Trading Geek Dinner For Self-Theories Of Intelligence

I’d to ditch the grand New York geek dinner to attend a talk on how the Brain makes memories at New York Academy of Sciences. This is my current absolute favorite subject to spend all my free time so I HAD to be there. The talk also turned out to be very energetic, fun and fast paced by Jennifer Mangels of Columbia University. The first part of the talk was about the role of the hippocampus in forming long term memories and her research. What they tried to do was to record EEG signals from different areas of the neocortex when a person tries to memorize something and recall it back later. Her research attempts to imperially prove that different areas of the brain must strongly participate together to have hippocampus realize the importance of the incoming information and form the contextual long term memories. While I really disgust at how everyone in neuroscience these days just do some EEGs and fMRIs and run around to write conclusions, above theory fits well with Jeff Hawkin’s On Intelligence.

However more interesting was the second part of the talk: The Self Theory of Intelligence. This is very interesting. In 1970s, Carol Dweck did some research on human motivation in school children and noted that some students intrinsically tend to persist in the face of failure while others quit as soon as the going gets rough. After more investigations, she discovered that student’s beliefs about the nature of intelligence had a strong connection with the way they approach challenging intellectual tasks: Students who view their intelligence as an unchangeable internal characteristic tend to shy away from academic challenges, whereas students who believe that their intelligence can be increased through effort and persistence seek them out.

Students who hold an “entity” theory of intelligence agree with statements such as “Your intelligence is something about you that you can’t change very much.” Since they believe their intelligence is fixed, these students place high value on success. They worry that failure-or even having to work very hard at something-will be perceived as evidence of their low intelligence. Therefore, they make academic choices that maximize the possibility that they will perform well. For example, a student may opt to take a lower-level course because it will be easier to earn an A. In contrast, students who have an “incremental” theory of intelligence are not threatened by failure. Because they believe that their intelligence can be increased through effort and persistence, these students set mastery goals and seek academic challenges that they believe will help them to grow intellectually (Dweck, 1999b).

Dr. Dweck’s research on the impact of praise suggests that many teachers and parents may be unwittingly leading students to accept an entity view of intelligence. By praising students for their intelligence, rather than effort, many adults are sending the message that success and failure depend on something beyond the students’ control. Comments such as “You got a great score on your math test, Jimmy! You are such a smart boy!” are interpreted by students as “If success means that I am smart, then failure must mean that I am dumb.” When these students perform well they have high self-esteem, but this crashes as soon as they hit an academic stumbling block. Students who are praised for their effort are much more likely to view intelligence as being malleable, and their self-esteem remains stable regardless of how hard they may have to work to succeed at a task. (More at her page)

Dr.Mangels then showed some videos demonstrating how EEG patterns differ in these two types of people. This is very significant. It essentially implies that you can device a helmet for a person to wear and after few EEG recordings I would be able to tell if person is in one group or another! Think, interviews would be so different ;).

Principal Research Engineer

A program trying to understand what it’s computing.