Storytelling Science

How our children can be smarter

Amitabha Mukerjee


Sometimes grandparents will watch a child operate the remote and say things like, "Kids are so much smarter today!" Most of us attribute it to technological exposure, and don't believe it seriously.

Our children are actually smarter than us

Yet, a large body of data from standardized IQ tests over sixty years, indicates incontrovertibly that IQ has been increasing. The increase may be as much as six percent per decade for some aspects of intelligence, such as abstract reasoning with shapes. This is actually quite a startling figure - if you extrapolate it to people around the 1900's, someone who was in the top 90 percentile then, would be nearly an idiot today! Others rate the increase between three and seven percent, but no one denies a significant improvement.

Of course, IQ tests and their relation to intelligence are very controversial. There are many forms of intelligence, and IQ tests at best measure one form. However, such a rapid change even in one measure of brain function is quite remarkable, and needs to be explained.

One particularly notorious use of IQ tests is in determining racial differences; for example, in wide-ranging tests across the USA, blacks have a ten point difference in IQ with their white counterparts. Now, it turns out that "race" is a social concept unrelated to body features or genetics - so a genetic cause is unlikely. A philosopher from New Zealand, James Flynn, started collecting data for IQ tests from across the world. What he found was that more than any racial divide, there is a clear generational improvement, where each generation of children are smarter than their parents by about 15 points of IQ, which is a huge difference that cannot be explained by heredity.

Exercising your Brain

In trying to explain this gap, psychologists initially focused on improved formal education. But then they found an improvement even in tests designed for two-year olds. Eventually, the consensus emerged that the change is due to improved learning environments during infancy and early childhood. This may be related to the phenomenal development in the brain during this period.

The growth in the human brain after birth is unique in the animal kingodom -- from 400 grams at birth to 1200 in the adult, it requires the skull to have a vulnerable soft spot at the top so it can expand to accommodate the brain. The growing brain is very strongly influenced by the environment; if it finds things it needs to do often, those areas of the brain grow more connections.

Thus, labaratory mice raised in small dark cages have significantly smaller brains with far fewer connections, compared to mice that can run around in bright spaces and interact with other mice. In fact, exercise, both of the body and the mind, is today's leading prescription for preventing brain deterioration such as Alzheimer's.

In human societies, parents have learned this, and families have focused more attention on children. The improved IQ's are seen as a dramatic indication of this trend. As for the issues of race, the difference of ten IQ points between blacks and whites can be seen as a developmental disadvantage of about one generation.

Brain Growth in the Indian Context

As you may expect, many of these ideas have a bearing on educational practice. In the west, ideas such as Constructivism encourage the child to play with her hands as part of the learning process.

In contrast, large chunks of India still remain in the eighteenth century. One can speculate that generations of Indians are also going through a similar IQ spurt - something between three and seven percent a decade - and that some groups have a disadvantage of a generation or more.

The idea of improving the child's environment through hands-on tasks is one of the critical notions that we can use to leapfrog our next generation into the twenty-first century. And you can do your bit to help. In this column over the past few weeks, we have embarked on a journey to help children learn through practical hands-on tasks. Share these stories (including this one) with a child, either formally or informally, and replenish your faith in life. . . And your brain cells!