerospace engineers had scores within the range of those in the general population, leading the authors of the new study to conclude that the two professions are unrightfully put on a pedestal. A phrase such as “It’s a walk in the park” might be more appropriate to refer to tasks or concepts that are easy, they added.

“I think that professionals become good at their job through specific training in specific skills that are relevant. For example, neurosurgeons may require microsurgical skills, communication skills and a certain amount of determination but the results of our study show that, in general, the range of cognitive skills is no different to the general population,” Aswin.

The findings are more important than meets the eye. From an early age, school children’s desire to pursue a certain career is heavily influenced by stereotypes and various subjective perceptions. STEM fields like neurosurgery and aerospace engineering are facing enormous challenges recruiting and maintaining candidates for their workforce, and it is no coincidence that these fields are often seen as “masculine” and “too brainy”.

While there are certainly very gifted individuals working in both fields, whose talents coupled with a strong work ethic catapulted them to excellence, the same argument can be made that just as much talent is squandered perhaps simply because some people didn’t have enough confidence to pursue a STEM career.

“We want to help break down the barriers that might make people think some professions are out of their grasp – particularly in under-represented groups. Of course, highly-skilled people like surgeons and engineers are intelligent but those professions also require a lot of hard work and training which are just as important, and anyone with an interest in those careers should feel able to pursue them, regardless of stereotypes,” Aswin concluded.

The findings appeared in The British Medical Journal.

A window to the brain? Pupil size linked to intelligence

The pupil is the central opening of the iris on the inside of the eye through which light passes before reaching the lens and being focused onto the retina. Credit: Pixabay.

Humans are hardwired to read emotional cues in a person’s facial expressions, including micro-expressions of the eye. In fact, research suggests that if you want to read a person’s true emotional state, stay away from the mouth (fake smiles, anyone?) and pay attention to the eyes, whose sensitive involuntary muscle contractions are much more difficult to conceal. Now, researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology claim that it may be possible to even gauge a person’s intellect from the eyes, after finding a correlation between pupil size and differences in intelligence between individuals.

The larger the pupil, the higher a person’s fluid intelligence may be

According to the study, which involved more than 500 people aged 18 to 35 from Atlanta, larger pupils were associated with higher intelligence, as measured by standard tests meant to gauge reasoning, memory, and attention.

This relationship is so pronounced that a person should be able to predict with relative confidence who scored the highest or the lowest on an intelligence test just by looking at their pupils with the naked eye, no additional instruments required.

Each subject’s pupil size was assessed using eye trackers that detect light reflecting from the pupil and cornea. Over lengthier eye-tracking, the researchers were able to compute each participants’ average pupil size.

The human pupil is between two and eight millimeters in diameter. However, they’re never fixed. They get bigger or smaller, depending on the amount of light they experience. In low light, your pupils open up or dilate, to let in more light. When it’s bright, they get smaller or constrict, to let in less light.

To normalize pupil measurements, the researchers made sure to assess the pupil at rest when the participants were staring at a blank screen for a couple of minutes. Each participant also went through a barrage of tests that scored them on their ability to solve new problems, remember things over time, and keep focus even when distracted. These combined abilities are often referred to as fluid intelligence.

Pupil size is also known to diminish with age. But after the researchers corrected for age, the pupil size and intelligence link still held up.

The researchers are careful to stress that their association is a correlation and they do not have evidence of a causal link between pupil size and differences in intelligence. That being said, it wouldn’t be that crazy if pupil size did indeed reliably indicate a propensity for scoring high on metrics for intelligence.

Previously, researchers noticed that the pupil is influenced by the locus coeruleus (from the Latin for ‘blue spot’), which communicates closely with the amygdala. Neurons in this region are the main source of the neurotransmitter noradrenaline (norepinephrine), an excitatory chemical that is released in response to pain or stress, stimulating what is referred to as the ‘fight-or-flight’ mechanism.

According to the authors of the new study published in the journal Cognition, the locus coeruleus is heavily involved in organizing brain activity and coordinating distant regions of the brain to work together and accomplish different tasks. Loss of function in this critical brain region is linked to  Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

The researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology speculate that a person’s pupils may be larger due to greater regulation of activity by the locus coeruleus, which may lead to better cognitive performance.

“Additional research is needed to explore this possibility and determine why larger pupils are associated with higher fluid intelligence and attention control. But it’s clear that there is more happening than meets the eye,” Jason S. Tsukahara, Ph.D. student at the Georgia Institute of Technology and lead-author of the study, wrote in an article for Scientific American.

But since pupil size varies so much with the time of day, it might not be a good idea to stare someone dead in the eyes simply to assess whether they’re worth talking to. 

Children in greener urban areas have a higher IQ and fewer behavioral issues

Children living in urban areas with a higher percentage of green space have higher intelligence and fewer behavioral problems, according to a new study. The findings bring yet another piece of evidence regarding the importance of green areas for children’s cognitive development.

Credit Jay Hsu. Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

A group of researchers from Belgium assessed the intelligence of over 600 children between 7 and 15 years old. They found that a 3% rise in the greenness of their neighborhood increased IQ score by an average of 2.6 points, an effect noticed both in rich and poor areas of Belgium.

“There is more and more evidence that green surroundings are associated with our cognitive function, such as memory skills and attention,” Tim Nawrot, a professor at Hasselt University in Belgium, where the study was conducted, told The Guardian.

“What this study adds with IQ is a harder, well-established clinical measure.”

The researchers used satellite images to check the level of greenness in the neighborhoods where participants lived. They reviewed parks, gardens, street trees, and all other types of vegetation. The average IQ score of the children was 105, with 4% of them with a score below 80 having grown up in areas with low levels of green areas.

None of the children had an IQ score below 80 in areas with a high amount of green space. Nevertheless, the benefits seen from greenery in urban areas weren’t replicated in suburban or rural areas. This might have been due to those places having enough greenness for everyone living there to benefit from, Nawrot said.

The researchers also measured behavioral difficulties in children such as aggressiveness and poor attention, using a standard rating scale. The average score was 46, with a 3% increase in greenery leading to a two-point drop in behavioral problems, agreeing with the findings of previous studies.

“I’m always wary of the term intelligence as it has a problematic history and unfortunate associations,” Mathew White, an environmental psychologist from Exeter University, not related to the study, told The Guardian.

“But, if anything, this study might help us move away from seeing intelligence as innate – it could be influenced by the environment, and I think that is much healthier.”

The researchers argue this is the first study investigating the association between residential green space and intelligence in children. Previous studies have already shown that urban green space is important for cognitive development in children by improving working memory, attention, and school performance.

The results provide important policy and public health implications. Whereas in 1950, only 30% of the world’s population lived in urban areas, more than half of the global population today lives in cities. This is expected to increase to 68% by 2050.

Residents of urban areas often have limited access to natural environments in their daily lives. That’s why understanding the health disparities that exist between urban and rural environments is essential for maintaining and improving human well-being in a rapidly urbanizing world, according to the researchers.

The study had a set of limitations. Surrounding green space was assessed based on residential location; however, no information on school location was available. No information was available on time-activity patterns, such as time spent outdoors, and on possible mediators between green space and intelligence.

The study was published in the journal PLOS Medicine.

Researchers teach AI to design, say it did ‘quite good’ but won’t steal your job (yet)

A US-based research team has trained artificial intelligence (AI) in design, with pretty good results.

A roof supported by a wooden truss framework.
Image credits Achim Scholty.

Although we don’t generally think of AIs as good problem-solvers, a new study suggests they can learn how to be. The paper describes the process through which a framework of deep neural networks learned human creative processes and strategies and how to apply them to create new designs.

Just hit ‘design’

“We were trying to have the [AIs] create designs similar to how humans do it, imitating the process they use: how they look at the design, how they take the next action, and then create a new design, step by step,” says Ayush Raina, a Ph.D. candidate in mechanical engineering at Carnegie Mellon and a co-author of the study.

Design isn’t an exact science. While there are definite no-no’s and rules of thumb that lead to OK designs, good designs require creativity and exploratory decision-making. Humans excel at these skills.

Software as we know it today works wonders within a clearly defined set of rules, with clear inputs and known desired outcomes. That’s very handy when you need to crunch huge amounts of data, or to make split-second decisions to keep a jet stable in flight, for example. However, it’s an appalling skillset for someone trying their hand, or processors, at designing.

The team wanted to see if machines can learn the skills that make humans good designers and then apply them. For the study, they created an AI framework from several deep neural networks and fed it data pertaining to a human going about the process of design.

The study focused on trusses, which are complex but relatively common design challenges for engineers. Trusses are load-bearing structural elements composed of rods and beams; bridges and large buildings make good use of trusses, for example. Simple in theory, trusses are actually incredibly complex elements whose final shapes are a product of their function, material make-up, or other desired traits (such as flexibility-rigidity, resistance to compression-tension and so forth).

The framework itself was made up of several deep neural networks which worked together in a prediction-based process. It was shown five successive snapshots of the structures (the design modification sequence for a truss), and then asked to predict the next iteration of the design. This data was the same one engineers use when approaching the problem: pixels on a screen; however, the AI wasn’t privy to any further information or context (such as the truss’ intended use). The researchers emphasized visualization in the process because vision is an integral part of how humans perceive the world and go about solving problems.

In essence, the researchers had their neural networks watch human designers throughout the whole design process, and then try to emulate them. Overall, the team reports, the way their AI approached the design process was similar to that employed by humans. Further testing on similar design problems showed that on average, the AI can perform just as well if not better than humans. However, the system still lacks many of the advantages a human user would have when problem-solving — namely, it worked without a specific goal in mind (a particular weight or shape, for example), and didn’t receive feedback on how successful it was on its task. In other words, while the program could design a good truss, it didn’t understand what it was doing, what the end goal of the process was, or how good it was at it. So while it’s good at designing, it’s still a lousy designer.

All things considered, however, the AI was “quite good” at the task, says co-author Jonathan Cagan, professor of mechanical engineering and interim dean of Carnegie Mellon University’s College of Engineering.

“The AI is not just mimicking or regurgitating solutions that already exist,” Professor Cagan explains. “It’s learning how people solve a specific type of problem and creating new design solutions from scratch.”

“It’s tempting to think that this AI will replace engineers, but that’s simply not true,” said Chris McComb, an assistant professor of engineering design at the Pennsylvania State University and paper co-author.

“Instead, it can fundamentally change how engineers work. If we can offload boring, time-consuming tasks to an AI, like we did in the work, then we free engineers up to think big and solve problems creatively.”

The paper “Learning to Design From Humans: Imitating Human Designers Through Deep Learning” has been published in the Journal of Mechanical Design.

Paper wasp.

Paper wasps capable of behavior that we consider part of logical reasoning

Paper wasps may be much more intelligent than you’d assume.

Paper wasp.

“It’s Dr. Paper Wasp, buddy.”
Image credits Sandeep Handa.

One of the traits that have traditionally been considered a hallmark of human-like mental abilities is transitive interference. Transitive interference (or TI) is the ability to use known relationships to infer unknown relationships. Here’s an example: if A is greater than B, and B is greater than C, how do A and C compare? ‘A is greater than C!’ our brains blurt out with a shot of serotonin for getting solving the puzzle.

We used to think that only humans were capable of such high-level mental acrobatics. In the last couple of decades, we’ve instead come to see that isn’t true. A lot of vertebrates, from primates to birds to fish, have proven their ability to handle TI. Invertebrates, however, haven’t.

Until now

“This study adds to a growing body of evidence that the miniature nervous systems of insects do not limit sophisticated behaviors,” said Elizabeth Tibbetts, a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.

“We’re not saying that wasps used logical deduction to solve this problem, but they seem to use known relationships to make inferences about unknown relationships,” she explains. “Our findings suggest that the capacity for complex behavior may be shaped by the social environment in which behaviors are beneficial, rather than being strictly limited by brain size.”

The study Tibbetts led provides the first concrete evidence of TI in an invertebrate animal: the paper wasp (genus Polistes). The only previously-published study on this subject worked with honeybees (genus Apis), which didn’t seem able to perform TI. One explanation the authors of that study considered was that the honeybees’ nervous system is too size-constrained to handle the task. That their processor, if you will, is too small to run the TI app.

Paper wasps have a nervous system roughly comparable to that of the honeybee — around one million neurons in total. However, unlike honeybees, paper wasps are more socially-savvy. They exhibit certain types of social behavior that honeybees do not. That had the team questioning whether or not the paper wasps’ social skills would allow them to succeed where honeybees had failed.

Tibbetts’ team worked with two common species of paper wasps, Polistes dominula and Polistes metricus. They collected paper wasp queens from several locations around Ann Arbor, Michigan, started colonies in the lab, and made these wasps tell between pairs of colors (called premise pairs). They did this by training individual wasps to associate one color in the pair with a mild electric shock.

Later, the insects were presented with novel color pairs. They were able to use TI to pick the safe one of these novel pairs, Tibbetts says.

“I was really surprised how quickly and accurately wasps learned the premise pairs,” said Tibbetts, who has studied the behavior of paper wasps for 20 years.

“I thought wasps might get confused, just like bees,” she said. “But they had no trouble figuring out that a particular color was safe in some situations and not safe in other situations.”

The team believes that different types of cognitive abilities are favored in bees and wasps because they display different social behaviors. While both insects have brains smaller than a grain of rice (with pretty much the same mental oomph) a honeybee colony has a single queen and multiple equally ranked female workers. In contrast, paper wasp colonies have several reproductive females known as foundresses. The foundresses compete with their rivals and form linear dominance hierarchies.

Where a wasp falls in the hierarchy determines how much reproduction, food, and work it receives. TI-like processes could thus help wasps rapidly estimate the social standing of a colony-mate that they are unfamiliar with. In previous studies, Tibbetts and her colleagues showed that paper wasps recognize individuals of their species by variations in their facial markings and that they behave more aggressively toward wasps with unfamiliar faces.

The team notes, however, that this is still a hypothesis. While the present study shows that paper wasps can build and manipulate an implicit hierarchy, it does not pinpoint the precise mechanisms that underpins this ability. Further research is needed to understand exactly why the paper wasps ‘unlocked’ TI.

The paper “Transitive inference in Polistes paper wasps” has been published in the journal Biology Letters.

Credit: Pixabay.

Your romantic partner probably isn’t as smart as you think

Most people think they’re smarter than most people — and this tendency to overestimate our abilities can spill over to our loved ones. According to a new study, we generally perceive our romantic partner as more intelligent than they actually are.

Credit: Pixabay.

Credit: Pixabay.

For their study, researchers at the University of Western Australia and the University of Warsaw recruited 218 heterosexual couples, who had been together for an average of six years. Each participant had to estimate their own intelligence and that of their romantic partners using a graphical scale, which ran from “very low” to “very high.” These estimates were converted into IQ points based on the bell curve statistical distribution of intelligence, where the peak of the bell curve (or median IQ) sits at 100 points.

Each participant also completed a standard test of nonverbal intelligence known as the Raven’s Advanced Progressive Matrices in order to gauge their actual IQ score.

Similarly to other studies, the researchers concluded that most of the participants vastly overestimated their intelligence, by an average of 30 points. Although most participants scored themselves above average, 68.8% of women and 55% of men scored below 100 IQ points.

As far as assessing their partners’ intelligence goes, the over-estimation effect was even more pronounced. On average, men thought their partners were 36 IQ points more intelligent than they actually were. Women thought their husbands or boyfriends had IQs that were 38 points higher than the test results.

The authors of the study were also interested to find out whether or not people tended to get romantically involved with partners of similar intellect. The researchers found a moderate correlation between the partners’ actual IQ scores, suggesting that people generally hook up with partners of matching intelligence. This may be due to the fact that people of similar intelligence may also be more likely to share a common background. For instance, a lot of couples start dating in school or a work environment.

Although this wasn’t the object of the study, the ‘halo effect’ may also have played a role in the participants’ over-estimation of their loved one’s intelligence. The halo effect is the phenomenon whereby we assume that because people have a good trait, their other traits must also be favorable. Frequently we fall prey to this effect by overvaluing some of a person’s certain attributes while undervaluing others. In this case, if the spouse is caring or nurturing, the partner might also tend to attribute other favorable traits, such as above average intelligence.

The findings appeared in the journal Intelligence

Nut hammer.

Orangutans don’t use tools instinctively — they actually think about what they’re doing

Sadly, we may never get to know the full extent of their abilities.

Nut hammer.

Image credits Benjamin Balazs.

It’s always impressive to see animals using tools. But one type of tool use — called ‘flexible’ — is by far the one that impresses us most. Flexible tool use is indicative of higher mental processes, such as the ability to plan certain actions and consider their outcomes. An international research effort looked into tool related decision-making in orangutans and reports that the apes put thought into how they implement tools rather than relying on instinct.

When you put your mind to it

“Our study shows that orangutans can simultaneously consider multi-dimensional task components in order to maximize their gains and it is very likely that we haven´t even reached the full extent of their information processing capabilities,” said co-author Josep Call from the University of St Andrews.

Orangutans are one of our closest relatives, sharing 97% of our DNA. They’re highly intelligent, exhibiting long-term memory, routine use of complex tools in the wild, and sophisticated nest-building behaviors.

This intelligence helps them navigate their natural environments with gusto. Orangutans have to juggle multiple factors simultaneously to make ends meet, such as remembering the best time to find ripe fruits, the distance to and availability of food resources at various times of the year, and the availability of tools to maximize these resources.

To get a better idea of how the apes handle tool use and how many different factors they can consider at a time in order to maximize reward, researchers from the University of Vienna, the University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna and the University of St Andrews put orangutans at the Wolfgang Koehler Primate Research Center in Leipzig to the test.

The team used two types of food: banana pellets, which are the orangutans’ favorite snack, and apple pieces — which they like, but will disregard in favor of the pellets. The food was placed in two different apparatuses: one requiring a probing stick to operate, while the other required dropping a ball inside to reach the snack. During the trial, orangutans were pitted against either one or both of these devices and given a choice between two items — usually a tool and a food item. Once one item was picked, the other was immediately removed from the trial area.

Testing devices.

The ball-apparatus (left) and stick apparatus (right) used in the study.
Image credits Isabelle Laumer et al., (2019), PLOS ONE.

Orangutans showed great flexibility in adapting to different scenarios, says lead researcher Isabelle Laumer. If one food item was out of immediate reach, and the animals had to pick between the appropriate tool or a readily-available banana pellet, they always chose the pellet, she explains.

“However, when the orangutans could choose between the apple-piece and a tool they chose the tool but only if it worked for the available apparatus: For example when the stick and the likeable food was available but the apes faced the ball-apparatus baited with the favourite banana-pellet, they chose the apple-piece over the non-functional tool. When the stick-apparatus with the banana-pellet inside was available they chose the stick-tool over the immediate apple-piece”, she adds.

The final task required the orangutans to deal with two of the apparatuses, one baited with a banana pellet and the other with an apple piece. The apes were supplied with the appropriate tools to deal with both of the devices. In this case, the orangutans “were still able to make profitable choices” by picking the tool appropriate for the pellet-laden device, the team reports.

It may not seem like very much to us humans with our fancy tools, but it is quite a remarkable find. Most tool-usage we see in the wild is inflexible. A sea otter, for example, will use stones to break up shells, and an archerfish will shoot jets of water to knock insects into a pond where they can reach them. But the otter won’t use a tool to enable it to reach food more easily, and the archerfish won’t use its jets of water to defend itself or for any other task. These animals don’t ‘understand’ their tools as we do — the behavior is instinctually hard-wired and won’t be adapted for a different purpose. It’s done automatically.

What the team found in this study is that orangutans will overcome immediate impulses — grabbing the available food — if they can get a better reward in the future, even if this means using novel tools in novel ways. Needless to say, this betrays a certain cognitive sophistication on their part. The team ties their results to previous findings in Goffin cockatoos, which have shown similar (but more limited) abilities.

“The birds were confronted with the choice between a tool to retrieve an out-of-reach food item and an immediate reward. We found that they, similar to the apes, were highly sensible to the quality of the immediate relative to the out-of-reach reward at the same time as to whether the available tool would actually work with the task at hand”, explains Alice Auersperg, the head of the Goffin Lab in Austria and paper co-author.

“Again, this suggests that similar cognitive abilities can evolve independently in distantly related species. Nevertheless, the cockatoos did reach their limit at the very last task in which both apparatuses baited with both possible food qualities and both tools were available at the same time.”

Still, we may never get the full picture on orangutans’ capabilities. A 2007 survey by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) found that orangutans will become extinct in the wild within two decades if the current rate of deforestation is maintained.

“Habitat loss due to extensive palm-oil production is the major threat,” Laumer explains.

“Unfortunately palm oil is still the most widely used vegetable oil in the world. As long as there is a demand for palm oil and we keep buying products that contain palm oil, more and more of the rain-forest will be destroyed. Each of us can positively impact the survival of these extraordinary animals by making purchase decisions that may appear small, but that can collectively make a huge impact on our planet.”

Tool use in animals is a rare trait, one which we consider a tell-tale sign of intelligence. This is doubly true for intelligent tool use, as the name suggests, since it requires the flexible integration of multiple sources of information and environmental conditions.

Wouldn’t it be a shame to extinguish one of its prime examples for a little cooking oil?

The paper “Orangutans (Pongo abelii) make flexible decisions relative to reward quality and tool functionality in a multi-dimensional tool-use task” has been published in the journal PLOS ONE.

Can you raise your IQ score?

Credit: MaxPexel.

Children who demonstrate superior scores on intelligence quotient (IQ) tests tend to show higher levels of educational attainment, acquire more venerated occupational status, and earn higher incomes than children with inferior scores. As such, understanding the underlying biological and psychological mechanisms of intelligence is important in order to bring up the full potential of an individual.

Modern studies have shown the intelligence is not fixed at birth, but rather fluctuates as the brain matures. Adolescents are particularly subjected to intelligence plasticity. But if such is the case, all of this begs the question, can you improve your IQ?

What drives human intelligence?

Early scholars used to think that intelligence was hereditary and fixed. Most now agree that upbringing and education also play major roles — by how much has been a matter of debate, however.

Studies comparing identical and fraternal twins found that about half of IQ can be explained by genetics. The other half of variability in IQ is attributed to the environment.

The challenge in separating genetics from the environment lies in the fact that it’s difficult to isolate educational factors. For instance, a smarter person will be inclined to stay more in school and earn more years of education than a person who is less mentally equipped.

According to a 2018 meta-analysis that blended the results of 28 studies, totaling 600,000 participants, each added year of education lifted the participants’ IQ scores, on average, between 1 and 5 points.

Interestingly, humans are getting smarter. Average intelligence levels, as measured by standardized intelligence tests, have steadily risen since the early 20th century. According to one study involving more than 4 million people in 31 countries, people have been gaining 3 IQ points every decade or roughly 10 IQ points per generation. This phenomenon is known as the “Flynn effect”, after scientist James Robert Flynn, who first documented the observation in the 1980s. There’s not one satisfying explanation but some factors contributing to the effect may include improvements in nutrition, expansion of formal schooling, increases in average educational attainment, environmental improvements (i.e. less lead exposure), and shrinking family size, which allows more focus on the education of each child.

[panel style=”panel-info” title=”What do we mean by intelligence? ” footer=””]Intelligence is typically measured as Intelligence Quotient (IQ). IQ describes an individual’s average performance on a range of standardized tests spanning multiple domains, compared to the performance of a representative sample of people the same age.[/panel]

Interestingly, the Flynn effect can also work backwards. New research by Robert Flynn suggests that IQ scores in Scandinavian countries are showing a decline of about 6.5 IQ points per generation — from a very high baseline, it’s important to mention. Elsewhere, the pace of IQ improvements is slowing down, suggesting that a peak followed by a reversal may be in store.

Gains in IQ scores in the US over the last 50 years. Credit: What Is Intelligence?: Beyond the Flynn.

Gains in IQ scores in the US over the last 50 years. Credit: What Is Intelligence?: Beyond the Flynn.

It’s not clear yet exactly how education might increase IQ scores, or whether the effects of schooling build up with each passing year (So don’t assume that earning a four-year degree is going to pump up your IQ score by 20 points). Furthermore, IQ and general intelligence are not the same thing, although they may correlate.

While IQ is a useful metric, it never measures intelligence directly, so schooling might only improve particular skills that match up with the kind of tasks found in IQ tests, as opposed to a broader improvement in general cognitive ability.

Modern IQ tests measure both crystallized and fluid intelligence. Crystallized intelligence refers to knowledge and skill gained through life, meaning it’s based on facts and grows with age. Situations that require crystallized intelligence include reading comprehension and vocabulary exams. Fluid intelligence, on the other hand, is the ability to reason, solve problems, and make sense of abstract concepts. This ability is considered independent of learning, experience, and education. So, it makes sense that schooling improves IQ scores in general — perhaps due to more crystallized intelligence.

What about brain training — does that work? The billion-dollar industry claims that cognitive tests and training programs can boost fluid intelligence, but the evidence is sketchy at best, at least as far as mainstream programs go. Cognitive training is loosely defined as regularly engaging in a cognitive task, such as memorizing a list of words, a set of pictures, or a certain route to a particular target. One study found that participants who played brain training games developed by Luminosity bumped up their IQ by five to ten points — but only if they believed the training would have an effect on their cognition. In other words, a lot of the benefit of these games may be all in our heads, kind of like a placebo effect.

There are some instances in which brain training — but necessarily the kind marketed by companies on the internet — seems to boost some cognitive aspects. In 2017, researchers at John Hopkins University found that the “dual n-back” memory sequence test, in which people have to remember constantly updating sequences of visual and auditory stimuli, improved participants’ working memory by 30%.

Perhaps the most promising form of brain training is relational skill training, which a 2016 study showed can boost IQ and scholastic aptitude. Relational aptitude does not refer to interpersonal social interactions but rather to the competence in dealing with a wide variety of abstract relationships between things in our environment. For instance, Relational Frame Theory (RFT) states that understanding that the opposite of an opposite relation is the same relation, or that if A is more than B then B must be less than A.

Cassidy et al. performed several months of an intensive training intervention based on RFT on fifteen children aged 11 to 12 in order to improve their understanding of the relations Same, Opposite and More and Less. The results were impressive (23 IQ points rise on average), to say the least, as summarized by the graphic below.

Credit: Bryan Roche.

Another study published in the British Journal of Educational Psychology picked off from where Cassidy et al. left off. The researchers split 28 children aged between 10 and 11 into two groups. One group was assigned to SMART (Strengthening Mental Abilities with Relational Training), which taught the children to derive complex relationships between nonsense words across thousands of examples and using trial-by-trial feedback (e.g., Cug is the same as Vek, Vek is opposite to Mer, Mer is opposite to Gew, Is Cug the same as Gew?). The second group was assigned to ScratchTM training, an online computer coding training programme produced by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Irrespective of what group they were part of, all participants received 29 hours of training.

Before and after their training, the participants completed various IQ tests (WASI, WIAT-II, and WISC-IV) and a standardized scholastic aptitude test (SAT). The relational skills training group improved their scores on all but one of the tests. Meanwhile, the Scratch group did not experience any significant increase in their test scores, IQ or otherwise.

Pre and post-training average IQ scores for participants who received either SMART or Scratch training. Credit: Bryan Roche.

Pre and post-training average IQ scores for participants who received either SMART or Scratch training. Credit: Bryan Roche.

What makes relational skills particularly interesting in a brain training context is the fact that the study’s participants saw improvements in both standardized reading and spelling tests. That’s despite the fact the SMART intervention didn’t specifically train these aspects. As such, the findings suggest that SMART intervention has a “transfer of effect” to broader cognitive abilities, which a lot of other training programs have sought  to do(and failed in the process).

It seems like relational skills intervention offers the most promising avenue for boosting cognitive abilities or recovering intellectual deficit. Research in this area is still in its early days, though, so more studies will be required before scientists might reach a definite conclusion.

At the end of the day though, while these sort of interventions, gimmicks, and brain games might help raise your IQ, that doesn’t mean you’ll get smarter. What I mean is the way you approach challenges and solve problems in real life shouldn’t change too much — unless your day-job involves guessing the next shape in a sequence of inverted squares.

[UP NEXT] What’s the highest IQ in the world (and should you actually care?)

Credit: Pixabay.

What is the highest IQ in the world (and should you actually care?)

Credit: Pixabay.

Credit: Pixabay.

IQ stands for ‘Intelligence Quotient’ and is a numerical score based on standardized tests which attempt to measure general intelligence. However, Aan IQ test does not measure intelligence in the same way a ruler might measure the height of a person. Instead, IQ scores are always relative to the median score (typically 100) that reflects the general intelligence of the population.

Modern IQ tests measure a person’s ability to reason and use information to solve problems through questions and puzzles. Some of the things that an IQ test will typically measure is short-term and long-term memory, how well a person can solve puzzles, and how quickly.

Measuring intelligence

People have always been aware that some are better at mental tasks than others, but it wasn’t until a French psychologist by the name of Alfred Binet that a qualitative lens was cast on the diversity of human intelligence. Together with colleague Théodore Simon, in 1905, the psychologists devised the Binet-Simon test, which focused on verbal abilities and was designed to gauge ‘mental retardation’ among school children.

These tests, which in time also included questions that gauged attention, memory, and problem-solving skills, quickly showed that some young children were better able to answer complex questions that older children. Based on this observation, Binet concluded that there is such a thing as ‘mental age’ which can be higher or lower than a person’s chronological age.

In 1916, Stanford University translated and standardized the test using a sample of American students. Known as the Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale, this test would go on to be used for decades to quantify the mental abilities of millions of people around the world.

The Stanford-Binet intelligence test used a single number, known as the intelligence quotient (or IQ), to represent an individual’s score on the test. This score was computed by dividing a person’s mental age, as revealed by the test, by their chronological age and then multiplying the result by 100. For instance, a child whose chronological age is 12 but whose mental age is 15 would have an IQ of 125 (15/12 x 100).

The Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale – Fifth Edition test measures five content areas, including fluid reasoning, knowledge, quantitative reasoning, visual-spatial processing and working memory.

A reasoning question typical of IQ tests. The participant has to figure out what shape should come next in the pattern. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

A reasoning question typical of IQ tests. The participant has to figure out what shape should come next in the pattern. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Building upon the Stanford-Binet test, psychologist David Wechsler developed a new IQ test that better measures a person’s different mental abilities. The first test, known as the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale (WAIS), was released in 1955. Later, Wechsler released two different IQ tests: one specifically designed for children, known as the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children (WISC), and the other designed for adults, known as the Wechsler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence (WPPSI). The modern adult version of the test is known as the WAIS-IV and has gone through numerous revisions to accommodate recent research.

A WAIS-IV is made of 10 subtests and 5 supplemental tests, which score an individual in four major areas of intelligence: a Verbal Comprehension Scale, a Perceptual Reasoning Scale, a Working Memory Scale, and a Processing Speed Scale. These four index scores are combined into the Full-Scale IQ score (what people generally recognize as the ‘IQ score’). There’s also the General Ability Index which is based on six subset scores, which are good at identifying learning disabilities. For instance, scoring low in some areas of the General Ability Index but scoring well in other areas may indicate a specific learning difficulty, perhaps warranting specialized attention.

[panel style=”panel-default” title=”How IQ is scored” footer=””]A person’s overall IQ score is calculated from their aggregate performance on all of these various subtests, by ranking the person’s score on each subtest against the scores of other people who have taken it.


The modern WAIST test does not score IQ based on chronological and mental age but rather based on the scores of other people in the same age group. The average score is fixed at 100, with two-thirds of the population scoring between 85 and 115, while at the extremes, 2.5% of the population scores above 130 and 2.5% scores below 75. Basically, the IQ score moves 15 points in either direction with each standard deviation.

Some IQ tests measure both crystallized and fluid intelligence. Crystallized intelligence refers to knowledge and skill gained through life, meaning it’s based on facts and grows with age. Situations that require crystallized intelligence include reading comprehension and vocabulary exams.  For instance, a test might ask “what’s the difference between weather and climate” or “who was the first president of the United States”. These sort of questions test a person’s knowledge of things that are valued in a certain culture (a person from India might not know the answer to many IQ test questions given in the US, but that doesn’t make them any less intelligent).

Fluid intelligence, on the other hand, is the ability to reason, solve problems, and make sense of abstract concepts. This ability is considered independent of learning, experience, and education.  For example, participants of an IQ test might have to figure out what a shape would look like if it were rotated.

What’s the highest IQ score

When IQ scores are plotted on a graph, they follow what’s known in statistics as a ‘bell curve’. The peak of the “bell” lies at the mean, where the majority of IQ scores lie. The bell then slopes down to each side; one side represents scores that are lower than the average, and the other side represents scores that are above the average. As the slope of the bell trails off, you’ll find the extremely high (gifted) and extremely low (disabled) IQ scores. Most people have average intelligence.

IQ scores follow a bell curve distribution.

IQ scores can be interpreted in brackets, as follows:

  • 1-70: low;
  • 71-84: below average;
  • 85-115: average;
  • 116-144: above average;
  • 145-159: high;
  • 160+: genius.

The problem is that IQ tests can get really fuzzy in the uppermost bracket, the reason being that the higher the IQ, the smaller the population group there is to use for scoring. For instance, people with an IQ of 160 have a population size of only 0.003% — that’s only 3 out of 100,000 people. That being said, although there is no known upper IQ limit, all of this implies some practical limitations when evaluating the IQ of super gifted individuals.

William James Sidis. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

William James Sidis. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

This brings the question: who’s the person with the highest IQ ever? According to some, that would be William James Sidis (1898-1944), with an IQ estimated between 250 and 300. A true child prodigy, Sidis could read English by the time he was two and could write in French by age four. At age five, the young Sidis devised a formula whereby he could name the day of the week for any given historical date. When he was eight, he made a new logarithms table based on the number 12. At age 12, Sidis was admitted to Harvard where he wrote theories on “Fourth Dimensional Bodies” and graduated cum laude before his sixteenth birthday. At this age, Sidis could already speak and read fluently in French, German, Russian, Greek, Latin, Armenian, and Turkish.

Young Sidis’ achievements did not fly under the radar, with the foremost newspapers of the time following his academic record and reporting outlandish stories.  They also constantly harassed the young Sidis, who came to loathe the press and the “genius” staple. The celebrity and pressure might have gotten to him in the end. After a brief stint in 1918 teaching at Rice University in Texas, Sidis went through various clerk jobs. Reclusive in nature, all Sidis wanted in life was a job that paid his most basic expenses and which made no further demands from him. Sidis died poor and with not much to show for in terms of academic achievements (Harvard professors would speak of the young Sidis, while he was still attending the university, that he would grow to be the greatest mathematician in the world). His only published work is a three-hundred-page treatise on collecting streetcar transfers. According to American Heritage

“The book, Notes on the Collection of Transfers, contains densely printed arcana about various interconnecting lines, scraps of verse about streetcars, and some simple, foolish streetcar jokes that the author might have enjoyed in his childhood, had he had one. Sidis published it under the unlovely pseudonym of Frank Folupa, but reporters managed to ascribe the book to him, tracked him down, and again he fled.”

Sidis’ IQ is said to have been tested by a psychologist, and his score was allegedly the very highest ever recorded. William Sidis took general intelligence tests for Civil Service positions in New York and Boston, gaining phenomenal records which are the stuff of legends. This information could not be verified at this date, and perhaps never will be.

Terence Tao. Credit: YouTube.

The most reliable record-high IQ score belongs to Terence Tao, with a confirmed IQ of 230. Tao is an Australian-American mathematician born in 1975, who showed a formidable aptitude for mathematics from a very young age. He entered high school at the age of 7, where he began taking calculus classes. He earned his bachelor’s degree at 16 and his Ph.D. degree at 21.

Tao, who reportedly had a normal social life while growing up and is now married with children, really exploited his talent. Over the years, Tao has garnered a bevy of prestigious awards for his work, including the Fields Medal (which is like the Nobel Prize of math), and the MacArthur Foundation grant (which is often referred to as the “genius prize”). At the moment, Tao is a professor of mathematics and the James and Carol Collins Chair at the University of California (UCLA).

In an interview with National Geographic, Tao rejected lofty notions of genius, claiming that what really matters is “hard work, directed by intuition, literature, and a bit of luck.”

Cristopher Hirata. Credit: Breakthrough Prize.

Cristopher Hirata. Credit: Breakthrough Prize.

The second highest confirmed IQ belongs to Christopher Hirata, with an IQ of 225. He was only 13 years old when he won the gold medal in 1996 at the International Physics Olympiad. From age 14 to 18, Hirata studied physics at Caltech, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in 2001. While at Caltech, Hirata did research for NASA on the colonization of Mars and received his Ph.D. in 2005 from Princeton University in Astrophysics. The 36-year-old works for NASA where he supervises the design of the next generation of space telescopes. His theoretical research deals with Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB), dark energy and accelerated expansion of the universe, galaxy clusters, and the large-scale structure of the universe. In 2018, Hirata was awarded the prestigious New Horizons in Physics Breakthrough Prize for fundamental contributions to understanding the formation of the first galaxies in the universe and for sharpening and applying the most powerful tools of precision cosmology.

Terence Tao and Cristopher Hirata have both taken actual IQ tests, but you’ll find on the internet so-called “top 10 smartest people” lists which include many individuals who have never been tested. For instance, some websites include in their lists people such as Gary Kasparov (IQ 180), Johann Goethe (IQ 225), Albert Einstein (IQ 160), and even Leonardo da Vinci (IQ 160) or Isaac Newton (IQ 190). These scores are estimated based on the individuals’ biographies so they shouldn’t be trusted, which doesn’t mean such famous personalities weren’t highly intelligent individuals — after all, the magnitude of their success speaks for itself.

How much does an IQ score matter?

IQ scores can predict how many children or how much money a person can hope to have throughout life. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

IQ scores can predict how many children or how much money a person can hope to have throughout life. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

According to the scientific literature, a person’s IQ is highly correlated with measures of longevity, health, and prosperity. According to one study involving one million Swedes, having a high IQ also protects people from the risk of death — so much so that there was a three-fold difference in the risk of death between the highest and the lowest IQs.

IQ is also positively correlated with career success, unsurprisingly showing that more intelligent people make for better employees (see graph below). The correlation is not perfect though — measured from -1 to 1, where a correlation of 1 would mean in this case that every IQ point would result in an incremental increase in career success — so there’s plenty of room for other individual factors not measured by standard intelligence tests.

Credit: All That Matters.That being said, there’s a lot of leeway as to what makes a person successful or helps him or her master a craft. Luck certainly plays a role (terminal illness on one end of the negative extreme or having a loving, wealthy family while growing up at the other end of the positive extreme). But then there’s a far more important and, at the same time controllable, variable: that’s grit.

Angela Duckworth, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, interviewed people from all walks of life, attempting to determine what characteristics made some of them successful in life.  She found grit was the one trait that stood out among the people who had ‘made it’. Grit, Duckworth told Science News, has two parts: passion and perseverance. In one of her studies, Duckworth found that students with higher grades in university tended to have more grit (unsurprisingly). However, students with higher university entrance exam scores tended to be less gritty than those who scored lower. In other words, by the end of university, grit is a better predictor of success (graduation score) than intelligence (as measured by entrance-exam scores).

Let’s talk a bit about the higher end of achievement, or what’s the traditionally considered the domain of geniuses. In the early 21st century, Professor Lewis M. Terman evaluated a large sample of children who score at the top end of the IQ scale and followed them as they aged to see if they would become veritable geniuses in adulthood. By the end of his evaluation, the researcher wound up with 1,528 extremely bright boys and girls who averaged around 11 years old. Their average IQ was 151, with 77 children claiming IQs between 177 and 200 — that’s on the extremely gifted scale.

Until they reached middle age, the original study participants (affectionately called “Termites”) were periodically tested, the results of which were included in the five-volume work, entitled the Genetic Studies of Genius. No one among the study’s participants went on to achieve what society truly deems genius — a person who has made an outstanding contribution in a certain field of study, let’s say. Many became more or less successful lawyers, engineers, doctors, scientists, and other respectable professionals. Although we should bear in mind many of the participants grew up between the two world wars, it’s perhaps surprising to learn that many other participants were far less likely to graduate from college or to attain professional or graduate degrees.

When the IQs of the most successful Termites was compared to the comparatively least successful ones, researchers found little differences, suggesting intelligence is not a good predictor for high achievement. As chances have it, this fact is nowhere better illustrated than the cases of Luis Walter Alvarez and William Shockley, Nautilus wrote. When they were little boys, the two were tested by Terman but didn’t make the cut. However, both were monumentally successful. Alvarez went on to become one of the most brilliant and productive experimental physicists of the 20th century, earning the 1968 Nobel Prize in Physics. Shockley earned his P.h.D. from MIT and wrote his first patent at age 28. In 1956, he shared the Nobel Prize in Physics with two other colleagues for inventing a device without which our rich digital lives would be all but impossible — that’s the transistor. No Termite ever won a Nobel Prize.

Yes, having a high IQ score is a good predictor of achieving success and living a better life than the mean — it’s a nice head start, but that’s not enough in and of itself. Unless you’re disabled, you can make up for a lack of special aptitude (as perceived by an IQ score) through grit, resilience, and working on something you truly love to do.

Did you ever take an IQ test? Share your results and opinion on the matter in the comment section below. 

[UP NEXT] Can you raise your IQ score?


Orangutans can ‘talk’ about the past and the future, study suggests

Orangutans seem to be able to transmit information about a past or future event, a new study concludes.


Image via Pixabay.

They say goldfish can only remember three seconds — but orangutans definitely don’t share this limitation. A new study reports that these primates can transmit information about events in the past, an ability that was thought to be virtually exclusive to humans.

Watch out… seven minutes ago!

When danger lurks about, orangutans issue a specific alarm call. It probably wouldn’t sound particularly distressing for us hairless apes: it’s quite similar to what you’d recognize as a kissing noise. From what we know so far, orangutans will produce this sound to warn the group. However, there’s also debate regarding exactly how they use it — such a signal would also inform any predators that they’ve been spotted, which may determine it to make a hail-mary assault on any exposed group members.

So the team set out to investigate whether such alarm calls involved ‘displaced reference’ — i.e. if they can be issued for threats in the past or future, not the present. They did so by scaring a group of orangutans in the  Ketambe forest, Sumatra, with colorful sheets.

These coverings were either white, spotted, patterned (for example with a tiger-stripe pattern). The researchers (quite hilariously, I imagine) donned the sheets and then bumped around the forest floor for two minutes, making sure orangutan mothers perched in the trees above could see them.

Tiger coat researchers.

One of the researchers playing a tiger. Terrifying!
Image credits Adriano R. Lameira.

Half of these staged stalkings elicited a kiss vocalization, the team reports — the tiger-stripe cover being the most successful.

Only one of the vocalizations occurred when the faux predator was still visible. All others were delayed (for an average of 7 minutes) until the simulated predator left. One particularly old female orangutan delayed this warning by roughly 20 minutes, the researchers add. Once she started, however, “she called for more than an hour,” Adriano Reis e Lameira, one of the researchers, explained to Science Magazine.

“She stopped what she was doing, grabbed her infant, defecated [a sign of distress], and started slowly climbing higher in the tree,” he says. “She was completely quiet.”

“Twenty minutes passed. And then she finally did it.”

The team thinks this isn’t a case of the orangutans being overcome with fear and thus failing to sound the alarm while the predator was prowling. Instead, they believe the mothers might have been waiting to protect their child.

“Vocal delay was also a function of perceived danger for another – an infant – suggesting high-order cognition,” the study reads. “Our findings suggest that displaced reference in language is likely to have originally piggybacked on akin behaviours in an ancestral hominid.”

The findings are quite exciting as they suggest that humanity’s ability to understand and communicate information regarding past (or future) events may be directly rooted in our ancestors — most likely in a common ancestor between humans and orangutans.

This is far from a definitive conclusion, however, and further research will be needed to fully confirm the findings. But orangutans have proven themselves to be quite intelligent animals, so personally, I wouldn’t put displaced reference beyond them.

The paper “Time-space–displaced responses in the orangutan vocal system” has been published in the journal Science Advances.

Cockatoos can create and manipulate tools, study suggests

Goffin cockatoos are able to tear pieces of cardboard and build basic tools from them — which places them in a very select group of animals.

A Goffin cockatoo uses a cardboard tool to obtain food. Image credits: Goffin Lab, University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna.

The Goffin’s cockatoo (Cacatua goffiniana) is a type of parrot native to Indonesia — and a smart one at that. In the recent study, researchers supplied six adult cockatoos with large cardboard sheets to tear, which they could tear into strips to use as tools. The testing setup was a food platform with rewards set at varying distances (4-16cm), behind a small opening which also varied in width (1-2cm).

The Goffins were quick to adapt to the task, and they were able to tear strips of different sizes based on how far away the food was. In every case, if a first-attempt tool was too short, the cockatoos would adapt and build a longer tool. The birds consistently made tools a bit longer than they needed to be, and the tools also became longer and longer as the study progressed — which researchers interpret as a way to minimize the risk of the tool being too short, which would not have yielded any reward. Having a tool that was too long did not come with a major drawback.

It’s not just cardboard; the birds were found to be able to develop tools from a wide array of materials, Alice Auersperg, study leader, adds. Here, cardboard was chosen because it made the cockatoos work harder to create longer tools.

“The reason that we choose cardboard is because they have to place a lot of parallel bite marks in order to gain length,” Auersperg told ZME Science. “This means that that we have a relatively continuous increase in effort. If we had them bite a splinter out of wood or break off twigs from a tree for this experiment the increase in effort for a longer tool will not be as obvious.”

However, things were different when the opening became narrower and narrower. When the opening was only 1 cm wide, just one bird was able to reach the reward. However, this might not have anything to do with intelligence, but rather with beak ergonomics.

“The bird that succeeded in the smallest opening was the only female we tested, it turned out she had a smaller beak and thus found it easier to make slimmer tools. Thus we believe that she succeeded for ergonomic reasons,” Auersperg explains.

Tearing up a piece of cardboard to make a tool. Image credits: Goffin Lab, University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna

Auersperg adds:

“The way they inserted and discarded manufactured pieces of specific lengths differently depending on condition suggests that the cockatoos could indeed adjust their tool making behavior in the predicted direction but with some limits in accuracy. “

This isn’t the first study to highlight the intelligence of these cockatoos. In November 2012, Aursperg observed a captive bird called Figaro shaping splinters of wood and small sticks and using them as rakes to get otherwise inaccessible food. Further studies at the same facility showed that the birds are able to pass the Stanford marshmallow experiment — they were able to resist the temptation of an immediate reward for a later, more substantial reward. In 2013, cockatoos at Aursperg were also showed to be able to solve complex mechanical problems, in one case spontaneously working out how to open a five-part locking mechanism in sequence to retrieve a food item.

It’s not clear yet how much of these abilities are related to being captive. In an email to ZME Science, Auersperg said that they are comparing the innovative capacity of wild versus captive birds, and already have some “quite interesting results”, though the results are still a work in progress.

“They are an island species from a small archipelago in Indonesia where we have been studying them for the past two years as well. On the island, they are opportunistic extractive foragers, which means that they may often have to innovate novel ways to open food sources.”

At any rate, much like previous studies on crows, this goes to show that we really misjudged birds and their intellectual capacity.

The study has been published in PLoS ONE.


Smart on a budget: researchers design free IQ test that takes 10 minutes to complete

Researchers from the University of California (UC) Riverside and UC Irvine have developed a new IQ test kit. The test is reliable, takes only 10 minutes, and it’s completely free.


This is the customary cliche for ‘intelligent’, right?
Image credits Urh Kočar.

The most commonly-used IQ measuring tool used today is the Advanced Progressive Matrices, or APM, developed by John C. Raven in 1936. It’s a cross-referenced tool that has stood the test of time, making it a benchmark in its field. It’s not without flaws, however: it takes between 40 to 60 minutes to complete an APM test. Furthermore, a single kit and its answer sheets can cost up to hundreds of dollars — which is quite pricey.

That’s why a team of UC researchers set out to make their own test.

I’m you, but shorter (and free)

The new test, christened the University of California Matrix Reasoning Task (UCMRT), is actually highly comparable to the APM. However, it’s much shorter, taking only 10 minutes to complete. The UCMRT measures “fluid intelligence” — intelligence that is not dependent on pre-existing knowledge and is linked to reasoning and problem solving– and works on tablets and other mobile devices. Most importantly, it’s a reliable tool for measuring nonverbal problem-solving skills, the team says, which is a good predictor of academic proficiency.

The UCMRT offers three alternate versions, allowing the test to be used three times by the same user. The APM only has a single version.

“Performance on UCMRT correlated with a math test, college GPA, as well as college admissions test scores,” said Anja Pahor, a postdoctoral researcher who designed UCMRT’s problems and works at both UC campuses.

“Perhaps the greatest advantage of UCMRT is its short administration time. Further, it is self-administrable, allowing for remote testing. Log files instantly provide the number of problems solved correctly, incorrectly, or skipped, which is easily understandable for researchers, clinicians, and users. Unlike standard paper and pencil tests, UCMRT provides insight into problem-solving patterns and reaction times.”

Raven’s APM, while reliable, is often more of a liability in studies. It’s much too expensive, requires a lot of time to complete (which puts many volunteers off), and provides the same set of questions each time — meaning it isn’t very useful for repeat testing. However, there simply weren’t any viable cross-validated alternatives to the APM. Pahor and her co-authors decided to develop the UCMRT following their experience with the test. The test’s design is largely based on matrix problems generated by Sandia National Laboratories. The UCR Brain Game Center wrote the code for the problems.

UCMRT screenshot.

UCMRT screenshot.
Image credits UCR Brain Game Center.

The test only has 23 problems for individuals to tackle, whereas the APM has 36. Still, the team’s testing revealed that both work equally well. UCMRT was tested on 713 students, of whom about 230 took both tests. The UCMRT results correlated with “APM about as well as APM correlates with itself,” Pahor said. In fact, there’s one area where the new test takes the cake:

“UCMRT predicts standardized test scores better than Raven’s APM,” said Aaron Seitz, a professor of psychology at UCR and paper co-author. “Intelligence tests are big-money operations. Companies that create the tests often levy a hefty charge for their use, an impediment to doing research.”

“Our test, available for free, levels the playing field for a vast number of researchers interested in using it.”

The design of the UCMRT allows the inclusion of variants that can be used for different age segments of the population, the team adds. Visual appeal was also prioritized when designing the problems, to help keep participants motivated during each task. The UCMRT also comes with a few practice problems to get everybody into the groove before the actual testing begins.

“We are motivated by helping the scientific community and want to create versions of UCMRT for different age groups and abilities,” Seitz added. “This test could help with early intervention programs. We are already working on a project with California State University at San Bernardino to move forward with that.”

Among other future plans, the team also wants to design non-English versions of the UCMRT.

The paper “Validation of a matrix reasoning task for mobile devices” has been published in the journal Behavior Research Methods.

Angry people are more likely to overestimate their intelligence — but that’s not the whole story

People who are quick to lose their temper are also more likely to overestimate their intelligence, a new study reports.

Anger and optimism

Not all negative emotions are created equally. Feelings of anxiety and depression are typically associated with a more negative outlook on life — but anger, one of the study authors explains, is more closely linked to optimism. People who are angrier are just as optimistic as people who are generally happy.

“In a recent project, I examined the relationship between anger and various cognitive functions. I noticed from the literature review that anger differs significantly from other negative emotions, such as sadness, anxiety or depression. Anger is more approach-oriented and associated with optimistic risk perception and generally optimistic bias,” said study author Marcin Zajenkowski of the University of Warsaw.

Zajenkowski was wondering whether anger could influence other characteristics of people, namely how they perceive their own intelligence. So he carried out two studies with a sample size of 528 undergraduate students, assessing their anger, their intelligence, and their self-perceived intelligence. Participants undertook an array of 2-4 fluid intelligence tests (focusing on the ability to solve new problems, use logic in new situations, and identify patterns instead of relying on previously learned knowledge).

Researchers also evaluated the neuroticism and narcissism of the participants, looking for any associations and patterns.

The research revealed that anger was associated with an overestimation of one’s intelligence, though it was unrelated to one’s actual level of intelligence. In other words, if you lose your temper quickly, that doesn’t say anything about your intelligence — but it might say something about your self-perceived intelligence.

Interestingly, neuroticism, which was positively correlated with anger, tends to negatively correlate with self-assessed intelligence — so neuroticism acts as a suppressor for overestimating one’s intelligence.

However, this doesn’t really tell the whole story, due to a familiar problem that’s all too familiar in psychology.

The WEIRD problem

WEIRD stands for Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (as in living in a democracy).

Psychology studies overwhelmingly rely on WEIRD participants, which are typically undergrads — 67% of American psychology studies use college students, for example — and this is a problem because undergrads aren’t really representative for the whole population.

It’s easy to understand why researchers do this: gathering a large enough sample is complicated, and studies don’t typically receive that much funding. Undergrads are on campus (so they’re easily available), they often enroll for little or no money, and they can be quite homogeneous as a group — which allows scientists to detect small differences.

So while the study has been peer-reviewed and highlights an intriguing association, it also comes with the significant caveat: it addresses a very particular subset of the population, which may not be representative of the broader situation.

Journal Reference: Marcin Zajenkowski and Gilles Gignac. “Why do angry people overestimate their intelligence? Neuroticism as a suppressor of the association between Trait-Anger and subjectively assessed intelligence.” https://doi.org/10.1016/j.intell.2018.07.003


An AI recreated the periodic table from scratch — in a couple of hours

A new artificial intelligence (AI) program developed at Stanford recreated the periodic table from scratch — and it only needed a couple of hours to do so.


If you’ve ever wondered how machines learn, this is it — in picture form. (A) shows atom vectors of 34 main-group elements and their hierarchical clustering based on distance. The color in each cell stands for value of the vector on that dimension.
Image credits Zhou et al., 2018, PNAS.

Running under the alluring name of Atom2Vec, the software learned to distinguish between different atoms starting from a database of chemical compounds. After it learned the basics, the researchers left Atom2Vec to its own devices. Using methods and processes related to those in the field of natural language processing — chiefly among them, the idea that the nature of words can be understood by looking at other words around it — the AI successfully clustered the elements by their chemical properties.

It only took Atom2Vec a couple of hours to perform the feat; roughly speaking, it re-created the periodic table of elements, one of the greatest achievements in chemistry. It took us hairless apes nearly a century of trial-and-error to do the same.

I’m you, but better

The Periodic Table of elements was initially conceived by Dmitri Mendeleev in the mid-19th century, well before many of the elements we know today had been discovered, and certainly before there was even an inkling of quantum mechanics and relativity lurking beyond the boundaries of classical physics. Mendeleev recognized that certain elements fell into groups with similar chemical features, and this established a periodic pattern (hence the name) to the elements as they went from lightweight elements like hydrogen and helium, to progressively heavier ones. In fact, Mendeleev could predict the very specific properties and features of, as yet, undiscovered elements due to blank spaces in his unfinished table. Many of these predictions turned out to be correct when the elements filling the blank spots were finally discovered.

“We wanted to know whether an AI can be smart enough to discover the periodic table on its own, and our team showed that it can,” said study leader Shou-Cheng Zhang, the J. G. Jackson and C. J. Wood Professor of Physics at Stanford’s School of Humanities and Sciences.

Zhang’s team designed Atom2Vec starting from an AI platform (Word2Vec) that Google built to parse natural language. The software converts individual words into vectors (numerical codes). It then analyzes these vectors to estimate the probability of a particular word appearing in a text based on the presence of other words.

The word “king” for example is often accompanied by “queen”, and the words “man” and “woman” often appear together. Word2Vec works with these co-appearances and learns that, mathematically, “king = a queen minus a woman plus a man,” Zhang explains. Working along the same lines, the team fed Atom2Vec all known chemical compounds (such as NaCl, KCl, and so on) in lieu of text samples.

It worked surprisingly well. Even from this relatively tiny sample size, the program figured out that potassium (K) and sodium (Na) must be chemically-similar, as both bind to chlorine (Cl). Through a similar process, Atom2Vec established chemical relationships between all the species in the periodic table. It was so successful and fast in performing the task that Zhang hopes that in the future, researchers will use Atom2Vec to discover and design new materials.

Future plans

“For this project, the AI program was unsupervised, but you could imagine giving it a goal and directing it to find, for example, a material that is highly efficient at converting sunlight to energy,” he said.

As impressive as the achievement is, Zhang says it’s only the first step. The endgame is more ambitious — Zhang hopes to design a replacement for the Turing test, the golden standard for gauging machine intelligence. To pass the Turing test, a machine must be capable of responding to written questions in such a way that users won’t suspect they’re chatting with a machine; in other words, a machine will be considered as intelligent as a human if it seems human to us.

However, Zhang thinks the test is flawed, as it is too subjective.

“Humans are the product of evolution and our minds are cluttered with all sorts of irrationalities. For an AI to pass the Turing test, it would need to reproduce all of our human irrationalities,” he says. “That’s very difficult to do, and not a particularly good use of programmers’ time.”

He hopes to take the human factor out of the equation, by having machine intelligence try to discover new laws of nature. Nobody’s born educated, however, not even machines, so Zhang is first checking to see if AIs can reach of the most important discoveries we made without help. By recreating the periodic table, Atom2Vec has achieved this goal.

The team is now working on the second version of the AI. This one will focus on cracking a frustratingly-complex problem in medical research: it will try to design antibodies to attack the antigens of cancer cells. Such a breakthrough would offer us a new and very powerful weapon against cancer. Currently, we treat the disease with immunotherapy, which relies on such antibodies already produced by the body; however, our bodies can produce over 10 million unique antibodies, Zhang says, by mixing and matching between some 50 separate genes.

“If we can map these building block genes onto a mathematical vector, then we can organize all antibodies into something similar to a periodic table,” Zhang says.

“Then, if you discover that one antibody is effective against an antigen but is toxic, you can look within the same family for another antibody that is just as effective but less toxic.”

The paper “Atom2Vec: Learning atoms for materials discovery,” has been published in the journal PNAS.

Credit: Pixabay.

Scientists found nearly 1,000 new genes linked to intelligence

Credit: Pixabay.

Credit: Pixabay.

Dutch researchers uncovered 1,016 genes that they associated with intelligence, 939 of which are completely new to science. The findings help to identify the biological underpinnings of cognitive functions, but also those of related neurological and psychiatric disorders.

The team, led by Danielle Posthuma, a statistical geneticist at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam in the Netherlands, performed a genome-wide association study (GWAS) of almost 270,000 individuals. In such studies, scientists analyzed a genome-wide set of genetic variants in different individuals to see if any variant is associated with a trait. Generally, GWASs look for associations between single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) and traits like major human diseases, but can equally be applied to any other organism.

Each person took neurocognitive tests that gauged their level of intelligence, whose scores were then paired with variations in DNA — the SNPs. This is a straightforward method for identifying which mutations are associated with high intelligence.

Of the over 9 million mutations that were detected in this huge sample, the researchers found 205 regions in DNA linked with intelligence, 190 of which were new to science, as well as 1,016 specific genes, of which only 77 had been previously discovered. The mutations that were linked with high intelligence seem to protect overall cognitive health, with people carrying these mutations being less likely to develop Alzheimer’s, ADHD, depressive symptoms, and schizophrenia. On the downside, high intelligence mutations were linked to a higher incidence of autism. People with high intelligence were also likely to live longer, the team reported in Nature. 

Previously, Posthuma and colleagues identified 40 new genes linked to intelligence in a cohort of about 80,000 people. This time, they certainly outdid themselves.

The study used a novel statistical method called MAGMA to pinpoint specific types of cells and tissue where the genes were expressed. Many of the genes were expressed in a region of the brain called the basal ganglia, a cluster of neurons known to be involved in learning, cognition, and emotion. This suggests parts of this brain region are worth targetting with new pharmaceutical drugs in order to prevent or treat some psychiatric disorders.

In a separate study, also published in the journal Naturethe researchers identified nearly 500 genes and 124 loci (regions in DNA) associated with neurotic traits by combing through databases of 449,400 individuals from the UK Biobank and 23andMe. Neurotic traits include anxiety and depression.

This study suggests that people who worry a lot inherited different genes than those who more likely to be depressed, which suggests there are different genetic pathways that underlie these behaviors.

Both studies are remarkable in that they provide new leads for unraveling the neurobiology of neuroticism but also serious psychiatric diseases.

Wearing glasses might really mean you’re smarter, new study finds

If you thought people who wear glasses are smarter, well, you might be right, according to a University of Edinburgh study.

Does he look intelligent? It’s because of the glasses, isn’t it?

It’s not every day that science gets the chance to address a frivolous stereotype, but here we are. In the largest study of its kind, Scottish researchers analyzed cognitive and genetic data from over 300,000 people aged between 16 and 102. Surprisingly, they found that people who were more intelligent, on average, were more likely to have genes which indicate they will wear glasses. This wasn’t the main focus of the study, but it was an interesting takeaway.

Overall intelligence has long been linked with many health traits, but these correlations are generally positive. Several studies have found that higher cognitive function can be linked to lower incidence of problems such as angina, lung cancer, and depression. More intelligent people generally tend to lead longer, healthier lives — but this is not necessarily a result of the intelligence itself, and is more likely to be a result of the lifestyles intelligent people generally choose to have.

“Some individuals have generally higher cognitive function than others,” researchers write in the study. “These individual differences are quite persistent across the life course from later childhood onwards. Individuals with higher measured general cognitive function tend to live longer and be less deprived.”

With eyesight, however, things seem to be quite different: the genetic correlations between general cognitive function and eyesight were in opposite directions. The team reports that they found that there was a 28% greater chance that people with higher cognitive levels would also need some form of vision correction. In other words, almost a third of people with higher cognitive levels will likely need glasses or contact lenses.

However, it’s important to note that poor eyesight and higher intelligence aren’t directly linked — no causation has been established between the two at all. Furthermore, assessing intelligence simply from DNA is challenging and somewhat subjective. Any missteps can lead people to fall into the unwanted trap of the so-called race science.

But despite the lack of scientific information, there’s plenty of evidence that wearing glasses, whether you need them or not, makes people think you are more intelligent, industrious, and reliable. It goes even further: glasses make people seem more harmless. As lawyer Harvey Slovis explained to New York magazine, glasses make people seem more incapable of a crime, creating a sort of “nerd defense.”

However, maybe it’s time we start looking beyond these prejudices, isn’t it?

Journal Reference: Gail Davies et al. Study of 300,486 individuals identifies 148 independent genetic loci influencing general cognitive function, Nature Communications(2018). DOI: 10.1038/s41467-018-04362-x

Credit: Pixabay.

Too much of a good thing: very smart executives are less able leaders

Although intelligence is positively correlated with inspiring and capable leadership, there’s a point where a leader’s IQ offers diminishing returns or can actually lead to detrimental leadership.

Credit: Pixabay.

Credit: Pixabay.

The findings were made by psychologists at the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, who assessed 379 mid-level leaders employed by private companies in 30 mainly European countries. The average age of the participants was 38 and 27 percent of them were women.

Each participant was asked to complete the Wonderlic Personnel Test, a cognitive ability test widely used by employers and educational institutions around the world. The average IQ of the participants was 111, which is well above the average IQ score of 100 for the general population.

Besides measuring intelligence and personality for each participant, the team led by John Antonakis also collected leadership performance ratings from eight people. These were either peers or subordinates of the executive included in the study which rated them on the Multifactor Leadership Questionnaire. This test’s scores reflect a person’s leadership style, which can generally be seen as useful or detrimental. Useful leadership styles include ‘transformational’, which inspires, or ‘instrumental’, which facilitates a team’s goals by removing roadblocks. Passive, hands-off approaches are detrimental leadership styles.

Results suggest that, overall, women had better leadership styles, as did older leaders. The most variance, however, was due to personality and intelligence.

As previous studies showed, the Swiss researchers found that there was a linear relationship between intelligence and effective leadership — but only up to a point. This association plateaued and then reversed at IQ 120. Leaders who scored above this threshold scored lowered on transformational and instrumental leadership than less intelligent leaders, as rated by standardized tests. Over an IQ score of 128, the poorer leadership style was plainer and statistically significant, as reported in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

It’s important to note at this point at these ‘very smart’ leaders didn’t employ detrimental leadership styles but rather just scored lower than their ‘less smart’ peers on useful leadership style.

The study doesn’t explain why being ‘too smart’ can cramp a leader’s style. It could be that highly intelligent leaders overestimate their subordinate’s ability to carry out tasks, leading to friction. Very smart people could also be seen as outliers and, hence, less relatable by subordinates.

At the end of the day, leaders were rated by their subordinates, which could be more to blame than the leaders themselves. Ultimately, the level at which a leader performs also depends on the relative intelligence of its team members.


What creature plans and understands what’s in store? Quoth the raven, Nevermore

We knew that ravens were smart but they’ve surprised us once again: they can make plans and delay gratification, just like humans and other primates.

In a rural research farm in Sweden, Mathias Osvath, a cognitive zoologist at Lund University in Sweden devised a fairly straightforward, though painstaking plan. For five years, Osvath grew a group of ravens. He played with them, observed them, and trained their intellect. He witnessed them getting smarter and develop special relationships with his students (one of them liked pecking on a student’s head). It was a fascinating process in itself, but this wasn’t just a hobby. He wanted to see how smart the ravens can get. Together with graduate student Can Kabadayi, he moved on to the next stage.

They took a series of experiments previously used to assess the cognitive capacity of apes, and replicated them. But instead of using apes or any kind of primate, previously thought as the only animals able to pass the tests, they used the ravens.

We’ve known for quite a while that ravens are no bird brains. Previous research had already shown that they can use tools, solve a dazzling array of problems, and even hold a grudge. Osvath and Kabadayi took it one step further. They first taught the birds to use a tool to solve a puzzle — it’s a remarkable achievement in its own right, but this had been demonstrated before. The goal of the puzzle was to open a box with a delicious treat which the birds love.

Then, researchers took both the tool and the box away. After one hour, they gave the ravens a choice of other things, including the tool (but not the box), and a smaller reward. After an additional 15 minutes, the original box was brought back to them. The birds didn’t take the bait: 80% of ravens took the tool and waited for the big reward, and 86% of them then used it to open the box and take the reward. When the test was re-taken with a 17-hour delay in returning the box to the ravens, results were even better: 90% of the ravens took the tool. They did so well that they surpassed not only primates, but even small children.

Their stellar performance stunned researchers.

“It’s not just the fact they have these skills independently. But to use them together to make these complex decisions, that’s what makes it so amazing,” said Osvath, in Lund, Sweden.

He compared it to a decision process we’d attribute to humans, not animals.

“Say you’re planning a trip to London, and you know how often it rains there. So you bring an umbrella, even though it’s not raining now where you are. That’s what we are talking about here, planning based on past experience,” Osvath said.

Other researchers have also praised the study. They say it’s a significant breakthrough in our understanding of these birds’ intellect. Despite their previous accomplishments, there was nothing to indicate that ravens could understand a concept as complex as delayed gratification.

“There was no real proof that [ravens] actually can transfer a cognitive ability in future planning to other behaviors,” says Markus Böckle, a professor of psychology at the University of Cambridge and co-author of a related commentary in Science who was not involved in the study. “This is the first time we have clear evidence in any animal” besides humans.

This also takes another thing from the ‘unique’ list of human characteristics. The fact that ravens outperformed not only all apes but also four-year-old children raises a lot of question about intelligence itself. How did creatures as different as primates and birds exhibit similar cognitive capacities? Is it a capacity that emerged from a common ancestor, or is it something that developed in parallel? We don’t really know yet.

“It is really surprising to see ravens were better at solving two planning tasks than great apes and children presented with similar problems,” says Alex Taylor, an animal cognition expert University of Auckland in New Zealand who was not involved in the new study.

However, Taylor also notes that the results are not beyond interpretation. He suggests that instead of understanding the experiment and making the optimal decisions, ravens might actually be outsmarting the experiment (which would be just as interesting). He says that ravens might not be in fact thinking of the future, but would just pick the object they associate with the most food, and figure things out as they go.
Future experiments will help sort out this intriguing possibility, but for now, one thing’s for sure: we humans and our intellect are not as unique as we like to think.
The study has been published in Science.
chess intelligence

Major study explored the biology of human intelligence and found 40 new genes that play a role

A massive scientific undertaking involving 60,000 adults and 20,000 children probed the human brain for genes that underpin cognitive skills. The scientists report finding 40 new genes that are one way or another linked to intelligence — the most important contribution any study has made thus far. All in all, the total number of genes involved in human intelligence so-far identified is 52. Someday, these genes could be used to design drugs that make us smarter or treat neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s.

chess intelligence

Credit: Pixabay.

About half of the differences seen in IQ scores can be explained by genetic factors, the rest is influenced by a mix of nutrition, pollution exposure, social setting, education. However, we only know about a handful of genes that code for intelligence out of all the hundreds or possibly thousands of genes there ought to be. Some of these genes instruct neurons to grow, others guide the path these neurons take — thus building synapses.

To look for genetic markers of intelligence across the human population, the team of researchers led by Professor Danielle Posthuma, a statistical geneticist at the Free University of Amsterdam assessed 13 different groups of people of European descent. In total, some 80,000 people were involved who had their intelligence assessed by the “g-factor” — also known as ‘general intelligence’, that refers to the existence of a broad mental capacity that influences performance on cognitive ability measures — rather than IQ.

The researchers then carried out a genome-wide association study (GWAS) that determines connections between a trait and DNA markers called single-nucleotide polymorphisms, or SNPs, which might determine an individual’s likelihood to develop a specific trait. This method enabled the team to identify 336 significant SNPs.

They then turned to yet another similar method called genome-wide gene association analysis (or GWGAS), which this time calculates the effect of multiple SNPs within genes and can identify actual associated genes. Ultimately, 52 genes linked with intelligence were isolated, out of which 12 were previously known to science.

The most important genes — or those that were the strongest linked to intelligence — are involved in regulating the nervous system’s development and cell death. The most significant was the FOXO3 gene, which is involved in insulin signaling and could also trigger apoptosis, the process of programmed cell death that occurs in multicellular organisms. Another strongly associated gene was CSE1L, a gene involved in apoptosis and cell proliferation.

There’s a lot of potential things you can do with this information, from developing drugs that enhance cognition to blueprints for designer babies — both prospects are pretty far fetched at this point. But some uses are already on the horizon such as ranking IVB embryos based on what their genomes say.

The authors of the paper published in Nature Genetics make sure to point out, however, that genetics can only account for so much of a person’s intelligence. It’s not clear at this point whether ‘nature’ counts more than ‘nurture’ as far as grafting intelligence is concerned.

More evidence adds up to support the intelligence of elephants

Researchers have shown that Asian elephants are even smarter than we thought. They exhibited bodily self-awareness and use it in real-life problem solving.

Image credits: University of Cambridge.

Self-awareness in both children and animals is regarded as a clear sign of intelligence, but it’s not exactly the easiest thing in the world to demonstrate. The classic study involves the subject looking at a reflection of itself in a mirror, and seeing whether or not it understands it is looking at itself. So far, only a handful of species has passed this test — great apes, dolphins, magpies and elephants. But more and more researchers argue that the mirror test is an imperfect and incomplete measure of one’s self-awareness. Self-awareness is not a simple black-or-white measure, it is a string of complex thoughts and understanding, and the mirror just doesn’t cover that.

So scientists started looking for alternative tests to complement the mirror, and one of the main candidates is a custom self-awareness test. This test looks at how individuals may recognize their bodies as obstacles to succeed in a problem-solving task. The idea is to analyze the individual’s understanding of the way his body interacts with the surrounding environment, and then see how the individual uses this to solve problems.

For the elephant version of this test, Dr Josh Plotnik, visiting researcher at the University of Cambridge and founder of conservation charity Think Elephants International, devised a new test. Working together with his colleague Rachel Dale (now a PhD student at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna), he attached a stick to a mat using a rope. The elephants had to walk onto the mat, pick up the stick and pass it to a trainer. As you can imagine, the trick was that the stick was connected to the mat, and with the elephant standing on the mat, it couldn’t pass it — it had to get off the mat for this to work. The elephants had to realize they need to get off the mat before they could pass the stick. They also had a control version of this test, in which the stick wasn’t tied to the mat.

In the control version, elephants would rarely step off the mat before passing the stick, but when the two were tied together, elephants would step off the mat before passing the stick. This might seem like a simple task, but its implications run quite deep.

“This is a deceptively simple test, but its implications are quite profound,” says Dr Plotnik. “The elephants understood that their bodies were getting in the way, so they stepped aside to enable themselves to complete the task. In a similar test, this is something that young children are unable to understand until they are about two years old.

“This implies that elephants may be capable of recognising themselves as separate from objects or their environment. This means that they may have a level of self-understanding, coupled with their passing of the mirror test, which is quite rare in the animal kingdom.”

Furthermore, this solidifies the status of elephants as intelligent creatures. Plotnik argues that studies such as this are important to help us understand how intelligent other animals are, and increase our appreciation of them. In 2011, he conducted a different study showing that elephants often work together to solve problems. His research is a solid indication that we may have been underselling elephant intelligence for years.

“Elephants are well regarded as one of the most intelligent animals on the planet, but we still need more empirical, scientific evidence to support this belief,” says Dale. “We know, for example, that they are capable of thoughtful cooperation and empathy, and are able to recognise themselves in a mirror. These abilities are highly unusual in animals and very rare indeed in non-primates. We wanted to see if they also show ‘body-awareness’.”

Journal Reference: Dale, R, and Plotnik, JM — Elephants know when their bodies are obstacles to success in a novel transfer task. Scientific Reports; 12 April 2017; DOI: 10.1038/srep46309