Is Intelligence the Ultimate Possession of the Information Age?

Renée Fuller, Ph.D.

Copyright © Renée Fuller, 1999
      Peter was only seven when he swaggered into my office like a pint-sized Texas billionaire. Even without asking I knew the reason for the swagger. His parents had told me - Peter had tested in the genius range on the IQ test his school had requested. And Peter had understood the meaning of his high IQ score. He was in possession of the ultimate property of our information age, a high IQ.

      We humans have always liked to own things. Possessions give us importance, status and identity. During feudal times, land had become so defining a possession that even a person's name was frequently linked to it. Then, with industrialization, there occurred the first of three major shifts. Capital, also known by the more mundane name of money, became the property that conferred importance, status and identity.

      The second major shift occurred with the knowledge-information applications that followed industrialization. Status, importance and identity began to be defined by information expertise. The knowledge-information purveyors became the important people of this new society. But contrary to land and money which, since they are tangible possessions, can easily be quantified - how could knowledge-information be quantified?

      The answer: TEST FOR IT.

      Enter the various mental tests, including the IQ tests. But IQ tests developed into something more than a measure of how much a person knows. They became predictive tests, attempting to determine how much knowledge-information a person is capable of acquiring in the future. The tests with their intelligence quotients (IQ) created a concept new to this century, a concept that reflects the reality that knowledge-information had become a defining property. The admiration and envy with which we treat our high IQ scorers are similar to the treatment accorded to the moneyed rich of the industrial age and the landholders during feudal times. Seven-year old Peter was already well aware of this reality. He reveled in the admiration and envy his high IQ score was bringing, knowing that it meant he was in possession of the ultimate property.

      There is, however, a major aspect that makes intelligence different from the other possessions. While the loss of land during feudal times, or money during the industrial age, meant the loss of importance, status and identify, it did not mean that you had ceased being "you." However, with the loss of knowledge-information and/or the capacity to acquire it, you are no longer the same person. The capacity to think and acquire knowledge-information - being located inside us - has an intimacy that surpasses all other possessions. Which explains why IQ tests, the evaluators of this ultimate property, have such an emotional charge; and why when there are questions about the validity or reliability of IQ tests, the debates become rancorous.

      During the fifteen years that my research involved the intellectual evaluations of my fellow humans I observed firsthand that the tests, when properly administered, were good predictors of what a person is able to learn, what information can be acquired, even the thoughts he/she is capable of thinking. IQ tests predicted much more than school performance. They were truly the instruments that measured the defining property of the information age. Was there some satisfaction because I considered myself the proud owner of considerable knowledge-information property? Of course. It's fun to be rich: to have status, importance and identity.

      Which is why, when some of my staff reported successes that should have been impossible for low-IQ students I did not believe them. How could I possibly believe that they had succeeded in teaching reading with comprehension to severely retarded students? Such results run counter to what IQ tests measure. Besides, the reading system had been designed for learning-disabled adolescents of superior intelligence. Surely my staff, in their eagerness to have even the severely retarded succeed, had seen things that weren't there.

      But they were there. And they kept being there, again and again.

      Not only did severely retarded students and normal four-year olds, learn to read advanced text with comprehension, but they demonstrated an increased capacity for knowledge acquisition. According to intelligence and IQ theories such language and abstract performances should have been impossible for the very young or the severely retarded. These are the capabilities, the intellectual possessions, which are supposed to belong only to higher mental ages, to higher IQs.

      We spent the next six years expanding the original research trying to understand what had happened and why. Instead of providing answers, our results became more and more confounding. IQ tests, which had been useful tools in my previous research, had lost not only their predictive value, they weren't even descriptive of what the students were accomplishing in the present. As a good scientist I turned the question around and asked, "Is there anyone who fails with this reading system?" We eventually found two. The two failures, however, were not our lowest IQ students - to the contrary. But they had in common something that turned out to be very rare even among the severely retarded. They were unable to follow a story. Both of these students had almost continuous petit mal seizures. My suspicion is that the repeated electrical discharges prevented long-term memory traces from being established; hence the lack of story organization and story recall. Since story context is an essential component of the reading program, this would explain the two failures.

      In the Ball-Stick-Bird program, story reading begins with the presentation of the fourth letter. This immediate story immersion makes what I called "code approximation" possible. In code approximation, the inability to achieve fine sound discriminations is used to the advantage of the learning process. Instead of being taught multiple phonic sounds for each letter, which must then be discriminated, the students are initially given only the most usual sound. They are told the truth: that the letters represent a sloppy code requiring a flexible approach. This flexible approach to letter sounds is introduced with, "You are a detective. The letters are your clues. But like all clues you can't be sure of them until they make sense in the story." Already in the first lesson the students use "code approximation" to decipher the story.

      Immediate story immersion also makes possible the innovative use of developmental linguistics and story-engram layouts. This is most pronounced in the first two books, which tell their story primarily with nouns and verbs thereby composing elementary story engrams.

This is the cover of Book #1 which is a good example of:
a simple story engram.

Adjectives and adverbs enrich the story after the first few lessons. The later appearance of articles and prepositions continues the sequence, thereby elaborating simple story engrams.

This is the cover of Book #5 which is a good example of:
an elaborated story engram.

This language sequence resembles the progression through which children move as they acquire language - a progression that is called developmental linguistics. Each story engram (tabloid headlines or political sound bites are good examples of story engrams) appears on a separate line. In this way the layout shows how the bigger story is built, line by story-engram line.


      The two innovations - developmental linguistics and story-engram layout - had been introduced to make story reading easier, so that the contextual cues could be used in code approximation. They were not supposed to actually teach language and thinking. But that is exactly what they did.

      Our pupils, even the severely retarded, started to write or type letters or stories on their own by the end of Book 3, THE BIG, TALL VOOROO. Using developmental linguistics they assembled their thoughts by first searching for the main noun, then its verb, gradually adding adjectives and adverbs. They were building their own story engrams - the same way the books had done. They further mimicked the books by giving each story engram a separate line. Asked why, several of our retarded students explained: "It helps you think."

      The use of developmental linguistics had inadvertently resulted in the implicit learning of how to construct an idea. And story-engram layouts, by demonstrating how bigger and more involved stories are built, had produced further implicit learning of idea elaboration. Our students became living examples that thinking can be taught.

      As for their IQ scores - although these showed a statistically significant rise - they continued to make little sense in light of our students' reading performance or their subsequent performance in the outside world. In retrospect this should not have been surprising. IQ tests, following the tradition of the original Binet test, measure neither story comprehension nor story building.  Instead these tests measure isolated bits of information, and the skills required for rote learning - very different from the context-oriented approach of the reading program.

     The tests measure only one component of the knowledge-information complex, a component in which computers excel. Even a desktop machine, with a dictionary and an encyclopedia has an IQ that surpasses its human creators. And yet our students with IQs as low as 20, after being taught with the program, exhibited a capacity for knowledge organization far exceeding the competence of those high IQ machines. Although it had not been the intention, the reading program taught our students how to impose a cognitive structure on bits of chaotic information.

      The cognitive structure that our students learned through developmental linguistics and story-engram layout has a long evolutionary history. Vervet monkeys already have distinctive sounds for different predators (nouns) that require different responses (verbs). This noun-action-verb complex is not dissimilar to the simple story engrams used in the beginnings of Book 1 and 2 of the reading program.

      There is an inevitability about the way the human brain forms story engrams that explains not only the universality of grammar, but also the speed with which children normally learn language. It also explains why sound bites and tabloid headlines are so effective; they tap our fundamental unit of cognitive organization - the story-engram. Because the story-engram structure is fundamental to all humans, stories from one language can be translated into other languages. Story organization is so basic to our thought processes that it is difficult for us to imagine another way of organizing information. Even the aliens in science fiction usually communicate in story form. There are other ways of organizing information, as insects and computers demonstrate, but for us humans, our stories, from creation to perdition, have a cognitive kinship that makes us one species.


      Story engrams, by imposing a structure on millions, even billions, of bits of information represent an extraordinary solution to information overload. They make possible the rapid integration and retrieval of information

As in the case of the vervet monkeys, there are evolutionary advantages to a cognitive structure that has the capacity to draw rapid conclusions about multifaceted data. In contrast, our high IQ computers deal with information overload by indexing and categorizing, making encyclopedias of information storage possible. But the machines are incapable of the reintegration and organized retrieval of information that we inadvertently taught our lowest IQ students.

      Because the evolutionary development of computers bypassed the story-engram, their possession of more information property than any mere human fails to give the machines the most important component required for thinking. The understanding of language, the comprehension of cause and effect, are the human cognitive essentials that are out of reach of the machines. Without stories, computers, unlike humans, are unable to understand relationships that lead to conclusions and predictions. They cannot create meaning.

      The difference between human cognition and machine cognition highlights what has happened in our time. A growing split has developed in knowledge-information property. The two components, knowledge and information have split apart. The information component, once stored solely in the human brain, is now stored extensively in machines and books. The knowledge component on the other hand - built with story engrams that structure the information from books and computers, from the environment and from the senses - continues to be the proud property of the human brain.

      We are experiencing the third major shift in what will be perceived as our defining possession. The human ability to utilize machine information-data has already become a highly prized, and highly paid, qualification. And so it has begun to happen that, status, importance and identity, rather than being determined by how much information is stored in our brain, is determined by our ability to integrate and organize a chaos of information.

      Because of its evolutionary history, the human brain organizes input information on the basis of context. When this organization occurs on the conscious level, and is therefore linked to language, it takes the story-engram from. Our research showed that thinking with the story engram can be taught, and that knowledge and IQ need not be correlated. Since thinking can be taught, a more equal distribution of knowledge property becomes possible, and the capacity to organize information can be shared.

      Something strange happened to those of us involved in the reading program. We had trouble accepting that it was now possible to communicate intellectually with those who had been labeled as severely retarded or culturally deprived.  Of course we wanted our students to succeed - but perhaps not quite that much. In retrospect, my own reluctance to share philosophical musings with eager, disadvantaged students about the meaning of life, about how to create a better society, seems hard to comprehend.

      Nor did we find that these reactions were restricted to the severely retarded, the culturally deprived, or the very young. Most vehement was the reaction toward those who had been labeled "gifted." Some teachers took the program away from this group because "It puts an even greater distance between them and the rest of the kids." And yet at the suggestion that the rest of the kids could also have the program there was hesitation. As one teacher explained, "It makes them too smart."

      Reluctantly I realized that accepting intellectual equality is not easy.  Although we were terribly proud of our students, they weren't supposed to be that clever, perhaps even become our superiors! Intellectual equality can be threatening. Teachers and parents, who would literally have given the shirts off their backs to a needy stranger, suddenly lacked emotional generosity. It is not easy to share intellectual possessions - especially when these possessions are the defining property of our information age.

     But we are no longer in the information age. We have entered the knowledge age, leaving the information age to the computers. We have been liberated without realizing the full implications of our new freedom. When we built the machines with their high IQs we liberated ourselves from having to demand that our brains absorb disconnected, boring bits of information. Our high-IQ machines do it for us.


At a keystroke they can give us back any information in their arsenal. They are capable of storing many more disconnected facts than we can in our knowledgeable brains. We have been freed to use our brains in ways we truly enjoy. Pure information, which yesterday was the defining property, can now be purchased for a few hundred dollars..

We are freed to use our minds to build story engrams with the disconnected facts that are stored in the machines, and to create fabulous edifices of the human mind. That is what it means to have entered the knowledge age

     The defining possession of stories in this our new knowledge age has a characteristic different from the determining properties of previous ages. Other possessions - land, money, even information - can be hoarded and used primarily to the owner's advantage. But the raison d'être of stories is to communicate. They are the possessions binding us together as a species, making possible an age of intellectual bonding. Instead of perceiving knowledge as property to be hoarded in order to achieve status, importance and identity, this new era can actualize knowledge as the shared story of mankind.


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© 1999 Renée Fuller
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