The State of Today’s Culture

Current Regards on Building Brains and Improving Human Intelligence

by Win Wenger, Ph.D.
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When I first wrote books on this topic a third of a century ago, I never dreamed that most of our institutions and professionals would still be insistent, all the way into this millennium, that human intelligence is a fixed, frozen given, essentially unimprovable — and that they would still be maintaining, despite so much overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that you are stuck with the (lack of) intelligence you were born with, and that it’s impolite at best to inquire too much or too deeply into such matters.

I should have known. At the time I was starting to write in this field, in the early 1970s, it was already approaching a quarter century past the time when Alex Osborn, Sidney J. Parnes, George Prince and others had first demonstrated conclusively and powerfully how readily creativity could be learned or trained.

And yet the professionals of that time, and the same institutions, were just as insistent then that creativity was unimprovable, that you were stuck with the (lack of) creativity you were born with! And you know well, perhaps all too well, what a familiar part of the scene “creativity training,” in many different forms, has since become. Some of the very same institutions which once loudly spat upon the very idea that people could become more creative now sport their own “Department of Creative Studies.”

Why did it take so long on “creativity,” and why is it taking so long on “intelligence”?

Conscious/Unconscious Motivation

First, we have to understand the difference between conscious and unconscious motivation. In every aspect of life, most people are acting consciously from one set of motivations but unconsciously are acting from very different motivations.

For a century, behavioral science has been familiar with the phenomenon of people with poor self-image and self-expectations who, when faced with imminent “success” (however defined), drastically change what they were doing — for all kinds of rationalized reasons — to ward off that success and to self-sabotage themselves back to the familiar grounds of failure.

Likewise, some of those who appear to be the very highest-minded people are frequently observed to be involved with arguments which serve their own stakes and beliefs and interests, despite clear commitment in other topical areas to objectivity and even to intellectual rigor.

The people of whom one would expect the highest degree of objectivity and integrity, “above question,” are often so far also above self-question as to be especially vulnerable to this effect. The more convinced, many times on many valid grounds, one is of one’s own rectitude, the easier it is to not notice niggling contrary evidence or that one’s own positions and actions are flowing from a different, less high-minded set of motives.

Behaviorally, it has become popular in recent decades to refer to everyone’s having, beneath their human and cortical mind, a “reptilian” or “limbic” brain whose first concern is survival and whose next, second, concern is to keeping things much the way they already are. This “lower” brain pushes most of our buttons even when we think we are consciously making “high-minded” or objective, “rational” choices.

Those among our readers here who are into the self-help literature have seen a lot of such discussion, and there is a fair amount of truth to it. Behavioral science has known for more than a century that the brain circuitry for every conscious act and decision and even stimulus, however much it may involve the “highest” regions of our cortex, also passes through such “limbic” organs and structures as the amygdala, thalamus and hypothalamus — the parts of our brain most concerned with emotion and patterned-reflex responses.

There is no act of intellect or high logic in human functioning which does not also involve, and which is not also affected, consciously or unconsciously and mostly unconsciously, by these organs for emotion and patterned-reflex response. The less we are conscious of this, the less we suspect the emotional biases of our own reasoning, the less we factor this dimension into account, and the more subject we are to acts and decisions whose outcome stems not from our “high” conscious minds but from our emotional reflexes.

For centuries, history has seen this in starkest form. Our highest-minded organizations and institutions, the very “worthiest” of causes, have proven the most susceptible. How many charities have suffered from or even succumbed to corruption in their leadership? How many human beings have been brutally butchered, maimed, tortured, even burned at the stake, on behalf of Christ or Mohammed or Krishna? Way too often, when we know we are right we fail to self-question, we are least susceptible to contrary evidence and most susceptible to being pushed around by our unreasoning emotional reflex minds.

I’m afraid that even where evidence, questioning, and rigorous intellectual inquiry are the strongest — the sciences and the human-helping professions — matters in this regard are little different. Historians of science note that paradigms (clusters of theory and observation upon which everyone is agreed and convinced of their validity) change in science, not during the time when their bases are actually overthrown and new models proven, but when the old scientists die who had been invested in those old paradigms. And these are among the people most committed to objective observation and intellectually rigorous reasoning — and therefore most above question as to motives for their choices, actions, judgments and beliefs!

Power relationships

Second, understand that any change, even the most innocent change, in a situation means a change in the power relationships within that situation. The people who presently enjoy the most advantages in context of that situation might not always and enthusiastically welcome that change. That change has at least some likelihood to disenfranchise the people presently on top and to go to someone else. This phenomenon is so general, it’s a given-by-definition.

Any change, even the most innocent change, in a situation means a change in the power relationships within that situation.

Ask not for whom the reptilian brain toils. It toils for thee and me… and for our worthy but comfortable colleagues in the professions, schools, clinics, agencies, and organizational institutions all over our world, in the early 21st Century.

Mind you, not everyone who believed that you were stuck with the level of either creativity or intelligence (or the lack thereof) that you were born with had their reason and observational evidence overpowered by motives of institutional and intellectual convenience. Fifty, a hundred years ago, the preponderance of evidence seemed to favor the “nature” side of the Nature vs. Nurture controversy.

My own mentor, the late Dr. Virgil S. Ward, at the time one of the world’s two or three leading experts on special education of the gifted, was four-square in the center of the “nature” camp (but had the intellectual integrity and rigor to support my questioning, and my beginnings of movement into very different directions!!!). But that was before —

  • All those rat-brain studies by Gopal, Das, Rosenzweig and others showing the profound effects on adults of being maintained in stimulating or in non-stimulating environments.
  • Those wonderful rat-brain studies by Marion Diamond demonstrating the much earlier finding by the father of neuroanatomy, Santiago Ramon y Cajal, that it’s not even stimulus:  what mainly develops a brain and intelligence is feedback upon one’s own actions. Note that this is a finding 100% congruent with and predictable from psychology’s main natural law, the Law of Effect (“you get more of what you reinforce”), though few if any have remarked it.
  • The core of evidence supporting the “Nature” position, that mass of separated-twin IQ studies which were reported by Sir Cyril Burt and which were cited in genetics and psychology and education texts all over the world, turned out to be an admitted fraud, made up out of Burt’s head.
  • A slow avalanche of studies on changes in IQ in adults, those changes cumulatively resulting from the stimulus-level of their respective occupation or profession.
  • The invention of modern high-speed, high-resolution, live brain-scanning procedures. These “bloodless” procedures meant that brains no longer had to be “sacrificed” to be studied, and further could be much more effectively studied in action than when no longer living. Hence all those studies which have come along, in the past two decades or so, show progressive changes in the physical structures of the brain according to which profession one is practicing.
  • The fall of Communism and the end of the Cold War, which meant that the Western world no longer had to defend so tightly against any idea that mankind might be “improvable” or “perfectible.” (In trying to defend against observations that Communism was too contrary to basic human nature to be really workable, Soviet Russia — and totalitarians generally, for similar reasons — had argued that human nature could be re-shaped. The beleaguered West’s easiest response was to claim that human nature was innate and unreshapeable, unchangeable, and any form of “improvement” was flatly impossible. This is why books and publications from the context of NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) itself appeared which argued the “Nature” side of Nature vs. Nurture. Now that Communism is dead, perhaps the West can begin to relax its institutional absolutist position on some aspects of this matter?)
  • It became more and more evident to some reasonable people that the bases of “I.Q.” and intelligence are dynamic, not only stemming from multiple causes but the interactions of those multiple causes; that both “nature” and “nurture” interact to produce whatever levels and forms of “intelligence” emerge in each human individual. That, of course, also means that through “nurture,” through manipulation of environment and/or technique, “intelligence” can be significantly improved. Protein sequencing is currently the latest scientific field to discover the significance of dynamic interaction, a matter perhaps most directly addressed in general systems theory. (Please see also Complex Homeostasis and my monographs Civilizations and Other Living Systems and Toward a General Theory of Systems.)

Not all the fault has been in our scientific researchers. Some may be found in their sources of funding and in their sources’s sources of funding. To practice scientific research, to be a scientist in these heavily capitalized times, requires a lot of money and a pretty steady such flow of money. If the flow stops for whatever reason, you are no longer a scientist. So you cannot afford research outcomes which are too surprising — or, in this instance — too inconvenient to your funding sources or to their sources. After the flood of evidence in the past twenty years or so, the surprise may be wearing off by now, but the question of convenience may yet remain a little longer.

A Subliminal Message

I’ve a subliminal message for those of my professional colleagues who are still stuck on the “nature” side of the nature-vs.-nurture controversy. Don’t read these next few lines, so that their message can go more directly to the parts of your brains that have been making your real choices….. (Just kidding. — Or am I?)

When the preponderance of evidence is as overwhelming as it has become in this instance (and as it did in the creativity instance forty and fifty years ago), there may actually be more advantage to demonstrating that you are on top of things than there is to staying put. Several of the most tried-and-true ways to so upgrade your position:

“Well, that’s what I’ve been saying all along, only none of it ever got into publication. That’s the only reasonable position possible, given all that’s been shown to be the case in this matter. You must have heard me say so, many times.” Or:

“Well, we needed to be more certain of the evidence before setting out to mess around with people’s brains. We were just being prudent to protect the public.” Or:

“Well, one or two effects have been found, which conceivably after much further research might become bases for one or two specific techniques. Give it ten or twenty years, though, and let us experts handle it. (Of course we will need funding to investigate in this area. We are the ones on top of these things….”)

~ ~ ~ ~ End of subliminal message.

One Further Matter

This is an issue become increasingly evident over the years. I am indebted to a good friend, Matthew Turco, for having first brought it into full focus for me.


Many of the recurrent activities and practices for improving the brain and/or for increasing intelligence — including some of the techniques described in this site and in the Project Renaissance books and audio courses — involve sustained work and effort and attention.

After the first flush of enthusiasm, for heightened senses and pellucid thinking and seeing and ingenious coups, has yielded to these being customary instead of novel, “What’s going to get you out of bed in the mornings?” What is going to keep you at these practices long enough to make a truly substantial difference?

There is, with some techniques at least, hard work involved over a sustained period of time and attention. What will keep you going?

What is your purpose for improving your intelligence? What is your reason for doing so? What can you do or experience, when you are more intelligent, that you can’t do or experience now? (Why can’t you do or experience those things now already, really?)

I strongly suggest—

  1. that you write out for yourself, these and/or similar questions;
  2. that you write out your answers to those questions until you are satisfied with those answers;
  3. that you post these up where you can frequently look over and see them from time to time — maybe where you are practicing your brain-building activities;
  4. that you from time to time add to or improve on these questions and answers;
  5. that you really get inside the feeling of what it will be like, doing or experiencing those things, so that prospect of their achievement will in fact truly motivate you in continued pursuit of their achievement. And,
  6. that you check these things off, or otherwise visibly acknowledge them, as you find yourself achieving them, confirming thereby not only your progress as regards intelligence-building but progress in demonstrating that you are effectively in command of yourself and of your life.

Further purpose?

I am somewhat less than enthusiastic about the fact that a half million or so fellow members of Mensa, the high-IQ Society, are sitting comfortably around in an organization which identifies itself, even prides itself, on accomplishing nothing, contributing nothing to civilization, serving no higher purpose than that of sitting around with each other self-consciously and self-congratulatingly identified as having an unusually high I.Q. “Chocolate orgies” at their gatherings are nice, but are these the best, most distinguishing use of their intelligence? Are these Mensa’s highest social function?

There is certainly no requirement that any of our readers here, or our students and participants generally, as they improve their abilities, their performance levels at all sorts of activities, their quality of experience and enjoyment in all sorts of pursuits and in life itself, must find or serve any purpose above and/or beyond themselves. But I hope that some will, if only because in the long range and on the large scale it serves their own interests.

— Win Wenger
Anno Domini 2005

This article was reprinted in the February 6, 2006, issue of Eye2theWorld, an Ezine with information and resources for 21st century education. They are a wonderful resource for “seeing tomorrow today.” Be sure to check out all their pages.

Postscript, July 6, 2006 —

Last Nail in the Coffin of the Nature vs. Nurture Controversy?
A Personal Experiment You Can Perform in Seconds, Right Now!….

Type in the words, “Brain Plasticity,” with or without the quote marks, into Google.

  1. See what you see in response.
  2. Reflect on what that means.

Transform the lives of millions? Just get 1 or 2 of the remaining professionals who still cling to the “Nature” position to repeat your experiment. Enough of that and we won’t have to wait for the old generation to die off before people can be helped and our respective high potentials achieved. Thank you. ….Win

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