Kinds of thinking:
Forgive me for rambling a bit, but I’ll try to explain why I am planning to try something soon.  The kickoff is the notion that there are different kinds of intelligence.  (Andreas Schleicher Making Sense of Rising IQ scores SCIENCE vol. 339 no. 6118 January 25, 2013 page 394 reviewing Are We Getting Smarter?  James R. Flynn Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2012)  It is known, in fact it was discovered by Flynn, that people score better on intelligence tests every year, on average any one age scores .3 IQ points higher each year.

This improvement has some oddities to it.  For instance arithmetic ability is seen to have improved among 4th and 8th graders.  But among 12th graders it hasn’t much changed.  The students are winding up with the same skill level only now they are getting there faster.  This suggests that the basic brain power hasn’t really changed; it’s environmental.  On the other hand, abstract reasoning does seem to have undergone a secular change.  Adults are better at it than adults were earlier.

I find this encouraging.  For one thing, as the article points out, populations that seem to have a lower IQ can be expected to improve over time as the environmental factors – they name things like greater cognitive demands from games and work and more quality time between children and parents – more nearly approximate those of the more developed world.  Also it has been pointed out that our educational system tends to teach test taking ability, which can come down to being able to spit out previously learned facts.  That strikes me as somewhat odd in a world where such facts are more easily than ever accessed.  One need only do a web search.  But evidently no harm is being done.  Cognitive ability is on the rise anyway. 

So taking as read that there are different mental functions, here’s a list.  Don’t put too much store by it.  It’s for my own current purpose.

I take no position on how much mental ability is due to heredity and how much due to environment. 

1) There is the minimally active brain.  It does such things as maintain blood pressure, temperature and breathing. 

2) Then there is consciousness, the brain about no particular business one is aware of.

3) Then comes habitual activity, just plugging along at the same ol’ same ol’. 

4) There is learning from experience.

5) There is learning from other people. 

6) Then comes the planning ahead for the next task.

7) Then comes figuring out the next task, which I would place right along side of the kind of cognitive ability the IQ test can measure.   

8) Then there comes the ability to manipulate the world so as to assist thinking.  And now the fun begins.

I would include any writing, calculation, diagram, representational image, chart, table, list, record, computer code or whatever one makes in the real world to assist the cognitive process.  This extends the mind outside of the brain. 

We have not been doing such things forever.  Making a hand ax from stone requires planning and cognitive powers and extends one’s physical abilities, but it does not extend mental abilities.  But they have found a bone upon which someone in Neolithic times carved the appearance of the moon on successive nights.  Here’s a link:

Perhaps the experts are right that there was a religious element to the task, but it seems to me that somebody was performing an analytic task.  The lunar cycle seems short.  There were probably cloudy nights.  The date seems to have been about 32,000 BC, compared with early cave paintings of something like 40,000 BC.  Anatomically modern people had already been around for tens of thousands of years.

9) Using the real world to represent mental icons is part of learning.  It’s called homework.  Of course reading comes along with writing. 

10) Once one has learned such things as writing, or arithmetic or whatever then one can employ such tools not as an assignment but as a personal quest.  That can range from doodling, to scientific research. 

Let’s pause for a digression. 

One peace of what on the face of it is harmless folly I have heard about is that a bit of metal was reported as found in Russia imbedded in coal.  Here’s a link:

Russian coal is apparently mostly from the Permian era.  That means the metal object found its way into the coal long before the time of the dinosaurs.  I mean assuming it’s real, of course, but let’s run with it.

Experts reportedly said that the metal could not possibly have been made by any earthly creature so the possibility of an extra terrestrial visitor should be considered.  I think not.  The object is supposed to be an alloy of aluminum 98% magnesium 2%.  That’s a plausible artificial alloy but hardly something you would expect to find in nature now or ever before.  Besides the thing was imbedded, not just mixed with the coal or sticking out of a crack. 

It gets worse.  The thing is shaped like a rail to engage a gear with a half dozen regularly spaced teeth.

Were it extra terrestrial it would be from a civilization that surpassed our own, and we certainly would not send something made of a cheap alloy on a space trip.  There are more durable and lighter alloys.  The gear rail is a well known piece of machinery, used to move the stage of a light microscope, the focus mechanism of an old bellows camera or the rack and pinion steering on a car, but these are rather low tech uses.  In order to believe it was extra-terrestrial we would have to believe two impossible things at the same time.

And there is, in fact, evidence of higher order thinking in the Permian era.  Some time around September or October of 2012 (alas the reference is long gone) scientists were digging in the American west and found they were in what had been an underwater cave during Permian times.  When they reached the floor of the cave they found some seashells.  These had been right there for hundreds of millions of years.  Cool.  No problem.  But these shells were arranged in geometrical forms.  Oops. 

Something in that cave was exhibiting higher order intelligence than humans demonstrated during say our first hundred thousand years.  Well, well. 

The experts surmised that it was something like a squid, since such a creature would be the only thing alive at the time with that much cognitive ability. 

But there is another possibility.  In terms of neurology we are not alone on the planet.  The nervous system seems to have developed at least twice. (Elizabeth Pennisi Nervous System may have Evolved Twice SCIENCE vol. 339 no. 6118 January 25, 2013 page 391 Reviewing Work by Leoni Moroz et al.  University of Florida’s Whitney Laboratory for Marine Bioscience in St. Augustine) There is something called a comb jelly.  It has a nervous system that includes a very simple brain.  Apparently they split off from the rest of animals with brains a very long time ago, long before the Permian era. 

Comb jellies nowadays are not very swift, cognitively speaking.  They look a lot like jellyfish, although the jellyfish does not have anything like a brain.  So, just maybe, the comb jelly brain was inherently superior to our own.  It’s just that the ones now alive are primitive.  There may have been brighter members out on that branch of the evolutionary tree.  This could account for something in Permian times developing higher order thinking than we did until what would be, in the grand scheme, just a few moments ago. 

In that case the opinion, “No primates, hence no higher order intelligence, hence no technology,” might not be the whole truth. 

So the obvious question would be, “Where are they today?”  That turns out to be the easy one.  The Permian era ended with the greatest mass extinction of all time.  Even the hardy trilobites with a billion years of success died out.  The cause of the extinction has been much discussed and various ideas mooted, but so far as I know there is none that many experts seem happy with.  Along with other impossibilities it is hardly credible that – remember we are only playing with this – if some relative of the comb jelly did manage to evolve to the point where its brain was superior to our own and developed a technology (Yes I know.  It’s hard to work metal under water.  But you can do wonders with technology and maybe evolution brought them ashore.)  and if this putative artifact is of their construction, it would add another impossibility to say it was their greatest technological triumph.  They might have had a technology by the end far superior to our own.  Of course the argument can be raised that no other artifacts have been found despite the burning of enormous amounts of coal; maybe their numbers were never great and their only city was ground up in a geologic subduction zone in the hundreds of millions of years since.  Make up your own story. 

If the comb jellies were so smart maybe they didn’t succumb to the demographic infertility problem that plagues us; maybe for that reason they never had wars.  In that case their technology could have advanced far faster than ours has.  But if there was such a technology, it certainly failed to prevent the extinction event.  Maybe it even caused it. 

9) The next level of cognitive ability would be the ability to make some sort of discovery using tools created in the real world and then get anybody else to notice it.  That would mean in this day and age, a small proportion of scientific research.

So far no dice here.

BUT what this whole thing leads up to is homework.  The standard in our culture is that instead of trying simply to absorb knowledge you try putting it into practice somehow.  You read but you also have problems, projects, writing and … yes, tests.  So in an effort to make this easier I propose soon to offer a quiz.  You can consider it sort of an open book test.  Now all I have to do is make up some good questions. 

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