Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Evolving Intelligence

Intelligence is evolving because it has to. Better minds will be required to solve the complex problems to come. Scientists note that the brain size of our ancestors jumped dramatically when they started using tools. Tools extended the range of our capacities and the neural territory to handle them. Neurologists point to stimulation as another key to developing intelligence. In studies with rats, those with the most stimulation (toys, and climbing things in their cages) became the smartest rats. The brain grew in weight and density as the connections proliferated. The level of stimulation from our modern tool, the computer, should have some pretty astounding effects on human beings. A whole new virtual world of various kinds of stimulation is the environment in which humans now develop.
Thirty years of teaching has convinced me young people are getting smarter. A freshman drawing class sits in front of me and I’m happily impressed, and know I will learn from them. Growing up with the Internet, they have a global awareness. The connections they’ve already gotten to make span a wider realm. It’s easier for them to see our state of “interbeing”, the word that Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh uses for the interconnectedness of the biosphere. Psychiatrist Peter Breggin in his book Beyond Conflict wrote that wisdom grows with the size of the group with which you identify. To put it in visual terms, wisdom grows with the size and scope of your view of reality, the bigger the picture the wiser the insight. More variables and their relationships are taken into account. Wisdom is the deeper level of intelligence we need to evolve as a species. Increasing young people’s awareness of interbeing, the computer has contributed to the growth of the human mind.
It won’t stop there. We’re at the threshold of another big step in cognitive evolution because we now have an even more powerful tool – information about how the brain works. The more we know about how the brain works, the better we’ll be able to use it. Making better use of visual intelligence will be part of this growth. Winston Churchill painted on weekends, not so much for the paintings, but because he said it educated the highest properties of mind, understanding balance and proportion. What we see and are made aware of in a painting can sensitize us to key relationships that underlie thought in many realms. Math uses the word “ratios” to talk about proportions. There’s a new book out called “Ratio”, and it’s about cooking. Rather than give recipes, the author, Michael Ruhlman, has things like bread or custard broken down into ratios of ingredients to each other- 1 part water, 1 part flour and so on.
An evolution in intelligence that has as a fundamental feature the awareness of ecological interconnectedness should bring with it a sense of responsibility. Nathaniel Branden felt that morality meant taking responsibility for what enters our field of awareness. Once aware we have the choice to give it our attention or not.
Visual art increases our awareness. By expressing with imagery what it’s like to be a human being alive in this time and place, artists increase the scope of our perception. Every point of view is valuable because it enlarges our picture of reality. Art tunes our perception of the underlying structures necessary for a more comprehensive understanding based on the whole, and stimulates the creativity of the viewer. In a “Manifesto on Planetary Consciousness”, The Dalai Lama and Ervin Laszlo write, “Cultivating [creativity] is a precondition of finding our way toward a globally interconnected society.” The capacities we train by looking at art are essential for the necessary evolution of our minds.

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