by Steven Horne, RH(AHG)
There’s an idea floating around in the minds of most people, including a lot of scientists, that our intelligence is primarily a function of our genetics. In other words, if we are blessed with the right genes we’ll be smart and talented. If we weren’t, well we’re out of luck.
If fact, the whole idea behind IQ tests is that they are supposed to test a person’s natural (i.e., genetic) level of intelligence. So, we talk about a person’s IQ as if it is a fixed thing. Our educational system is based on this idea. It promotes the idea that some students are “smart” or “gifted” and others are “slow” or worse yet, “dumb.” However, these labels actually help create this situation.
Years ago I learned of a study where a teacher was told that the bottom third of a class she was given were the ‘bright” students and the top third were the “slow” students. Even though this was not true, it became true as the year progressed. That is, the formerly “bright” students became the bottom third of the class and the formerly “slow” students became the top third.
Understanding that the labels used in the public education system actually inhibit learning has been a source of frustration for me for many years. With better educational tools, and the right encouragement, most people are capable of far greater achievement than the current system allows. It’s why I work so hard to make knowledge accessible to people.
Fortunately, new scientific information is coming forward showing that the popular idea that intelligence is genetic is a myth. The truth is that genetics have very little influence on your talent and intelligence. To illustrate, let’s cite an experiment that shows environment has more to do with intelligence than genetics.
Three Groups of Mice
In 1958 two researchers in psychology at the University of Manitoba performed an experiment to see how much of a rat’s intelligence was due to genetics and how much was due to environment. They bred two groups of rats with vastly differing abilities to navigate mazes.
The first group was composed of rats who had tested well on solving mazes over several generations. We’ll call them the “bright” rats. The second group was composed of rats who had performed consistently poorly in navigating mazes. We’ll call them the “slow” rats.
The researchers raised mice from each of these two genetic strains under three different environments. One environment was “learning rich” with lots of toys and stimulating environmental influences. The second group was raised in ordinary rat cages. The third group were rats raised in what amounted to a rat ghetto with food and water, but no toys or objects to simulate the rat’s brains.
Researchers expected that their would be an environmental influence on the rat’s ability to learn, but that the gap between the “bright” group and the “slow” group would remain consistent in all three environments. That isn’t what happened.
In the middle, or “average” rat environment the gap between the “bright” rats and the “dumb” rats did remain the same. However, in the other environments, the gap closed to the point it was insignificant.
In the restricted environment, the offspring of both groups of rats became equally “slow.” In the enriched environment group, the offspring of the “bright” group and the offspring of the “slow” group performed almost equally well.
The bottom line is that a learning rich environment made “slow” rats “bright,” and a learning poor environment made “bright” rats slow. This is because our environment determines how our genetics express themselves.
The New Science of Epigenetics
There’s a new science of genetics called epigenetics, which is based on the study of the epigenome. The epigenome is material that sits on top of the DNA that activates or deactivates genes. It can also up-regulate some genes and down-regulate other genes.
Diet, lifestyle and other factors can alter the epigenome. This means that how we eat, the thoughts we think and the environments we put ourselves in can and do alter how our genes express themselves.
This is powerful because it overturns the idea that we are helpless victims of genetics. To illustrate the power of the epigenome, consider an experiment in which mice with a specific genetic order affecting fur color were fed high doses of B-vitamins. (B-vitamins help the epigenome.) Their offspring still had the genes for that genetic defect, but they had normal fur color. In other words, a diet high in certain nutrients essentially “turned-off” the defective genes.
What’s even more exciting is that epigenome information can be passed onto offspring. In other words, our diet, lifestyle and behaviors can improve the genetic expression of our children. The scary part is that it can also make the genetic expression of our offspring worse!
Here’s an example of this from another scientific experiment. Mice put into a learning-rich environment had higher levels of chemicals in the brain associated with the ability to learn. In other words, genetics for intelligence were up-regulated. What was amazing was that their offspring also had higher levels of these same chemicals, even if they weren’t put in a learning-rich environment.
This may account for why the offspring of the mice who were “bright” at solving mazes (in the experiment we discussed previously), scored slightly better than the offspring of mice who were “slow” at solving mazes. The epigenetic information passed on from their parents gave them a slight advantage.
It’s easy to fall prey to the idea that some people are just “smarter,” more “talented” or more naturally “intelligent” than we are and there’s nothing we can do about it. But that belief causes us to constantly limit ourselves and never reach anything close to our full potential.
The truth is that good nutrition, study and practice have far more to do with intelligence and talent than genetics. That’s why our theme this month is about increasing your brain power. We want to share with you tips you can use to get smarter by improving your nutrition, using appropriate herbs and supplements, altering your attitudes about learning and developing better learning skills.
If you’d like to learn more about the research that shows genetics has little to do with talent and intelligence, I highly recommend you read The Genius in All of Us: Why Everything You’ve Been Told About Genetics, Talent, and IQ Is Wrong by David Shenk. Much of the information I used to write this article came from his book.
The bottom line is that your intelligence is not fixed. You are capable of dramatically boosting your brain power if you so desire.