The social origins of intelligence

There’s a fascinating new study out in which researchers studied the injuries and aptitudes of Vietnam War veterans who suffered penetrating head wounds. Among their findings? That “the ability to establish social relationships and navigate the social world is not secondary to a more general cognitive capacity for intellectual function, but that it may be the other way around. Intelligence may originate from the central role of relationships in human life and therefore may be tied to social and emotional capacities.”

Let me repeat that: cognitive intelligence is not separate from social intelligence. In fact, our capacity to deepen the former is dependent on our ability to be deeply grounded in the latter.

For anyone who has spent time as an educator, we’ve always intuitively known this to be true. As the saying goes, unmet social needs lead to unmet academic needs. Or, put more simply, the three most important words in teaching and learning are Relationships, Relationships, Relationships.

And yet the recent flood of cognitive research that confirms this intuitive truth is striking, especially when one considers how slowly it has made its way into the minds of our nation’s policymakers. Indeed, as lead researcher Aron Barbey put it, “the evidence suggests that there’s an integrated information-processing architecture in the brain, that social problem solving depends upon mechanisms that are engaged for general intelligence and emotional intelligence. This is consistent with the idea that intelligence depends to a large extent on social and emotional abilities, and we should think about intelligence in an integrated fashion rather than making a clear distinction between cognition and emotion and social processing.

“This makes sense,” Barber continues, “because our lives are fundamentally social. We direct most of our efforts to understanding others and resolving social conflict. And our study suggests that the architecture of intelligence in the brain may be fundamentally social, too.”

So what would the next generation of education policies need to look like in order to be aligned with the emerging consensus about how the brain works, and how people learn?

They would need to start incentivizing the conditions that support holistic child development and growth, and stop disproportionately weighting literacy and numeracy.

They would need to start crafting policies in concert with other departments, from health to housing to labor, as a way to try and systemically support our country’s poorest families.

They would need to ensure that teacher preparation and evaluation programs are grounded in the latest neuroscience, not our traditional notions of what teaching looks like and requires.

What else?

Categories: Learning

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  1. Posted August 1, 2014 at 10:22 am | Permalink

    Thank you, Sam. That the “soft, non-cognitive skills” are cognitive and hard is a critical concept–in fact is the direction educational leaders should lead. Perfect.
    Funny, too, that that is what I wrote about today. (

  2. Posted August 1, 2014 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    Wonderful topic Sam! I am constantly “re-programing” my thinking to reflect the intuitive truth…ingrained traditional strutters are sneaky foe.

    “So what would the next generation of education policies need to look like in order to be aligned with the emerging consensus about how the brain works, and how people learn?” you ask?

    High expectations. Accountability. Trust. No matter what hat I wear (Mom, Writer, Wife, Consultant,Coach, Friend, Education supporter) Each of those factors must exist in the relationship or the “policies” we agree upon are doomed. Harmony, Health and Happiness depend on them as solid foundation builders. I set a high expectation for my kids, give them responsibilities, and trust that they can achieve the goal… magic happens. Thank you for framing (and validating) what forward thinkers have nurtured for years.
    Kimberly Crawford

  3. Lance Fialkoff
    Posted August 2, 2014 at 3:42 am | Permalink

    “Education Reform”/privatization pedagogy combined with already astronomical and growing passive screen viewing isolate students rather than connecting them socially. Such atomization, for Hannah Arendt, was a defining feature of fascism.

  4. Posted August 11, 2014 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

    That’s a great initial list, Kimberly. Thanks for taking the time to read and respond. I’m still not convinced that accountability is the right word here — that what we’re really talking about is mutual responsibility. Have you seen our 10-part series about the Mission Hill School in Boston, It embodies a lot of what you describe here.

  5. Posted August 11, 2014 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    Great minds . . . 🙂

  6. lou Goldman
    Posted August 31, 2014 at 10:34 pm | Permalink

    George Herbert Mead, U of Chicago, wrote MIND, SELF AND SOCIETY almost a century ago. Read it.

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