Emotional Intelligence: a Revelation

Yesterday, I wrote a bit about why I love the web, the gist being that it combines an unheard-of amount of accessible information with a serendipitous social filtering mechanism that, when used to its potential, creates a more engaged and alive person of those who take advantage of it.

What I write now is both  a result of that power and an example of it.

Maria Konnikova recently wrote a piece for Scientific-American in which she puts forth the idea that intelligence is not a fixed entity, as we’ve always thought it to be. Rather, it is:

  1. much more complex a concept than can be measured by standard IQ tests, and

  2. a very malleable thing, capable of being cultivated.

In order to take control of your own intelligence, then, you must do two things. First, you must be willing to rethink the very notions of what you conceive intelligence to be at a very foundational level. This debate has, in some form, raged for quite some time: it’s the book smarts versus street smarts argument. I would argue that we need to include the idea of emotional intelligence- that is, the way that we understand and perceive the world around us. Since that world is largely dominated by human interactions, it would follow that navigating the waters of social interaction is a crucial element to our overall intelligence.

Second, you must accept the idea that intelligence is, indeed, fluid. Konnikova illustrates her point here by categorizing all of us into two groups: the first group, dubbed entity theorists, believe that intelligence is fixed, that the hand you are dealt at birth is unchangeable, amounting to a “luck of the draw.” The second group, incremental theorists, believe that intelligence is as putty in our hands: we can mold it and shape it to our liking through good, old-fashioned hard work.

The fascinating aspect of this take on intelligence is that both camps are right: incremental theorists become masters of their own fate, engaging in a “self-fulfilling prophecy.” By believing that they can shape their own intelligence, they can. The brain must first be open to the possibility to allow it. Entity theorists, by believing that they can do nothing to forward their intelligence, are indeed stuck with what they’re given naturally, because the brain will not allow something to contradict one’s beliefs.

If you believe intelligence is fixed, it is. If you believe you can do something about it, you can. The most uplifting take from this view is that incremental theory can be learned, simply because we humans have the ability to change our habitual approach to the world (as Konnikova puts it). (As a fun bonus, we now know that we can literally increase the size of our brains by exercising that particular muscle).

Now the problem becomes: how to increase your own intelligence? There are the traditional methods: learn a new skill, take a course, etc. If you subscribe to the idea, though, that intelligence is a much more complex thing than what is traditionally taught to us in a classroom, consider a recent piece by Annie Murphy Paul in the New York Times entitled Your Brain on Fiction.

In it, Paul tells us what many fiction readers have long known, but only recently knowledge of the human brain has confirmed: reading fiction- stories- increases your emotional intelligence:

The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated.

Fiction allows us to “enter fully into another’s thoughts and feelings.” I can think of no more useful quality to enhance than our ability to empathize. Empathy tends to lend context, and it is only by filling in the blanks with context that we can fully understand a situation, whether it’s a politician’s latest misstep, the intricacies of the Palestinian/ Israeli conflict, or the bully that keeps taking your daughter’s iPod on the bus.

Fiction specifically enhances our theory of mind, an area seldom surpassed in its transformative qualities once understood, and enhanced. An improved theory of mind enhances our real-life social skills, and as Paul cites in her piece, study after study (specifically two studies conducted in 2006) plainly show that regular readers of fiction have a keener theory of mind, and are therefore much more adept at empathizing. The same goes for our children: those who are read stories are sooner able to navigate their social world with skill than those who gorge on television.

What does all this have to do with the web? How does it relate to the so-called Information Age that we now find ourselves in the midst of? It’s really quite simple: since the dawn of the paradigm shift in reading- the rise in ebooks, the increase in the sheer availability of books- people read more. The Pew Foundation has reported a remarkable increase in reading among those who have access to digital literature. The societal implications of this could not be more profound. Think of the effect it could have on democracy itself. If the enemy of progress in a democratic society is the ignorance of the masses, how world-altering would it be if the masses can chip away at their own ignorance? On a more individual level, how much more comfortable would I be with my daughter’s social skills if she has better access to reading material that enhances her social prowess?

Clive Thompson recently gave an interview on The Findings’ How We Will Read, discussing the advantages of his newly-constructed reading habits, centering around the digital format. Currently, he’s reading War and Peace- perhaps the most intimidating novel in literature- on his iPhone. He notes that the book is actually much less intimidating in this format, since he can only see one page at a time, never having to consider the bulk of the undertaking by literally weighing the book in his hands. He also mentions that the human brain tends to read more efficiently when narrow margins are used. Books in their traditional format were designed for economic efficiency (as many words on as few pages as possible, thereby reducing the cost to print), whereas digital formats feel no such constraint.

Thompson goes on to praise the effects on memory of repeating what you read, a practice made more frictionless by books’ evolving format, and here he gives a couple of examples.

In reading War and Peace on his iPhone, he’s able to select snippets of text that resonate with him with very little effort (and very little interruption to his reading flow). When finished, he can easily collect all these clippings and print them, so that he has a physical copy of the most powerfully personal bits of the text. “In short,” he says, “I have a physical copy of all of my favorite parts of War and Peace that I can flip through, with my notes, but I don’t actually own a physical copy of War and Peace.” If repetition is the key to true understanding, practices such as this could become invaluable.

Thompson also remarks that we have no idea what the ebook will yet become, as it has yet to even scrape the surface of its true potential. The real revolution will come when true conversations can be had in an engaging and frictionless way. What’s happened to the rest of the web- the rise of social- will inevitably happen to the printed word. Indeed, it’s already begun, but we’ve a long way to go. On the current state of ebooks, Thompson says this:

...they’re clearly horrible compared to what they’re going to be. I find it amazing that I can get this much pleasure out of them already.

So, we know that intelligence is malleable, that it can be cultivated, that emotional intelligence is a very large piece of the overall pie, that fiction dramatically increases our emotional intelligence, and that the rise of the web is empowering readers as never before, and in ways we can only yet imagine. If you believe that the time that we live in is just another speck on the linear history of our world, frankly, you haven’t been paying attention. It’s a remarkable time to be alive. If you want to be a better person tomorrow than you are today, it’s quite simple:  go read something.

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