Annie Murphy Paul and David Shenk: On the Nature of Genius | Next Big Idea Club
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Annie Murphy Paul and David Shenk: On the Nature of Genius

Annie Murphy Paul and David Shenk: On the Nature of Genius

David Shenk, author of The Genius in All of Us, recently sat down with Annie Murphy Paul, author of The Cult of Personality and Origins: How The Nine Months Before Birth Shape The Rest of Our Lives.  Shenk’s work dismantles the notion that some people are born geniuses, and Annie Murphy Paul, who studies development and learning, is working on a new book entitled Thinking Outside the Brain, which also confronts the divide between how we perceive intelligence and how intelligence manifests in our day-to-day life.

Comparing psychological theories to Good Will Hunting and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Shenk and Paul bring their heady research down to earth in this conversation, explaining why they’re passionate about their work and why our knowledge of the brain isn’t quite as expansive as you might think.

David Shenk: There’s news to break here. On many pages on the internet, it still says that you’re writing a book called Brilliant, and my understanding of the old book was that you and I are in this large and growing group of people who are helping disprove the old notion of intelligence as this thing that you have a certain amount of. Intelligence is really just a collection of many little skills that you can develop over time which, a couple hundred years ago, they might have said was bestowed upon you by God, or some other supernatural force. The last hundred years, people tend to say it’s bestowed upon you by genes. Of course, genes matter, and environment matters, but it’s the development that really, really matters. There’s a science of that development now, that you have spent years and years unpacking. Am I right about that? And why are you changing books?

Annie Paul: Well, stuff happens, like Donald Rumsfeld once said. Interestingly, when I reviewed your book in The New York Times Book Review, the title the editors put on it was, “How to be Brilliant.” I remember thinking, “Brilliant. I really like that word.” At that point, I had been delving into the science of learning for a number of years. To me, learning is incredibly exciting. It’s what I live to do, but I know that learning, for a lot of people, has a connotation of being boring, or dutiful, or like homework. That’s why I was drawn to this word, brilliant, and that’s why I borrowed the word for my blog and what I thought was going to be my book, because ‘brilliant’ is such a sparkly, fun, aspirational word. Who doesn’t want to be brilliant?

I started out with the idea that I would delve into this incredibly exciting and dynamic world of research on how people learn, how people think, and how they can think better. As I worked on this book for — it’s been about five years now — the book started to change. That can happen. Then you have a choice: you can either give the people who are expecting that book what they are expecting, or you can follow that muse — that’s a little highfalutin’ — but follow that thread that, as a writer, really excites you. I chose that second path. I ended up changing my publisher, changing my editor, changing my agent. Now I am writing a book called Thinking Outside the Brain. This idea that intelligence is a fixed size in your head, and you get so much and no more at birth, that is an increasingly untenable idea, outdated, obsolete, inaccurate. Interestingly, I think you and I are coming at this idea in our work in two different but complementary ways.

Your book was in large part about epigenetics, the way that our genetic code is actually overlaid by the epigenome, which acts almost like a set of switches in which the environment can turn on or off our genes. Our genes are much more flexible and much less deterministic than we ever realized. Once you realize that, that opens up the idea of what our genetic inheritance is in really mind-blowing ways.

I’m coming at intelligence from a different point of view. I’m drawing largely on a body of work in philosophy, and I’ve found this idea in philosophy that, unlike many philosophical ideas, is actually incredibly useful. It’s called the extended mind.

You may have encountered the work of Andy Clark and David Chalmers. Their notion is that thinking is not limited to the brain. It’s not circumscribed by the skull. Thinking is a process that loops in the body, our tools, other people, other people’s minds, the physical spaces in which we learn and work, the organizational cultures in which we learn and work. In this day and age, when we face these incredibly complex, wicked problems, as they’re called, it’s unrealistic to think that a single mind, working alone, working without tools, is going to be able to solve those problems.

Yet, that’s how we treat intelligence. If you think about how an IQ test is given, you’re not allowed to consult a friend about an answer. You’re not allowed to bring in your tools, your computers, your calculators. You’re pulled out of your organizational setting that may be acting as an extension of your intelligence in daily life. You’re not allowed to use your body. You’re intended to stay still, not gesture, not move. That’s the very narrow band of behavior and thinking that we consider intelligence, and that’s not how intelligence works in the real world.

I ended up shifting my work in this direction, to look at what are these extensions of the brain, out into the world? How do they contribute to our intelligence? How can we make better use of them? Could we even reinvent our idea of what intelligence is?

I have this wild fantasy of recreating intelligence tests to not evaluate the intelligence of the individual, but to turn the telescope the other way around, and evaluate the intelligence of the setting in which he or she is working. If you think about a student who’s struggling in school, our question is always, “What’s wrong with this student? What’s their deficit? What’s their problem?” We don’t look at all the resources that he or she has or lacks.

Same thing in the workplace. If there’s someone who’s not succeeding in the workplace, we think, “What’s wrong with that person?” That’s the brain-bound version of intelligence, when we assume that thinking goes on only inside an individual person’s brain.

The research that’s emerging, not just out of philosophy, but out of cognitive science, psychology, neuroscience, even economics, far-flung disciplines are converging on this idea that thinking is not limited to the individual human brain. That’s where I see an overlap between your work and mine.

What do you think about the research on epigenetics that’s come out since your book was published, because you were an early popularizer of that research?

David: Well, let’s stay on you, first. What I just heard was, blah, blah, blah, if you work at home, alone in an office, and try to think thoughts up by yourself, you’re a dinosaur and you’re not recognizing real intelligence.

Annie: That describes you and me, right?

David: I just got very depressed. The internet is a part of this story, obviously, and a great metaphor for it. You talk about the book that you have on a shelf. Is there no way to merge these two? They really are separate topics as you see it?

Annie: There is still a lot to say about optimizing the brain. I don’t think we’re doing that in our schools and workplaces. That’s still something important that I want to address, but somehow they do seem like separate projects.

The theme that links these two separate projects is an understanding of what the brain is, which we haven’t always looked very clearly at. If you watch science documentaries or read magazine articles about the brain, it always seems to be held up as this kind of marvel of engineering, or perfect design, the most complex object in the universe. The brain is amazing, but it’s also very limited, and it evolved for very specific functions. Those functions are not necessarily what we want it to do now in our schools and our workplaces.

We need to play by the brain’s rules. We need to understand how the brain itself works, rather than imposing our notions of learning and efficient work. We also need to understand that because the brain is limited and flawed, it needs to extend itself. It needs to reach out and pull in these other resources, because it can’t do those things on its own.

David: The parenting implications and the educational implications are mind-blowing. I’m sure there are some really inventive things going on in both those realms, particularly in education.

We have to adapt our educational and professional institutions to the brain and what it is able to do, rather than expecting the brain to adapt to the institutions that we’ve created.

Annie: There are. For example, learning science, as we know, is very difficult. We haven’t always understood why learning science, especially certain counterintuitive concepts that occur, say, in physics, are so difficult — almost universally. The brain has not evolved to understand the world in the way that scientifically derived physics understands the world. We have our naïve physics, that helps us understand, and it helps us make our way through the world, but that is not the same as academic physics, and it’s really hard for our stone age brains to grasp these concepts that we’ve developed through our scientific method.

One way that scientists are addressing that is by bringing the body back into science education. There’s really interesting work by this researcher, Sian Beilock, at the University of Chicago. Her idea was that if you’ve experienced certain physical manifestations of the forces that are important to learn about in physics, if you’ve physically experienced torque and vector and momentum, then your brain can access those when you’re sitting quietly at your desk, taking a test or doing your homework.

That physical experience has to be part of your physics learning, and if you think about how we learn physics in high school or college, it’s sitting in a chair, listening to a lecture, or reading a textbook, and those turn out to be terrible ways to teach and to learn physics. We have to adapt our educational and professional institutions to the brain and what it is able to do, rather than expecting the brain to adapt to the institutions that we’ve created. That’s one insight that’s emerging from a particular body of research known as embodied cognition.

David: You’re making me think of the scene from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, where Robert Redford tries to shoot something standing still, and he can’t shoot it. He’s like, “What is wrong? Oh, it’s not moving.” Then they have it moving, and he gets it five times. That’s a couple of ideas removed, but the point is that everything is physical.

Annie: If you’re involved in some kind of knowledge work, where you sit at a computer all day and use your brain, you can easily come to think of the body as kind of a vehicle that gets your brain around from place to place. But really, the way our bodies and brains evolved is the opposite. The brain evolved to move the body through space, and to help the body solve physical challenges, and that’s still the way that we learn best. But we’ve created these institutions that are completely ignorant of that fact.

There’s a wonderful educator and mathematician named John Mighton, who founded a non-profit organization called Jump Math. One of John’s amazing insights is that math instruction almost universally burdens students’ cognitive load, their capacity to hold ideas in their heads. Our working memory, which is what John is talking about, is very small. It’s like a mental scratch pad on which we can only hold a few items of information. We used to think it was seven. There was a famous paper by George Miller called “The Magical Number Seven.”

It seems, according to recent research, to be even smaller than that, maybe four, maybe three, even two, if we are talking about complex concepts, and if we’re combining them and manipulating them rather than just remembering items in a list.

Anyway, that mental scratch pad is very limited, and math is often taught as lots of steps bundled together. That’s why students get lost. They miss one step and they’re like, “I don’t get it.” Then they fall farther behind.

One of John Mighton’s amazing insights is that if you break it down, and you break it down again, into what he calls micro steps, and make sure that every student masters those micro steps, every student can do math. Right now we have this terrible assumption that there are some people who are good at math and there are some people who just will never get it. He has shown, over and over and over again, in a long career teaching students, that every student can get math as long as we respect and acknowledge the limitations of everybody’s brain, that everybody’s working memory is severely limited. These are things that we didn’t always know. Education is as much an art as a science, and we’ve been teaching in ways that make sense maybe intuitively, or logically, but the more we know about the brain and its capacities, the more we can design education to conform to it, and therefore be more effective.

David: We’re both John Mighton fans! There are so many things I love about John and his work, but I’ll just mention two of them.

One is he was a terrible math student. He was one of those guys who could not grasp math concepts, and was told in one way or another by various teachers, “You’re not a math guy. Just give up.” He ended up being so stubborn about it that he developed new ways to understand math and ended up getting a Ph.D. He’s a super math guy now. And then he developed these concepts on how to teach. It’s still a work in progress. He’s in Canada. He’s now just bringing it to the United States. I think it’s going to be a whole math revolution in the United States once he really gets in here.

The best story about John Mighton involves the movie Good Will Hunting. John Mighton was once upon a time a playwright and an actor. He is in that movie as the assistant, the very quiet assistant to the arrogant math professor who takes on Will as a protege, and kind of pushes John aside. The irony there is that that whole movie — even though I love that movie — the message of that movie is that innate intelligence is real, and that people are born geniuses. And it’s just totally wrong. I’ve talked to John about this because, first of all, he kind of feels guilty about being a part of this movie that he is working his whole life, now, to disprove.

I can’t remember the exact details, but he had a little bit of a fight with Gus van Sant, the director, about the message in the movie, and that’s actually how they recruited him to be in the movie. It’s like, “Well, all right, we’ll give you this part.”

Annie: I recently observed him teach, and the kids were literally leaping out of their seats to answer his questions. I think the way that he goes about it is by setting up problems that are solvable but a little bit beyond what these kids have done before, and supporting them, so that they can solve it. It is fun to solve problems. It is fun to feel competent and feel skilled. He sets it up so students feel that way, whereas many students, myself included … I was one of those people who always felt I was not a math person. Math was a subject full of failure and humiliation. He makes it a whole different kind of experience.

I think it’s interesting to ask, “Why are we so insistent on assigning ideas and innovations to the individual?” What makes us deny or often just not perceive the role of external resources in our thinking?

It turns out that people who have power think differently than people who don’t have power. This is not a product of their individual qualities, it’s that the situation of having power makes you think more abstractly.

David: There’s the cynical point, which is that there are people seizing those ideas, and in our culture more than any other, taking credit for them, putting a nice name on them, and making money from it, right? There’s a certain power dynamic, a capitalism element to it.

Not to diminish the power of this idea at all, but all organizations need leaders, and they need people doing different jobs that feed that organization. I don’t know how Einstein came up with E = MC squared, but if it was indeed the result of a thousand great thinkers and he just did the final twist and became the face of it, that’s not necessarily a bad structure, right? To put a face on an idea and have people talk about it as Einstein’s theory.

Annie: Your brother, Joshua Wolf Shenk, wrote a book called Powers of Two that’s about how so many of our cultural innovations and achievements are the product of collaborations between two people. He highlights people like John Lennon and Paul McCartney. People who would not have been able to come up with these ideas on their own, but together with another mind, they were able to do that.

It made me think when you mentioned that we do need leaders, we do need hierarchies. One thing that interests me about the power of context on thinking is that it turns out that people who have power think differently than people who don’t have power. This is not a product of their individual qualities, it’s that the situation of having power makes you think more abstractly. It makes you more aware of long-term benefits as opposed to short term benefits. Research suggests that it makes you more innovative, more open to new ideas.

It’s very interesting to think about the possibilities of power sharing in organizations, in that having power makes you think differently. You can see how power structures reproduce themselves. We think of the people who are the leaders, the people in power, as being special or gifted in some way, when really if we can share power throughout an organization, we can create a context in which less powerful people have access to those modes of thinking as well.

David: Can you feel all those CEOs shuddering? The ripple of that chilling thought.

Annie: We have such a cult of the genius leader, the CEO who’s a star, not recognizing all the external forces that make him the way he is.

David: It seems to me that there are already lots of different models of leadership, and we all know leaders who are great sharers and great givers of credit. Even though they are the face of it, they’re constantly representing themselves as just the person on stage who is conveying ideas from a large group of people. Then, there are leaders who just seize that credit and rename everything, and get all the royalty checks and all that stuff, too. That doesn’t seem right to me.

Annie: What’s interesting is there is a model of leadership that embraces this kind of humility. If you look at the current pope, and I’m no fan of the Catholic Church, but the current pope, who does things like washing the feet of homeless people, or even, to use a more commercial example, these reality TV shows that are called things like, “Boss For A Day,” where the head of a hotel chain acts as a bellhop or a bus boy or whatever. We need more of those kind of trading places moments in our society, precisely because context shapes so powerfully the way we think and so we need to shake up those contexts a little bit more.

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