Researchers find IQ scores dropping since the 1970s
June 12, 2018 by Bob Yirka, Medical Xpres
A pair of researchers with the Ragnar Frisch Centre for Economic Research in Norway has found that IQ test scores have been slowly dropping over the past several decades. In their paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Bernt Bratsberg and Ole Rogeberg describe their study and the results they found. They also offer some possible explanations for their findings.
Prior studies have shown that people grew smarter over the first part of last century, as measured by the intelligence quotient—a trend that was dubbed the Flynn effect. Various theories have been proposed to explain this apparent brightening of the human mind, such as better nutrition, health care, education, etc, all factors that might help people grow into smarter adults than they would have otherwise. But, now, according to the researchers in Norway, that trend has ended. Instead of getting smarter, humans have started getting dumber.
The study by the team consisted of analyzing IQ test results from young men entering Norway’s national service (compulsory military duty) during the years 1970 to 2009. In all, 730,000 test results were accounted for. In studying the data, the researchers found that scores declined by an average of seven points per generation, a clear reversal of test results going back approximately 70 years.
But it was not all bad news. The researchers also found some differences between family groups, suggesting that some of the decline might be due to environmental factors. But they also suggest that lifestyle changes could account for some of the decline, as well, such as changes in the education system and children reading less and playing video games more. Sadly, other researchers have found similar results. A British team recently found IQ score results falling by 2.5 to 4.3 points every decade since approximately the end of the second world war. And this past December, another group from the U.S. found that children who grew up eating a lot of fish tended to have higher IQs—and they slept better, too, which is another factor involved in adult intelligence levels. Notably, children in many countries in the modern era eat very little fish.
More information: Bernt Bratsberg et al. Flynn effect and its reversal are both environmentally caused, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2018). DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1718793115
Population intelligence quotients increased throughout the 20th century—a phenomenon known as the Flynn effect—although recent years have seen a slowdown or reversal of this trend in several countries. To distinguish between the large set of proposed explanations, we categorize hypothesized causal factors by whether they accommodate the existence of within-family Flynn effects. Using administrative register data and cognitive ability scores from military conscription data covering three decades of Norwegian birth cohorts (1962–1991), we show that the observed Flynn effect, its turning point, and subsequent decline can all be fully recovered from within-family variation. The analysis controls for all factors shared by siblings and finds no evidence for prominent causal hypotheses of the decline implicating genes and environmental factors that vary between, but not within, families.
Perhaps for athletes, a genius is an Olympic medalist. In entertainment, a genius could be defined as an EGOT winner, someone who has won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony award. For Mensa, the exclusive international society comprising members of “high intelligence,” someone who scores at or above the 98th percentile on an IQ or other standardized intelligence test could be considered genius.
The most common definition of genius falls in line with Mensa’s approach: someone with exceptional intelligence.
Making a genius
In his new science series “Genius” on PBS, Stephen Hawking is testing out the idea that anyone can “think like a genius.” By posing big questions — for instance, “Can we travel through time?” — to people with average intelligence, the famed theoretical physicist aims to find the answers through the sheer power of the human mind.
“It’s a fun show that tries to find out if ordinary people are smart enough to think like the greatest minds who ever lived,” Hawking said in a statement. “Being an optimist, I think they will.”
Optimism aside, answering a genius-level question does not a genius make — at least, not according to psychologist Frank Lawlis, supervisory testing director for American Mensa.
“The geniuses ask questions. They don’t know the answers, but they know a lot of questions and their curiosity takes them into their fields,” Lawlis told Live Science. “[They’re] somebody that has the capacity to inquire at that high level and to be curious to pursue that high level of understanding and then be able to communicate it to the rest of us.”
You must statistically be a genius to qualify for Mensa, with a measured intelligence that exceeds 98 percent of the rest of the population. However, Lawlis said even these tests can exclude some of the most brilliant of thinkers.
“The way you put items together to test for intelligence is that you already know the answer,” Lawlis said. “That’s the whole point. You create questions that have real answers.”
For instance, Albert Einstein would have likely done poorly on IQ tests, Lawlis said.
“It really comes down to thinking outside the box, and you really can’t test that,” Lawlis said. “When they take these tests, instead of directing their attention to the correct answer, they think of a jillion other answers that would also work, so consequently they get confused and do very poorly.”
A genius’s process
Consisting of a mixture of intelligence, creativity and contribution to society, genius is hard to pinpoint, said Dean Keith Simonton, a distinguished professor of psychology at the University of California, Davis.
In the Scientific American Mind magazine’s special issue on genius, Simonton hypothesized that all geniuses use the same general process to make their contributions to the world.
They start with a search for ideas, not necessarily a problem in need of a solution. From this search, geniuses will generate a number of questions, and begin a long series of trials and errors. They then find a solution, for a problem others may not have even been aware of.
“Talent hits a target no one else can hit. Genius hits a target no one else can see,” Simonton said, quoting the 19th-century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer.
“Exceptional thinkers, it turns out, stand on common ground when they launch their arrows into the unknown,” Simonton said.
Inside the brain of a genius
In an attempt to “discern what combination of elements tends to produce particularly creative brains,” psychiatrist and neuroscientist Nancy Andreasen at the University of Iowa used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which measures brain activity by detecting changes associated with blood flow.
Andreasen selected the creative subjects from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and a control group from a mixture of professions. The control group was matched to the writers based on age, education and IQ — with both test and control groups averaging an IQ of 120, considered very smart but not exceptionally so, according to Andreasen.
Based on these controls, Andreasen looked for what separated the creative’s brains from the controls.
During the fMRI scans of participants, the subjects were asked to perform three different tasks: word association, picture association and pattern recognition. The creatives’ brains showed stronger activations in their association cortices. These are the most extensively developed regions in the human brain and help interpret and utilize visual, auditory, sensory and motor information.
Andreasen set out to find what else, in addition to brain processes, linked the 13 creatives’ brains.
“Some people see things others cannot, and they are right, and we call them creative geniuses,” Andreasen wrote in The Atlantic, referring to participants in her study. “Some people see things others cannot, and they are wrong, and we call them mentally ill.”
And then there are people who fit into both categories.
What Andreasen found is that there is another common mark of creative genius: mental illness.
Through interviews and extensive research, Andreasen discovered that the creatives she studied had a higher rate of mental illness, which included a family history of mental illness. The most common diagnoses were bipolar disorder, depression, anxiety and alcoholism. The question now is whether the mental illness contributes to the genius or if it’s the other way around, she said.
Previously unpublished photographs of the physicist’s brain revealed that Einstein had extra folding in his gray matter, the part of the brain that processes conscious thinking, the study researchers found. His frontal lobes, the brain regions tied to abstract thought and planning, had particularly elaborate folding.
“It’s a really sophisticated part of the human brain,” Dean Falk, study co-author and an anthropologist at Florida State University, told Live Science, referring to gray matter. “And [Einstein’s] is extraordinary.”
Be it high IQ, curiosity or creativity, the factor that makes someone a genius may remain a mystery. Though Mensa can continue to test for quantitative intelligence in areas such as verbal capacity and spatial reasoning, there is no test for the next Einstein, Lawlis said.
“I don’t know anybody that could really predict this extremely high level of intelligence and contribution,” Lawlis said. “That’s the mystery.”
Original article on Live Science.
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