Thinkers Academy

This site is posting articles concerning the teaching problem solving skills.

Location: Illinois, United States

There are two passions in my life, science and education. I have M.S. from Moscow State Education University (Physics) and Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry from Weizmann Inst. of Sciences, Israel. In Science, I was performing Spectroscopic study of biomimetic compounds and proteins.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

When you developing higher fluid intelligence, be careful. If you push too hard, it kicks back.

My experience shows that Fluid Intelligence can be improved by exercising. However, over-exercising might be harmful. I met people who became mentally ill or got very close to that state due to overloading their brains. I am trying understand when and why people lose their connection with reality when they do not have known schizophrenic heredity. And how to increase fluid intelligence while staying healthy.

My close friend Katya (not the real name) received Master degree in Engineering simultaneously with being diagnosed with schizophrenia. In high school she was healthy girl, but during years of studies she started talking to herself and hearing voices. She graduated, but she never became an Engineer.

Katya received traditional medical treatment against schizophrenia. She got fat and sleepy, but she did not recover. Later she was treated “non-traditionally”. The treatment was based on creative art and hands-on labor. It helped. Now Katya has a job; she sews dresses. Does it mean that if she were staying within hands-on activities, she would not develop schizophrenia? I think it might be the case. But other question is more complicated, was it possible to educate her to be a successful engineer while leaving her mentally healthy?

Now about myself. In 10th grade I started studying checkers. I read textbooks, analyzed and memorized checkers games. Soon I started seeing people as checkers pieces. When on my birthday party I found my guests to be figures on a checkers board, I made a decision. I stopped studying checkers. I believe that I would be mentally sick if I were not stopping playing checkers at that time.
Throughout all my life I never again had the problem of losing track of reality.

My friend Sam (not the real name) was doing his Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry. Two years he was doing experiments and then he switched to theoretical science. Soon he started changing the way Katya did. I talked to him advising to keep away from theoretical (highly abstract!) science. To my surprise, I learned that he already talked to his boss and from now on he is doing only experiments. Sam explained that his mind started “walking around”, and he made decision to leave theoretical studies despite on his success in that field.
For the best of my knowledge, Sam never had any problems with his mental health anymore. Now, I have lost track of him. It is interesting whether he is working on theoretical Science now...

I believe that pushing brains too hard toward abstract studies can cause mental problems. Unfortunately, I did not find statistics dealing with correlations between studies of abstract sciences and mental instability. And even if there were a strong correlation, we might speculate that people with high fluid intelligence perform a lot of abstract activities and form a group of “high risk” toward mental illness not because their activities, but because their intelligence.

To be honest, I could not think of the experiment that can examine my thesis besides case by case anecdotic records. And I have to admit that “high level of abstract activity” factor is not included in the list of the known factors that stimulate developing of schizophrenia. Thus a leader in European schizophrenia research and care, Prof. Murray wnen Interviwed by Gabrielle Strobel, 10.18.2005, lists the main factors as "obstetric events, urban living, ... drug abuse", and migration.

However, there are some data that at least indirectly support my hypothesis.
Thus, in several countries, the “most males become sick between 16 and 25 years old” and the peak itself falls on ages 20-25. At this age a lot of male students concentrate on studies of abstract concepts in high school, colleges and universities. So, there is a correlation, although it can be explained by other means as well.

As we discussed above, migration is one of the main factors that contribute toward schizophrenia. The migration includes a migration toward getting better education, more sophisticated job, getting to the better developed places, i.e. places with higher developed technology. This means migration toward the places where the activities are more abstract. It means that at least part of mental illnesses due to migration can include overloading brains with abstract thinking.

Another factor that contributes into mental illness is urban environment. But, as we all know, city population has less connection to the natural “real” life than farmers with their hands-on labor.

As you see, a lot of factors indirectly support my thesis, but there is no direct prove or disprove of my point.

As a teacher, I worry about the abstraction that is not well connected to the prior knowledge of my students, or that is too abstract for the particular developmental stage. I am highly interested in improving fluid intelligence of my students, while finding the ways of avoiding any negative impact toward their mental health.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Can Fluid Intelligence be Developed?

Fluid intelligence is responsible for our problem solving skills. It is "the cognitive-processing skills that enable us to manipulate abstract symbols" contrary to the crystallized intelligence that represents "our stored knowledge" (Complex Cognition. R.J.Sternberg & T. Ben-Zeev, 2001. p.323). Most sources consider fluid intelligence to be a natural ability which is not dependent on acquired knowledge.

Based on my experience, I believe that, in spite of the generally accepted approach, the fluid intelligence can be improved by means of a proper training. I consider abstract thinking to be a skill that could be taught through specially designed exercises and games or can be developed in the process of adapting to new life conditions.

Once I was coaching checkers 4.5 hours a week. At the beginning of the school year, Masha (not her real name) was losing almost all her games; she was less smart than any other student in my 15 pupils group. The girl was 10 years old, and I knew that she had D's in math in spite of all her efforts. At the end of the school year, her brain "awaked". She was winning most of her games in our checkers club, and her grades in Math improved to the level of A's and B's. In Math she had the same teacher as all the previous school years, so all the conditions in the Math class were staying the same.

Playing checkers taught her the skill of abstract thinking that helped her to understand math. As for me, it shows that girl's fluid intelligence was increased as a result of playing board game. The abstract activity in one area (checkers) had increased the ability "to manipulate abstract symbols" in another area (Math).

Same is true vice versa. I loved playing checkers in elementary and middle school. When I start going to Science & Math Academy, I stop playing checkers. I don't know for sure why. May be I did not have time or an interest, but I did not play checkers for two years. When I start playing checkers again, I was two levels higher than before without any training in checkers. In this case my training in Math and Science influenced my ability for abstract thinking in checkers.

Even so, not any type of education in math, Science, checkers or chess can develop better thinking. It is highly dependent on the teacher's strategies, curriculum, and on the level of student's engagement. But... it is the theme of my next articles.