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Sunday, September 30, 2012
Brain / Mind ... Psychology ... Technology ... Zen ...

I just found out about the Flynn Effect. The Flynn Effect is all about “psychometrics”, i.e. the measurement of human intelligence. About 28 years ago, a New Zealand sociology researcher who specializes in intelligence issues (whose last name is Flynn, not surprisingly) noticed that IQ scores have been rising steadily since at least the late 1940s, possibly since 1932. This effect has been taking place for both the highest and lowest scoring groups, as well as the middle. In effect, every new generation seems to be smarter than the one preceding it. That effect goes on today. I got out of college in 1975, so the class of 2012 has me and my peers beat by quite a bit — around 12 points (the effect is about 1/3 IQ point per year).

According to a recent Scientific American article (which brought me up to speed on this issue), the Flynn effect has been driven by one specific component of the IQ tests. It is not the component for arithmetic skills, nor the component for vocabulary skills; these scores have only gone up a bit over the past 60-odd years. The big jump is in “similarities”, the measurements of “fluid intelligence”. These are the tricky questions that attempt to gage a person’s “abstract intelligence”, the ability to see patterns (according to someone’s judgment about what patterns are important to see). I.e., which of the following animals is least like the others: orangutan, anteater, skunk and zebra; or BOOM is to 4267 as ZOOK is to (choose one): 3902, 54892, 3319 . . . or Mary is 16 years older than her brother, and is four times her sister’s age; if her sister was born two years before her brother, then . . . (these are not real IQ questions, of course).

Interestingly, the Sci Am article points out that Dr. Flynn and others feel that the Flynn Effect reflects changes in what society expects from us, both in the workplace and at home. I.e., our world is steadily becoming more and more high-tech. Once upon a time, many people subsisted by growing crops or hunting animals. Then came the industrial revolution, and you had to know how to work with increasingly complicated machines. Then came electrically powered things, including the telegraph and then the telephone — forerunners of the information revolution! In the past 25 years, information technology has blossomed and you now have to know how to use and manipulate information and the many devices that provide it and thrive on it, in order to have a decent life. As such, there is an increasing need by our society for the skills and abilities behind what the “abstract intelligence” questions test for. As the Sci Am article states, “the Flynn effect shows how modern our minds have become”.

So, we now think a bit differently than our great grandparents thought — because of “the system”, i.e. the way that the world is. We live in a high-tech world, they lived closer to the earth. They thought in ways that their world required, we think in ways that our world requires. So, we may not be all that much more intelligent than they were, not nearly as much as the nominal IQ scores would indicate (although better education systems, nutrition and health probably have brought average raw-intelligence levels up slightly over time).

I can’t help but wonder how this squares with what I hear and read in my Zen practice. The sensei (“teacher”) at my zendo continually emphasizes the value of “this moment”; he says that Zen warns against reliance upon abstraction, or “placing another head on top of your head”. The great zen koans and stories emphasize the value of the “real”, on things just as they are in their inherent “suchness”, on avoiding classifications. E.g., Chao-chou, teaching the assembly, said, “The Ultimate Path is without difficulty; just avoid the discriminating mind.” The Zen teachers often admonish that tomorrow doesn’t exist and yesterday is gone; only right now is important.

And yet, yesterday and tomorrow are very important in our info-tech / time-sensitive world. The present is largely an irrelevant blip on a master time line or PERT chart. There is more need for classification and discrimination than ever. The “real” is just fine while on vacation, but on the job, you had better find the correct underlying patterns and themes in order to keep advancing (or sometimes just to stay in place). E.g., the patterns in the housing market, in the economy, in politics, in global warming, in food prices, in technology . . . and also in the human communities where you either get ahead or get run over by. You better have a feel for who is saying what about you in your family, among your friends, and especially by your co-workers, clients, bosses and leaders. The Flynn effect testifies to what survival in 2012 America requires. A tradition that emerged in Japan and China from the 5th to 15th Centuries may not be in tune with what modern society demand from us.

And yet — many modern people seem to think that Zen and its close cousin, Buddhism, are much more in synch with science and modern civilization than Christianity or any other major religious system. That’s mainly because of Buddhism’s agnosticism on the question of God. Many modern “teachers” twist that a bit to ally Buddhism with their atheistic viewpoints. Then they create a Zen world fashioned around modern psychology. For now, I will just say that from what I’ve heard from some of these “teachers”, they are twisting and re-casting the ancient teachings in new ways, squeezing them to fit into a techno-narcissistic world lacking the God we once knew. They present their views as “faithful translations of the ancient teachings, updated for the modern (Flynn-effected) mind”. But in my book, the ancient teachings stand for themselves. And they do NOT agree with a lot of the notions that we take for granted in 2012 American life.

FWIW, I think that the Zen community should just admit that classic Zen, along with its language and teachings, doesn’t fit into our modern world. It doesn’t address many of the problems we face — its cryptic messages may challenge the modern souped-up mind and its Flynn-effect abilities to ponder abstractions. But those cryptic messages addressed a different time with different problems; they seem profound, but they don’t really help to figure out how to keep a good marriage, a good job and a good investment account going today. And yet, the Zen world shouldn’t totally dissolve itself within our hyper-abstract mindset; it does offer a useful and well-needed critique on what is really important in life. If Zen would say that people should get their faces out of their I-Phones and turn them to enjoy the warm sunshine, it would say something useful! The need to close your eyes, find a secluded spot and meditate from time to time is not a bad prescription in a hyper-connected, overly extroverted, super-networked society.

But the Flynn effect, and the world that is driving it, will not go away. Zen can continue to support itself with a “faux-hip” panache appreciated by an enlightened few, or it can get real and start addressing the masses about real-life issues and the problems of a world that is moving and changing too quickly. It needs to do that in modern terms, not with fanciful stories of robed monks making pilgrimages among temples along the snowy mountain ridges of Japan (romantic as those stories may be).

Zen needs to question whether the complexities of the teachings of Dogen and the other great masters have real value or are simply admired today for their obscure and convoluted nature (i.e., the “sounds profound, whatever he is saying there” effect). In many cases, no doubt, real value will be seen; but there is a lot of chaf amidst the wheat, a lot of stuff that fuels the never-ending psycho-babble of modern Jungian therapists. (In the 1950s, President Eisenhower warned of the dangers of the military-industrial complex; today, that warning should address the “psychology-information technology complex”). If Zen really means to help out in a land where the Flynn effect reigns, it had better start sorting out that chaf, or forever remain just an interesting and fashionable side-show in our politically divided 21st Century techno-info-society.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:11 pm      

  1. Jim, With all due respect, I am not quite sure where to take hold of this blog comment by you. I am not sure if you are speaking to the rapid changing of technology these days, so much so that about as soon as one has “kept up” with the changes, they change again. OR perhaps you are discussing the attempts—-and here I have to say that this is being done by more than one “religion” “spiritual group” (or whatever you want to call it)-¬¬-to make themselves “modern” and in tune with what is going on in their particular version of “religion” and/or spiritual approach to life. So, I will attempt to address a couple of points that struck me.

    First, I am not sure that I can agree with the whole “Flynn effect “thing” you are talking about—-whether “Scientific American” thinks it’s an important find or not. In fact, my disagreement is not really with the “Flynn Effect” but rather with the whole IQ “thing”. Back in the 1950s and early 1960s there was a push on to test children in schools as to their IQ ability. I was one of those who was involved in all that testing as part of a program at the school at which I was teaching. What ended up striking me then, and has continued since, is that to this point I have not been able to find an IQ test that really tested what it purported to test—-how “smart” a person was. Many times over the years I’ve been amazed at the number of people I’ve met who were lacking in education and/or lacking in test taking ability yet who were incredibly intelligent, so intelligent one could actually “feel” the person grasping an idea; very thrilling. Yet these same individuals would show up on an IQ test as lacking in any degree of intelligence one would think would qualify them for modern day ability to negotiate technology.

    For the most part these tests test how well an individual knows how to take a test and how well educated the individual is. Anyone who is not “clued into” how to take a test often will inevitably fail. Other individuals who, for whatever reason may not do well in school (dyslexia, ADHD, etc.), will also inevitably do poorly on such tests. Then too, there is no testing for the ability of individuals to get along in their own environment. These are just 3 of the problems with IQ tests. In a really involved discussion of such tests many more problems arise with such testing. (And I have to say that this may prove how truly unintelligent I am myself: I was unable to make any sense of the example questions you gave as tests of a person’s “abstract intelligence”; so the problem here may be my own lack of intelligence; I’m willing to agree to that.)

    As to the problem you see with Zen and it’s attempt to “twist” its teaching to fit into modern day thinking: It seems to me that Zen is not the only religious (or philosophical or spiritual) group that is having this problem. All one has to do is see the Roman Catholics for their own version of various groups attempting to adapt to modern day thinking. So, it seems to me that Zen is right there in the midst of the rest of these spiritual groups.

    I also have to say that I do not think that you can put Jungian theory in the same boat with the “psycho-babble” of today. I will admit, certainly, that Jungian theory is not scientific, but there are a lot of things that are not scientific but are real and have value.

    Lastly, I am not sure how you get in your last paragraph from Zen teachings and the problems with those teachings to “the psycho-babble of modern Jungian therapists” to Eisenhower and the military industrial complex. Granted there are problems with each of these various things. But I would tend to give these things a second tho’t before I threw the baby out with the bath water.

    Basically, I am not sure how to “take hold” of what is the real issue you are discussing here. But, strangely enough, I find myself not in disagreement with you. I myself have recently been thinking about the pace at which modern technology is proceeding. It seems far too fast. For instance, some few years ago one could put things on a floppy disc and tho’t they would be saved for years. Now there isn’t even anything around to read the floppy disc; so anything saved on those discs is useless. Where will all this fast-paced advance of technology end?

    It sometimes seems to me that technology is still in what I call the “Oh, Wow!” stage. I noticed this years ago when computers first became something that individuals used at work—not at home. People were caught up in the “Oh, Wow” stage; but soon, as far as I was concerned, that stage wore off. Then (and here probably to keep selling technology to the masses) “they” had to come up with the new and better and more advanced to keep the “oh wow” stage going so people would continue buying the newest and latest. I find myself wondering just when this stage will end; and society, using technology to its best advantage, will end the “oh wow” stage. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — October 1, 2012 @ 10:09 pm

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