Kids are smarter than ever before,
January 16, 2001 8:14 PM   Subscribe

Kids are smarter than ever before, AOL chat transcripts notwithstanding. It seems to me that the fact that IQ tests measure culture acquisition as much as anything else may explain a lot of this, but I wonder if there may not be something to the "visual literacy" idea: are we (as a species) building a new type of perception, or honing old cognitive tools into something which might as well be new? And, if so, where might it lead us?
posted by rushmc (11 comments total)
I think there's something to be said for this. I was just discussing with a friend the proliferation of instant-messaging both online and via cell phones, and how this might affect the cultural or even physical development of teenagers. It's definitely a Generation Y thing, having IM buddy lists a hundred people long, and not minding either how many of them page you OR whether you even answer right away.

I know my GenX/Boomer mind is much more accustomed to e-mail.

What's the difference in social or brain development between a teenage girl who spends hours a night on the phone, and one who spends hours IMing?

OK, back OT: visual literacy. The development of the cross-cut technique in moviemaking, a century ago, was revolutionary. Suddenly storytelling became fluid in both space and time (many crosscuts are "trips back in time" a few seconds or more). A hundred years later, we're much more flexible in how we handle multiple, even contradictory, stimuli. A negative expression of the same idea is that we have shorter attention spans. Good? Bad?
posted by dhartung at 1:01 AM on January 17, 2001

On top of "visual literacy", I think that PC use has vastly improved young people's ability to manipulate metaphors seamlessly: something which plays well into the kind of questions asked in IQ tests.

dhartung, re "cross-cutting": eighteenth-century novels were doing it, and Tristram Shandy epitomises it in a way that makes most directors envious.
posted by holgate at 1:31 AM on January 17, 2001

are we (as a species) building a new type of perception, or honing old cognitive tools into something which might as well be new?

I agree that the activities and stimuli of kids today have noticeable effects on which tasks they are best trained to perform, eg. rapid integration of disparate conceptual frames, especially when presented visually -- following very short cuts in video or film, handling extended metaphoric schemes such as those that are standard in software user interfaces, and so on -- and the deliberate non-integration of rapidly presented information such as dozens of near-simultaneous messages from independently-running conversations. However, though neuroplasticity suggests that these differences lead to actual changes in neural structure, I don't think the connections these stimuli promote are really all that different from the ones everyone makes in order to make sense of the physical world around them.

The cognitive work involved in parsing the world as consisting of discrete objects that persist in time, of associating abstractions with concrete phenomena (and distinguishing between the two), of understanding event shape (thinking of some events as recurring, some as having a definite end point, some as ongoing, and so on), of distinguishing some sounds as phonemically significant against a background of general noise -- all these demands, which come up at the most neurally plasic period, about the first 24 months of life, require essentially the same machinery as the modern-world tasks in question. Comparatively speaking, any new perceptual skills are minor elaborations on the same theme. So I don't think we should be imagining any Childhood's End-type scenarios just yet.
posted by redfoxtail at 6:00 AM on January 17, 2001

i think about these abilities a lot. i think of them in the sense that right now it's necessary to read and write well to think well. but tools are developing (see above) which will enable more 'visual logic'. once we get those technologically enabled tools (on par with word processing, spreadsheets, data bases, and email) that permit more oral/aural and visual logic (voice recognition, broadband), then we'll see the real decline of the current text-based methods of thinking/processing/logic.
posted by Sean Meade at 6:17 AM on January 17, 2001

Isn't this study showing just that, though. That children today are better at abstraction and visualisation than we were?
The use of PCs demands a level of visualisation and abstractive thinking in order to understand how to use the interface.
If this is what the IQ tests are measuring then as was mentioned in the article, children have had a primer to it, where even 10 years ago these skills were not as widely used.
posted by Markb at 6:36 AM on January 17, 2001

but tools are developing (see above) which will enable more 'visual logic'... we'll see the real decline of the current text-based methods of thinking/processing/logic.

I hope not. I'll suddenly be retarded. aaaargh...
posted by dagnyscott at 6:59 AM on January 17, 2001

It seems to me that I am beginning to observe a significant qualitative difference in the way different people think...they fall along a continuum, but the divide is pretty harsh. It's age-correlated for the most part, although there are plenty of examples of older people who think in the "new" way, and many younger people who simply cannot. As near as I can tell, it represents a fundamental difference in how people perceive and process information. It wouldn't surprise me at all if our technology is reprogramming us as we interact with it.

And I'm already getting to a point where it's becoming something of a struggle to relate to the "non-evolved" thinkers...
posted by rushmc at 8:18 AM on January 17, 2001

IQ rising? I don't care. Weren't IQ tests originally designed to classify grade schoolers are mentally handicapped or not?
posted by rschram at 10:41 AM on January 17, 2001

So less kids are handicapped. You don't like that? ;)
posted by sonofsamiam at 12:21 PM on January 17, 2001

Rising IQ's?

I know many kids, hell - college students - that can not spell or hold a verbal conversation. I have a 26 year old co-worker that can not spell and has maybe a twenty-five word vocabulary yet doesn't know to be embarrassed.

Words like soup [spelled as soap] and vacation [spelled as vaccation] - someone stop me now...

I know teachers that are changing their given homework so their students do not cut and paste their hand-in work.

Oh, and for the love of words - read a book, a classic perhaps, disable your spell check, buy a dictionary and learn to use one.
posted by velvett at 8:32 PM on January 17, 2001

Spellcheck? Do people actually USE that?
posted by rushmc at 9:13 AM on January 18, 2001

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