Intelligence, the ability to comprehend and understand information and use it for gains, is a complex human ability that is shaped by several factors, including genetics. Most definitions describe intelligence as the ability to learn from experiences and respond to changes in one’s environment, something commonly referred to as how smart you are.
Intelligence is key to reasoning, planning, solving problems, and understanding complex ideas. So the more ability you have to negotiate such problems, the more intelligent, or smarter, you are considered. However, both scientists and behaviorists agree that a person’s environment has as much a bearing on their intelligence as genetics or natural talent. Two kids with the same natural ability for comprehension and problem-solving will have completely different levels of intelligence as a direct response to their surroundings, exposures, and environment.
Let’s take a look at some of the factors that may help or hinder determining how smart you are.
For any life form to reach its maximum potential, it needs nourishment, and that too of the right type and in the right amount. And the clock starts ticking right from birth. Several studies suggest that even the slightest of nutritional disadvantages have an effect on a child’s smartness. For example, a study has found that children who are breastfed by mothers receive better nutrition and may possess a higher IQ than same-aged children who were not breastfed.
Mother’s milk is rich in omega-3 fatty acids and other nutrients that aid cognitive development. Researchers in another study found a positive association between cortical thickness in the parietal lobe in adolescents and an association between intelligence and longer breastfeeding.
So a child whose mother did not have the time, physical energy, or a general ability to breastfeed her child will remain clearly disadvantaged in terms of brain development.
For children, poverty is a source of multiple stresses. One of the direct effects of poverty on households with children is malnutrition, which has a direct bearing on the physical and mental well-being of both adults and children. In adults, poverty often leads to hypertension, and pregnant women who suffer from the condition begin to compromise the health of their child in utero. A 2006 study indicated that intrauterine growth retardation (IUGR) or low birth weight in infants was responsible for irregular cognitive development and a decrease of 4–8 points in IQ scores in comparison with infants who had a healthy birth weight.
Moreover, poverty generally results in limited opportunities for children with respect to residence, physical exercise, education, etc. all of which limit a child’s exposure to avenues of learning that can help his or her cognitive development. All of these factors aid or limit the child’s development in one way or the other, as exhibited by a study conducted in India involving 1,065 children. It found that children with relatively higher IQs lived in cities, enjoyed physical activity of more than 5 hours a week, had educated parents, and had fathers who worked as professionals.
It also found that while intelligence was inheritable, not everyone will reach their maximum genetic potential. “A variety of the components, of the social environment the child is exposed to right from his/her conception, determine the ultimate intelligence of a person,” the researchers said.
Everyone tells you that smoking is bad for your lungs, but several studies, including this, have now proven that it’s in fact even worse for your brain function. The study referenced found that smoking, or second-hand exposure to smoking, was directly responsible for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). A high percentage of patients with COPD have neurocognitive dysfunction that causes learning and memory deficiencies. The research exposed mice to cigarette smoke for only 23 weeks and found that the subjects had impaired lung function and impaired working memory retention.
Now, imagine a child whose one or both parents are habitual smokers. As researchers maintained, the modeling on mice recapitulated the “hallmark features of the human disease”, suggesting that children with chronic exposure to cigarette smoke had a high potential of living with COPD and suffering lifelong learning difficulties.
As explained beautifully in the Consensus Study Report by National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine — Transforming the Workforce for Children Birth Through Age 8— a human’s capacity for learning is grounded in the development of the brain.
“Rather than a structure built from a static blueprint, the brain architecture that underlies learning is developed through a continuous, dynamic, adaptive interaction between biology and environment that begins at conception and continues throughout life,” it says.
As said, the environment we grow and live in holds the key to our brain development and with it, a determinant of how much of a chance we stand at being intelligent and smart. Each acorn has the potential to grow into a massive oak tree, but only the ones that are nurtured in the right environment realize that potential. Humans are no different.
In fact, one’s smartness has only a tiny fraction to do with oneself. And everything to do with one’s environment.