07/30/2013 10:21 am ET Updated Sep 28, 2013

Book Review of Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined

Just a couple of weeks ago I had a discussion with several psychologists and neurologists who seemed to share the opinion that "brain fitness" is a meaningless concept and pursuit. On the one hand, they thought, intelligence is a fixed trait and no intervention so far has shown to reliably increase it. On the other hand, they thought, nothing has been shown to prevent the pathology of Alzheimer's disease (AD). According to this mindset... why bother?

Well, what if such mental framework was wrong or worse, misleading?

Our own efforts at SharpBrains are geared towards bringing a new perspective based on neuropsychology, cognitive and affective neuroscience and actual current evidence. What seems to matter in our jobs and lives is not so much a general trait called "intelligence," or the presence or absence of AD pathology, as the range of brain functions that serve as important "mental muscles" needed to be "fit" for modern life: attention, working memory, information processing, emotional self-regulation...

No doubt, it is going to take a while for this new culture to take hold.

The good news -- here comes a new book that does an excellent job at debunking old theories and practices around intelligence and development.

Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined (424 pages; June 2013), written by cognitive psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman, provides a comprehensive, detailed and often surprising view into how the concept of I.Q. was developed in the 19th century and how it spread afterwards... well beyond the intentions of the original creators. The book challenges many common assumptions and practices in the fields of intelligence, learning disabilities and giftedness, reviews the emerging literature on deliberate practice, self-regulation and creativity and concludes with a new and more intelligent -- in my mind -- definition of intelligence.

What I found most interesting about the book is how it is well anchored around the first-hand lifelong experiences of the author. This is not a theoretical, entertaining conversation... it is one full of practical, and often unintended, consequences. Let's hear this childhood memory by Prof. Kaufman, "I've been taken out of the normal classroom and placed in special education... I just feel bored. I feel like I am capable of more, but because others don't believe in me, it's hard to believe in myself... my fate sealed by a single test."

With that as starting point, let's hear some of the authors reflections and conclusions along the thought-provoking book journey:
  • "Michael Jordan didn't pop out dunking a basketball from the free-thow line. Full-blown abilities and traits aren't prepackaged at birth. That's because our genes don't code for traits; they code for the production of proteins... This is why it's crucial to intervene as early as possible and set the trajectory of the child's genes for the better."
  • "Dweck and colleagues identified two different mindsets that students carry around with them: a fixed mindset in which intelligence is thought of as set in stone at birth, and a growth mindset that views intelligence as dynamic and capable of improvement. She set out to investigate how these different mindsets affect performance."
  • Binet (one of the pioneers of intelligence testing) cautioned against the "brutal pessimism" of viewing intelligence as a unified and fixed trait. He cautioned that "With practice, training, an above all method, we manage to increase our attention, our memory, our judgment and literally to become more intelligent than we were before."
  • "Individuals with low working memory, who have difficulty keeping a few things in mind and integrating, comparing, or sequencing them, are more likely to show meaningful improvement in training, because for them working memory serves as a bottleneck."
  • "Even though the prodigies showed quite a bit of scatter in their abilities, there were some striking commonalities. Every single prodigy scored off the charts in working memory... This may explain their ability to maintain practice for extended periods of time without distraction."
  • "This pattern of brain activation is consistent with a growing number of studies suggesting that people who perform well on tests of creativity have flexible attentional control: they can flexibly switch between convergent and divergent modes of thought depending on the stage of the creative process."
  • "Though teachers may find it frustrating to teach students who can't sit in their seats... they should recognize that such "inattentive" children may just require a little executive functioning training to get on the path to creative greatness!"
  • " ...the Flynn Effect serves as a reminder that when we give people more opportunities to prosper, more people do prosper."
  • "An emphasis on "multiple intelligences" and "learning styles" can get in the way of us appreciating the student characteristics that truly affect learning.""

Now, where does all this lead us to?

People with all kinds of minds are capable of accomplishing extraordinary things in their own way and in their own time... It's time to pull back all the labels, expectactions, and preconceptions that have been in place over the past 100 years and finally redefine intelligence... One major theme is adaptation to the environment.

It is my belief that it's time for a new definition of human intelligence that takes all of these aspects of the human mind into account. One that emphasizes the value of an individual's personal journey... That arms students with the mindsets and strategies they need to realize their personal goals, without limiting or prejudging their chances of success at any stage in the process... From product to process. (More in this great book excerpt.)

Intelligence is the dynamic interplay of engagement and abilities in pursuit of personal goals.

All in all, this is a deep and important read, which largely delivers on the ambitious promise set forth in the subtitle: The Truth About Talent, Practice, Creativity, and the Many Paths to Greatness.

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