Six and a Half Billion Intelligences – Not One
“Genetic variation builds unique brains, ensuring that none of the 6.5 billion of us on earth will ever learn in exactly the same way. Failure to embrace this fact has produced learning systems that malfunction and million upon millions of people that feel like failures.”
– JW Wilson, Advanced Learning Institute
Because we have relied on Ancient Learning Theory, corporate and scholastic institutions design learning systems as if all brains learn in precisely the same manner. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Variation is so important to the survival of the species that no two humans share the same genetic makeup. The variations we see among the 6.5 billion humans on earth comes from the fact that none of us share exactly the same configuration of the three billion base pairs strung out on the double helix of our DNA. Every person has slight to great differences in the way the nucleotide bases of adenine, thymine, cytosine and guanine (A, T, C and G), which code for specific instinctual information and allow us to learn new information in the here and now, are arranged. Our unique genetic variations build unique brains, which in turn ensures that all of us will think, act and learn in our own special way. From the biological perspective then, there is not one form of intelligence, as the “IQ way of thinking” maintains, but 6.5 billion forms of intelligence, one for every person on earth.
Because genetic and neurological variations ensure that each of us will process information in different ways, as we will see on this site, future newsletters, and in the book Cracking the Learning Code, designing and implementing learning systems as if we all learn in the same way create many negative side effects (see “Stress – the Death of Learning“). Also institutions that try to effect learning as if everyone has identical neural networks limit the very biological change that is the basis of the long-term memory formation they are so desperately trying to produce (see “What Is Learning?“).
Read on to learn more about how our species has 6.5 billion intelligences – not one
Genetic Variation the Key to Life
Over 140 years ago, in developing what many consider the most important theory of modern time, Darwin discovered the theory of “natural selection” that the most important asset that a species could possess in the struggle for existence was dramatic diversity. Modern biologists and geneticists have a deep appreciation for the concept that variation is the fuel of life. They recognize that without variation, there can be no species change; without species change, there can be no adaptation; and without adaptation, there can be no life on earth.
Lack of variation among members of a species is the kiss of death. It is estimated that only about 1 percent of all the species that ever made an appearance on earth still exist today. The major reason that species like trilobites and saber-tooth tigers failed to make it through the sieve of evolution is because they lacked enough useful variations in the language of their genes to fit into new environments. We now know that in changing environments the species with the most useful genetic variations in body structures, immune systems, and behaviors have the greatest chances of survival.
As research by Theodosius Dobzhansky, Julian Adams, and others has found, variation is so important to species survival that it is preprogrammed into the genetic makeup of every species on earth. No two individuals within a species ever have the exact same detail in external body parts or organs. No matter where we look, from the very visible such as fingerprints, noses and ear lobes, to the less visible such as livers, kidneys and brains, no two characteristics of any two humans are exactly alike. If we did not have genetic variations in our immune systems, diseases like the bubonic plague or scarlet fever would have wiped out our whole species. Like snowflakes, each of us is different.
Slight to great genetic variation in the human genome also provides for unique neural circuits within each member of our species, which, in turn, provide for unique individual strategies of behavioral adaptation. If the first small group of our human ancestors all had the exact same brain structures and their water source ran dry, they would all have taken the same route and not spread out to find a new water hole. This would not have been a great survival strategy. We only need to look around our office, our neighborhood, or even our immediate family to confirm that unique brain plans ensure that none of us has the exact same form of intelligence or the exact same strategy of adaptation.
Variation of brain plans within the human species not only ensures the surviving of our species but also the thriving. The solutions to the monumental problems that have confronted mankind are solved by many people taking so many different routes to resolve the same dilemma. Lots of brains processing information in divergent ways allowed us to put a man on the moon, create the Internet, and produce the AIDS cocktail, which can reduce the death rate of HIV-infected patients by 80 percent. It is our diversity of thinking that allows humans to produce such wonderful things. In the end, it is the variations in neural processing of our 6.5 billion human brains that help drive today’s incredibly fast rate of information doubling – once every 18 months.
One way to look at each of the 6.5 billion unique brains is as tiny droplets of variation fuel that, when combined together, the global brain uses to propel itself toward success. Any learning system that hopes to add value to our world must embrace, not ignore, the variation between human brains.
How Neurological Variation Provides for Different Life Paths
Neurological variation is a gift to each member of the human species. Distinct neurological variations means that we all find meaning in different areas: some of us like art, some music, some business, some social work, some cooking, some construction, some engineering, some medicine, some sports, some aviation, and some psychology. But even if we find meaning in similar things, our individual genetic and neurological divergences ensure that each of us will pursue a somewhat different path within that interest.
The brain is a dramatically complex system, where everything is either directly or indirectly connected to everything else. In this complex environment, even the most minute differences in a few of our 100 billion neurons or some of our 1027 neural connections can create vast differences in brain processing and what we find meaningful. Just like the small flap of a butterfly’s wing in Tokyo can set off a tornado in Kansas, so too small differences in brain structure can cause dramatically different outcomes in what different people find meaningful. But research shows that, in general, our neurological differences are not minute. Total brain size in completely normal individuals can vary up to 50 percent; individuals with normal vision can have up to a 300 percent difference in the number of neurons in their visual cortex; and, in a fascinating discovery revealed by PET and MRI scans, even identical twins have vastly different neurological compositions.
You only need to look around, to see that, just like the lyrics by Carly Simon, “Nobody does it exactly the way you do,” we all find meaning in different things. (We look closer at the source of meaning in “Meaning – the Holy Grail of Learning” and “No Meaning, No Learning”: The Meaning Network.)
Learning Systems Must Embrace Neurological Diversity to be Successful
There are three major reasons it is important for learning systems to accept the neurological diversity that exists in every group of learners:
- Foremost, as previously noted, it is the variation in our different adaptations to similar environmental pressures that affords our species such a high ability to adapt to the world (Adaptability/Intelligence Factor). The goal of any learning system must be to nurture, not ignore, the very neurological diversity that has led to the technological, spiritual, and social advances that have made humans the most successful species on earth. From the view point of biology, the eugenics idea of inbreeding a select few, proposed by Francis Galton and championed by the Nazis and other racist groups, is a terrible idea because it would limit the variation fuel the species needs to increase its intelligence and adaptability. Any effort, whether it be conscious like eugenics or unconscious like the traditional educational systems, that limits the variation in the way our species responds to changing environments inhibits our species’ ability to survive.
- Because our unique neural circuits provide the basis of what we find personally meaningful in the world (for more details, see the Elements on Meaning, 13 through 17), meaning is the primary criterion by which new information is selected into our long-term memory banks. By ignoring the fact that the networks that hold meaning are unique for each member of our species, we inhibit the speed and efficiency of the learning process. Without stimulating the unique meaning network of each individual learner, essential neurotransmitters, which are vital for creating joy in our lives and forming long-term memory, are prevented from activating.
- Learning systems that ignore the unique structural organization of each brain and proceed as if all brains learn in the same manner may breed out our ability to find meaning in our lives. The brain receives about 25 watts of power in the form of glucose and oxygen via the carotid and vertebral arteries. During the first 12 to 16 years when the brain is at its most malleable stages and developing at its fastest rate, traditional educational systems primarily keep this energy flow directed at the circuits that process detailed linguistic information. If the neural networks that code for what we find personally meaningful in life are not in the linguistic area, these brain regions can be deprived of the vital energy flow they need to develop fully, and thus their growth may be stunted (see “The 11 Biological Intelligences“). In effect, learning systems that treat all brains the same are in danger of breeding out our ability to develop the very networks upon which personal meaning is built. This redirection of energy away from our unique neural networks may be one reason many of us leave learning institutions not energized and confident but exhausted and confused.
In the book Cracking the Learning Code and in future newsletters you will discover:
How small mutations in our genetic plan make us all more like the comic book heroes X-Men than we might have imagined.
How unique genes build unique brains that learn in unique ways.
How genetic shuffling during sex ensures that no two couplings of the same man and woman could ever produce identical offspring, even if they tried 70 trillion different times. (Could be a fun experiment!)
How, like jumping beans, we possess “jumping genes” that move around on our human genome and help guarantee that every human will learn and respond to the world in different ways.
How 90 percent of our genetic makeup, which is called genetic junk, supports the learning variations between each human on the face of the earth.
How, like snowflakes, no two neurons in any two brains have exactly the same structure or behave in exactly the same manner, which in turn ensures that each of us will learn and respond to similar environmental stimuli in different ways.
How the Learning Code is written in the special alphabet and language of genes, what that language is, and how this language spells out our learning diversities.
How, in studying brain function, medicine developed a “one chart fits all” mentality, which unfortunately greatly limits our appreciation for the profound variation among how different brains learn.
Upon reading this Element, you may ask, “If genetic variation prompts all 6.5 billion of us on earth to learn in a different manner, how can we ever develop learning systems for the masses that really work?” The answer can be found in the Element, “The 11 Biological Intelligences” and other clicks on this site.