What Is Intelligence?

July 28, 2013 at 8:38 pm | Posted in Brain and mind | 3 Comments
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The lobes of the human cerebral cortex and the cerebellum (blue). [The version here has an arrow and motion streaks added to the original.] The brain is seen from the right side, the front of the brain (above the eyes) is up and to the right.

The lobes of the human cerebral cortex and the cerebellum (blue). [The version here has an arrow and motion streaks added to the original.] The brain is seen from the right side, the front of the brain (above the eyes) is up and to the right.

We are so witty an animal.

Previous posts on this blog (here, here) have suggested that human intelligence developed from our facility in generating possible scenarios for what has happened, for what is happening, and for what might happen, and that the development of this facility was driven evolutionarily by our being a social species.

Being able to guess the future actions of other intentional beings and of non-intentional objects confers a large evolutionary advantage only to members of social species in which each set of parents produce only a few young,  and the parents or the colony expend considerable resources to raise each child.  Ants are social, but but the individuals are expendable.  So there is no short-term evolutionary advantage to an ant colony from some of its members becoming smarter.

Social mammals, and some social reptiles (including those dinosaurs who hatched and raised their young in crowded colonies), and some of the social avian descendants of the dinosaurs, satisfy that criterion.  Chimpanzees, elephants, dolphins, and wolves are social, and have impressive intelligence.  For example, scientists who raise wolves to study the development of their behavior find that they cannot allow a post-puberty wolf see how the scientist operates the latch of a gate, because the wolf will thereafter be able to operate the latch, and soon all of the adult wolves in the enclosure will have learned the skill.  A herd of horses has a hierarchy.  Any fluid hierarchy must be learned and understood by all involved.  A herd of cows has a hierarchy.  A flock of chickens has a pecking order.  A member of a hierarchical group in which the hierarchy is fluid, must have both emotions and the ability to at least partially mentally mirror what is going on in the minds of other members of the group.  The species named in this paragraph all also have ways of communicating between members of the group.

There seems to be a chain of consequences.  Schematically:
Social species with costly individuals => mental mirroring => ability to generate mental scenarios.

In humans, and to a lesser extent in at least some of the other species, scenarios of diverse levels of abstraction are generated, and the individual can nimbly go from one level of abstraction to another.

It is plausible that the generation and effective use of scenarios is what we mean by intelligence, or is at least a very large fraction of what we mean by intelligence.

At the moment this is just a hypothesis.  For it to become science, the accuracy and scope of this hypothesis must be tested relentlessly and thoroughly, in every context to which it can apply.

So please devise those tests, and carry them out.  My own work is in another part of science, and I lack both the expertise and the time to do so.
I’d be happy to receive comments about your ideas.

Higher intelligence involves generating and using scenarios at diverse levels of abstraction.  In particular, scenarios at higher levels of abstraction allow you to become one of the actors in your own scenarios.  It allows your scenarios to become recursive, and therefore much more versatile.

Doing so requires additional abilities.  Namely, it is necessary to be aware of your own scenarios, and to be aware of the character of each scenario.  That is, it is necessary for part of your mind to mirror selected other parts of your own mind.  So it is necessary to be partially self aware.  That enables higher levels of consciousness.  To use scenarios at diverse levels of abstraction it is necessary to generate and use scenarios for using your other scenarios.  That allows truly versatile thinking.

Both in this post and in your reactions to it, we are using the neural ‘circuits’ that initially evolved for mirroring one another, and then for also mirroring predators and prey and inanimate objects (a thrown stone or spear, or a storm), to now construct plausible scenarios of how humans and other animals became smart.  These scenarios are instances of what Einstein described as the free creations of the human mind.  They are an indispensable intermediate step toward understanding anything.  This creative ‘Monte Carlo stochastic process’ is how we generate the hypotheses that are later to be tested.  This creative aspect of our attempt to understand and predict is not harmful if we remember that the resulting scenarios are ‘just so’ stories until they have been tested.

Note the appearance above of the adjective ‘creative’.  The brain mechanisms that generate mental scenarios may underlie our creativity, as well as the creativity exhibited by some other animals.

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Here is another scenario that needs testing:  It is a scenario about scenarios.  The brain mechanisms that evolved to mirror others by generating scenarios will act on whatever stimuli they receive, appropriate or not.  They will act on the random and temporary pattern of the directions of the stars in the sky to make us imagine constellations, and even stories to account for them.  They will act on random firing patterns in the sleeping brain to generate dreams.

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