Is the Internet Really Making Us Dumber?

The fact that people are scoring progressively better on IQ tests, Flynn says, doesn't represent better cognitive skills so much as it expresses a modern, scientifically influenced way of thinking that can better take hypothetical and abstract situations into account. "In pre-modern societies, people thought in a more practical and concrete way," the researcher explains. In his book, he provides an anecdote to illustrate this point. As a child, he writes, he once asked his father: "But what if your skin turned black?" He just answered: "That is the dumbest thing you have ever said -- who has ever heard of anyone's skin turning black?"

This is the only way to explain the fact that the average IQ in Kenya is just 72 -- but is increasing by an enormous one point per year. "If I conduct an IQ test and ask a shepherd, 'What connects a lion and a lamb?' he might say, 'The lion eats the lamb,'" Flynn says. "The correct answer on the test, though, is: 'Both are mammals.'"

Thinking is "plastic" and adapts to the environment, Flynn adds. From generation to generation, children find it easier to organize symbols, create categories and think abstractly.

Flynn thus calls for "sociological imagination" when it comes to interpreting data on human intelligence. In many countries, for example, girls have caught up with boys in IQ tests -- an effect of being treated equally. And African-Americans score worse than white Americans only when they grew up under difficult circumstances. For example, no difference was found among the children of black US soldiers living in Germany.

The Generational Divide

In the 1990s, it seemed like the Flynn effect was gradually coming to a standstill, prompting questions about whether a maximum level had perhaps been reached. But, to his amazement, Flynn is now discovering that the trend has started up again.

One thing stands out, though: While young test subjects are particularly good at solving visual and logical tasks quickly, their vocabulary is increasing only minimally -- unlike that of their parents.

"Linguistically, the generations are growing apart," Flynn states. "Young people can still understand their parents, but they can no longer mimic their style of speech. That was different in the past." One possible reason for the change is that today's young people read and write many short messages on Facebook and on their cell phones, but they rarely immerse themselves in books anymore.

Flynn says this is a pity -- but no reason to panic. What some have taken for "digital dementia," he explains, is ultimately just children and young people adapting to a world that is faster-paced and strongly influenced by digital media.

For personal reasons, Flynn is far more concerned about an entirely different phenomenon: Everyone's IQ test scores start to slip with advancing age -- and the more intelligent they are to begin with, the faster their results drop. The only thing that can apparently counteract this trend is exercising the brain -- including with the help of modern media.

Last week, a working group under Osvaldo Almeida, an Australian professor of geriatric psychiatry at the University of Western Australia, in Perth, released the results of a long-term study of over 5,500 seniors. The finding: Study participants who used computers had over 30 percent less risk of developing dementia.

Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein

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