COVER STORY

*** With IQS fall­ing, Tom Ough finds out if he’s smart enough for Mensa – and asks a few of the bright­est two per cent how they stay sharp

The Sunday Telegraph - Sunday - - Front Page -

We are get­ting stu­pider. Last year, a study by Nor­we­gian re­searchers found that IQS are fall­ing, with those born in 1991 scor­ing an av­er­age of five points less than those born in 1975. This sounds wor­ry­ing, but then again, I was born in 1992, so don’t come to me for fur­ther anal­y­sis.

We prob­a­bly shouldn’t panic. The dis­par­ity may have arisen through changes in ed­u­ca­tion and tech­nol­ogy, which en­cour­age dif­fer­ent men­tal skill sets to those de­manded of hu­man brains in the Seven­ties and ear­lier. It might just be, the ar­gu­ment goes, that IQ tests are fail­ing to cap­ture th­ese changes. Hav­ing re­cently failed to make the grade for Mensa, the high-iq so­ci­ety, I now agree. More on that shortly.

What­ever the rea­sons for it, the pu­ta­tive drop in IQ ought to make us more con­scious of what it means to stay sharp. So should the im­prove­ment in our life ex­pectan­cies, which in many cases boils down to an ex­tended dotage. It seems ever more im­por­tant that we know how to in­crease and main­tain our men­tal horse­power. I don’t fancy spend­ing my old age try­ing to re­mem­ber how to open doors and count change, so I sought the help of sev­eral ex­perts. How, I asked, do we keep our minds sharp?

I split my ex­perts into two cat­e­gories: peo­ple who ap­pear to be in­tel­li­gent, and peo­ple who study in­tel­li­gence. For­tu­nately for the cause of univer­sity fund­ing, there was some over­lap. As for the first cat­e­gory, where bet­ter to start than a so­ci­ety that dis­crim­i­nates on IQ?

I ruled out Don­ald Trump’s cab­i­net, whose dis­crim­i­na­tion on IQ seems to be an up­per bar of 80, and turned to Mensa. Since 1946, Mensa has been the self-ap­pointed home of peo­ple with high IQS, and ad­mits only those who rank in the top 2 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion. Its pub­lic im­age, it’s fair to say, is some­what short of School-of-athens-level ven­er­a­tion – the Amer­i­can branch has re­cently en­dured mock­ery for its predilec­tion for board games and for the stick­ers its mem­bers wear to in­di­cate whether or not they like to be hugged, and, in this coun­try, the men­tion of Mensa pro­vokes sneer­ing and snip­pi­ness – but it seems pretty unar­guable that the so­ci­ety’s mem­ber­ship is clever, ob­vi­ously, but also, just as in­ter­est­ingly, con­cerned by clev­er­ness.

Set­ting my­self up for an almighty fall, I sat the test and duly failed to make the cut. This taught me a cou­ple of things, the first be­ing that I will now have to an­chor my self-es­teem in some­thing other than my brain, such as my im­mune sys­tem or my tol­er­ance of cold. The other thing I learnt is that there must have been some kind of cler­i­cal er­ror in the mark­ing of my pa­per, and that, when you think about it, IQ is a fairly prim­i­tive way of mea­sur­ing some­one’s brain­power.

Isn’t that right? I asked Dr Stu­art Ritchie. Dr Ritchie is a lec­turer in the depart­ment of so­cial ge­netic and de­vel­op­men­tal psy­chi­a­try at King’s Col­lege, Lon­don, and is the author of In­tel­li­gence: All That Mat­ters. Both of th­ese things make him an author­ity on in­tel­li­gence, which meant that, to my dis­may, I was un­able to ar­gue with his as­ser­tion that, on the con­trary, IQ tests such as those de­ployed by Mensa are re­li­able and use­ful mea­sures of in­tel­li­gence. Ugh.

Dr Ritchie told me about the dis­tinc­tion be­tween crys­tallised in­tel­li­gence, which is based on knowl­edge and skills we’ve ac­quired over the course of our lives, and fluid in­tel­li­gence, which in­volves mem­ory, speed and rea­son­ing. An ex­pe­ri­enced cook will draw on crys­tallised in­tel­li­gence when mak­ing a meal; when you’re try­ing to solve a rid­dle, you’ll be us­ing your fluid in­tel­li­gence. In th­ese cases, as with pretty much ev­ery imag­in­able task, you’ll be us­ing el­e­ments of both, but the Mensa test seeks to fo­cus on fluid in­tel­li­gence.

Our suc­cess at fluid tasks, Dr Ritchie ex­plained, tends to “go up and up un­til the late 20s and early 30s, and then start to de­cline through the rest of that life­span.” It is speed, he says, that par­tic­u­larly suf­fers, and if some­one’s fluid in­tel­li­gence starts to de­cline, then they might start hav­ing more trou­ble with ev­ery­day tasks, such as read­ing medicine la­bels and work­ing out the cor­rect change at a check­out. Our crys­tallised in­tel­li­gence, he said, doesn’t go down un­til we’re 80 or 90, which means that, if we’re to stay sharp, we need to fo­cus on our fluid in­tel­li­gence.

Sev­eral caveats later – there’s no sil­ver bul­let; an in­di­vid­ual’s IQ doesn’t change much; in­tel­li­gence is not the only thing that mat­ters in life – Dr Ritchie told me that there were wide­spread mis­con­cep­tions about hon­ing and main­tain­ing brain­power. I’d hung out with some Men­sans who thought board games kept them sharp; Dr Ritchie was scep­ti­cal, as he was of brain train­ing. “The gen­eral find­ing,” he said, “is that with brain train­ing you get a spe­cific rather than a gen­eral im­prove­ment. Train your­self to do cross­words and you’ll get bet­ter at them, but you won’t nec­es­sar­ily get bet­ter at all fluid cog­ni­tive abil­i­ties.”

He ex­plained that lon­gi­tu­di­nal test- ing, in which peo­ple are ex­am­ined over time, shows that there’s not much you can do to make your­self any smarter than you were to be­gin with. Read­ing? Won’t do much for your fluid in­tel­li­gence. Puz­zles? Nope – peo­ple who do them tend to be clever to be­gin with.

The things that Dr Ritchie said might help were hav­ing a cog­ni­tively de­mand­ing job and be­ing in good phys­i­cal fit­ness. There’s a lot of ev­i­dence, he said, that brain de­cline is due to vas­cu­lar fac­tors, and that hav­ing good heart health is linked to this.

I also spoke to Dr Hamira Riaz, a char­tered clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist with a back­ground in neu­ro­science. She added that, for op­ti­mal cog­ni­tive agility, we should find a good bal­ance be­tween stress and re­cov­ery, avoid lone­li­ness, and eat well. “Di­verse nutri­tion,” she said, “feeds gut flora, which in turn sup­ports brain health.”

By then, I’d dis­cussed with sev­eral Men­sans what they do to keep their minds sharp – see below. It seems clear – to my sub­op­ti­mal mind at least – that they have each found their own most ef­fec­tive com­bi­na­tion of fluid and crys­tallised in­tel­li­gence. What’s yours?

but you have to hone your skills too. In school ex­ams, I find I’m bet­ter at cop­ing un­der pres­sure and can man­age my time bet­ter.

Out­side chess, I re­ally en­joy mu­sic, and I find play­ing the pi­ano to be quite a re­lax­ing thing to do. Mu­sic helps keep your brain sharp be­cause keep­ing the rhythm is quite math­e­mat­i­cal and you need to use your mem­ory as well.

It takes a lot of imag­i­na­tion to play pi­ano – your in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the piece will be dif­fer­ent to some­one else’s – and this is ap­pli­ca­ble to other ar­eas of life where you have to think out­side the box.

I’d rec­om­mend both pi­ano and chess, but chess has a spe­cial ca­ma­raderie. We play in si­lence but af­ter the game we’re all friends. If I had to pick one of my hob­bies it would be chess.

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