Neuroscientist Prof. Susan Greenfield popped up on the BBC morning news yesterday, having put her name to a letter which claimed that children of a decade ago were notching up a good three more IQ points than our children can manage nowadays. The way the piece was introduced, you'd have thought there was some startling piece of research which somehow definitively pinned this apparent refutation of the Flynn Effect upon the usual suspects, ie: junk food and screen culture, but of course that was just the headline.
The Prof wasn't actually saying this at all. What she was saying was that this decline in IQ points had been observed, and although she had put her name to this letter which apparently did pin the problem on the above causes, she herself was maintaining an open mind, and wanted to know more about causes.
Hmmm...not entirely honorable, I'd say. Grab attention with a complete travesty of what you genuinely want to say, get this headline message across, then quietly say something entirely different. It is an old trick, but it constitutes a bundle of pseudo-scientism and will lead to a load of bullying of children which may well not be warranted.
Of course, it is very easy to pick on apparent causes that fit the prevailing memes and requirements of society, and much less likely that other possible causes will be sought. People want to hear what the Prof has to say because it only involves bullying children in order to put it right. It won't mean that grown-ups have to risk inconveniencing themselves in the process.
So what possible anti-memetic and inconvenient causes could there possibly be?
The other day, in fact the very day that DD would have otherwise started school, we went out to buy her a school uniform, because this was the only thing she thinks she missed out on by not going to school. We got the whole bundle in a sale and she wore the shirt and trousers proudly (risking the truancy patrols), for two consecutive days, though not for their entirety. She didn't look to be doing anything particularly unusual, but by the end of two days, the knees on her trousers were already wearing thin, the cuffs on the shirt were frayed and grey. All in all, the useful life of these clothes appears to be very short, and yet my guess is that they are expected to last most school kids at least a term or so.
It is hard not to wonder whether the lack of exercise caused by schools is not at least partially responsible for the problems that seem to be plaguing children, such as poor academic results and obesity. The amount of physical exercise DD takes in one day, when she would otherwise be sitting in a classroom, is phenomenal. If we have a day which is predominantly sedentary for one reason or another, she has the opportunity (because she doesn't need to go to bed at a prescribed early hour), to get out on the trampoline, along the monkey bars, over an assault course, belting around on her bike, one handed cartwheels, forward flipping, dancing, whatever. She never does not do this at some stage in the day, and the total amount of exercise would usually come to at least three hours of this sort of intensive activity. How many schooled children could manage this? Yet few of us dare to contemplate this as a cause, for school is such an integral part of the way adults cope with the world.
Here are some other examples largely unquestioned memes that seem to me to threaten the status quo and therefore don't get examined: that schooled children must eat at prescribed times, ie: not when they are hungry, but when they are told to and that children must have three good meals a day. How often in human history has this happened? Could some children do better with a different kind of meal set-up, such as five small meals per day, or missing breakfast, and having something at 10 am. I personally always remember hating eating so early in the morning, before we went into school. It always made me feel sick and neither of my children choose to eat before 10.00 am.
Or that screen culture is necessarily bad for you. There are numerous fMRI scans which reveal the oxygen uptake in brains undertaking various activities, but even these could look highly suspect and merely a confirmation of prevailing memes and societal requirements. We all feel the difference when we watch TV for relaxation or to learn something specific. Surely our brains are doing something entirely different when we are vegging out, paying only half a mind to the screen, or when we are dancing up and down and shouting at it, for example. Similarly, in a maths lesson, one child's brain may be flooding with activity, and the next may be staring out the window. It seems likely that the degree of activity of the brain has much less to do with the type of activity and much more about how the brain engages with it.
We also have no idea whether oxygen uptake correlates to functions of the mind. Thinking deeply actually registers very low in terms of mental activity on MRI. MRI scans could also therefore very easily be used to confirm existing prejudices and requirements.
The objection could be raised that children have been made to do this and that, and prevented from doing this and that since the introduction of effectively compulsory schooling, and that the proposed causes as above could not therefore account for a recent decline in IQ and increase in obesity. These problems must be due to something demonstrably different. But junk food has been around a while. So has TV. It is, of course, convenient to assume that these things are definitively responsible, but it could just be that there has actually been a change in other causal circumstances. For example, as a child, I was well aware of many other children being allowed to go to school without having breakfast. How often does this happen nowadays? There cannot be many children in the country who are not fed before they get in through the gates. Harrying by public services and cereal advertisers has made sure of that. We also know that the amount of sport in schools has declined.
But most importantly, so what if there really is a three point decline in IQ? Is it really going to be devasting to our way of life? Is it really the case that people will not solve their problems as efficiently, or that they will not be able pull upon intellectual resources as they require?
Indeed, is it necessarily adaptive and useful to have those three extra points. I personally find motherhood more frustrating when I know I am very fired up, with brain working in the sort of direct fashion that scores well on IQ tests. I find the multitudinous, distracting and sometimes apparently irrational demands of childcare harder to cope with. Perhaps skills that are not registered in IQ are more adaptive for parenthood.
But by far the most important point of all, and one that should inform this whole essay, is that we shouldn't be doing this to our children at all. An individual should be the master of his own mind. He is not a hoped-for end-product to be bullied and molded into shape. Fine if he chooses to be tested and wants to improve, but to submit him to a miserable, non-autonomous life on the basis that someone else thinks his brain should be performing in such and such a way, is to restrict fundamental freedoms that would genuinely allow for the actual development of his mind, for coercion - being forced to enact a theory that is not active in the mind - can only limit rationality and creativity.