Many scholars and critics warn that TV and the Internet are dumbing us down. But, if that's true, why are children around the world performing better on IQ tests? Are we actually getting smarter, or are we merely thinking in different ways?
Vincent is sitting on the couch and watching a vacation video when he suddenly poses two questions to his parents: "Why is space endless? And what was there before the Big Bang?"
Without waiting for an answer, Vincent jumps up to turn his attention to a different topic: his new red rubber boots with pictures from the animated film series "Cars." "I want a puddle!" Vincent shrieks, dancing around the room in excitement. "Then I can jump in it and splash you!"
Vincent T. is 4 years old. Two years ago, he was having problems at his day care center, where he was throwing sand and hitting other children. Was he disturbed? Did he suffer from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or perhaps even Asperger's syndrome? Concerned, his parents had two-and-a-half-year-old Vincent examined by a psychologist. The finding: Vincent had an IQ of 133.
That means Vincent is gifted. At just two years old, he taught himself the alphabet. Being bored in his toddler playgroup led him to break out in tears every morning. Since he started at a preschool with a reading corner, though, things have been fine. His parents have registered Vincent to start school next year, a year earlier than the usual starting age in Germany.
Children like Vincent -- little superbrains who devour stories of Winnie-the-Pooh and reports on the Mars rover Curiosity with equal enthusiasm -- are increasingly common. Just this April, the British branch of high-IQ society Mensa admitted 4-year-old Heidi Hankins to its ranks. By definition, the average IQ is 100; above 130 is considered gifted. Heidi's is 159.
And Heidi is not even Mensa's youngest member. In 2009, the society inducted little Elise Tan Roberts of London with an IQ of 156. Elise could spell her name, list 35 world capitals and discuss various types of triangles. At the time, she was 2 years old.
This obsession with numbers is not without its controversies. "IQ tests are not yet reliable at such a young age," says Tanja Baudson, a psychologist at the University of Trier, in southwestern Germany, who specializes in research on the intellectually gifted. Up until puberty, she says, those IQ levels may develop very differently for Vincent, Heidi and Elise.
A Mind-Boggling Trend
Still, the three children provide an example of a global trend widely acknowledged by specialists in this field: From one generation to the next, children are performing better on IQ tests. In Germany, scores increase by about 3 IQ points each decade. In fact, the tests have to be adjusted every few years to keep up. The test currently used for children is called the WISC-IV. A person claiming to have an IQ of 130 needs to specify which test generated that result: WISC-III? WISC-IV?
The astonishing upward trend in IQ levels is known as the "Flynn effect," named after American political scientist James Flynn, who is now in his late seventies and lives in New Zealand. The emeritus professor with a full white beard published a new book this month, "Are We Getting Smarter? Rising IQ in the Twenty-First Century," in which he seeks to elucidate this phenomenon.