The Role of Language In Intelligence

An article in PhysOrg.com offers a complicated explanation of why human intelligence has decreased having to do with the intense competition of memes and the fact that large brains make for hazardous births and consume much of the bodies metabolic resources.

Their explanation might make sense for the reduction in brain size between Neanderthals and modern man from 1600cc to 1200cc. However, I think the assumption that intelligence has been reduced is erroneous. Brain size need not be directly correlated to intelligence and I can think of one mechanism that allowed a brain to shrink without losing functionality, that mechanism is language.

We tend to think of language as primarily serving a communications function. I believe it is also modern man’s data compression algorithm. Think about an apple, without labels to attach to various attributes, it’s round, but only approximately so, it has a stem, it’s usually red, maybe some greens and yellows, it has a characteristic pattern. With these labels we can represent an apple mentally well enough to recognize one when we see it. What’s more the interlinking of other red things, blood, raspberries, cherries, these things give meaning to the label red, and in this case it’s more than data compression, it turns something abstract into something concrete.

Consider if we had no language, no way to assign labels to attributes. Instead, we’d have to store a bitmap essentially of the Apple, from all angles, and we’d have to do that for each Apple we encountered because they are different. The amount of data that represented would be huge, and the corresponding neural requirements large.

As we started to generalize and assign labels to attributes, the amount of storage capacity required to describe our world declined dramatically, which allowed us to make much better use of the gray matter that we have.

Prior to this development, the advantage of higher intelligence offset the disadvantages of a big brain, difficult births and a large metabolic liability. When we developed language and were able to store data about our world in highly compressed form, our huge brains became a liability and they shrunk. Language and intelligence continued to evolve, save for a few throwbacks (and you know who you are).

Language is most efficient at the task of data compression when large complex concepts are networked together as happens in real life experience or long complicated detailed involved fiction or in the learning of complex concepts where many labels can point to many other labels and make maximum use of each.

No, the decline in intelligence didn’t happen as a result of the reduction of brain volume from 1600cc to 1200cc, the decline in intelligence has happened only very recently with the widespread deployment of mind sucking machines known as televisions with their 20 second sound bytes and rich visual stimulation. All of that visual data, especially if it’s highly abstract, that eats up a lot of storage. The short sound bytes don’t give reveal the relationship between complex ideas and thus don’t develop the connections between the neurons that represent them. The lack of decent education has left many modern humans with an insufficient language base to use language effectively for either data compression or communications.

I believe that it television and related highly abstract stimulating phenomena that we experience visually but can not readily describe using language that is really sucking our intelligence down. Television could actually be a positive medium if used right. If for example, instead of a news program giving 60 20 second sound bytes interspersed with commercial breaks, if it instead of that it would go into each topic in depth, even if that meant it could not cover nearly as many, I believe we would benefit.

In the meantime we have to limit our television and other glitz media exposure and concentrate more of our time on more deep pursuits. Otherwise we are not going to have the intelligence to face the extreme challenges that are upon us now.

I would encourage you to exercise your language capacity, read big books, if you watch television stick to material like Connections (excellent show) or Nova which do cover the issues they address in depth. Find people with whom you can have long deep conversations about life’s meaning and the pursuit of happiness. Learn a second language, or a third, or a forth. I have found that this literally increases the universe of thought.

When you learn a second language and become fluent in it, enough that you start thinking in it, one of the things I found was that I was having thoughts that I could not accurately translate to my native language. Oh yes, I could translate approximately, but I found often the nuances were not translatable.

My native language is English but I learned Swedish and became fluent enough in it to think in it. My mood and my entire outlook on the world changed when I thought in Swedish, for the positive, and so I found myself preferring that language to English. But alas, all of the people I knew who spoke Swedish died two decades ago and now I’ve forgotten nearly all that I learned.

So much of the culture is encoded into language, that you can’t help but feel the presence of that culture when you learn and begin to think in it.

Now I am learning Chinese, and I am just getting to where I am starting to be able think in Mandarin. Still pretty rough though. My ability to “hear” it is still pretty bad, but I have had conversations in IRC with people in China in Chinese and I am getting to where I can actually usefully communicate. I have to look up some words, but I’m getting there.

As with Swedish, I am finding that I feel profoundly different when I think in Mandarin. With Swedish it was more of a feeling of happy freedom, with Chinese it’s a sense of connectedness and belonging and a re-ordering of priorities, and I find that very pleasant actually. There are enough Chinese speakers on the planet that once I get reasonably fluent practice should be easier to come by.

At any rate; that’s something you can do. I have found that I score approximately 12 points higher after having been studying Chinese for several years than before I started. I don’t know really what else I can attribute that to.

Our school system needs to do a better job of imparting language skills. In my business I run into so many people who are functionally illiterate that it is very disturbing. We also need ongoing adult education to maintain and expand our language skills. We need to get rid of the 20 second sound byte or the three paragraph newspaper article and start to discuss things in depth and understand the underlying complexities and become comfortable with those complexities so that when politicians try to over simply things we can know right off their just trying to manipulate us and make better decisions.

Speaking of decisions, I need to get some sleep now. Good night.

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