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Heritability of Intelligence

Instructor: Michael Quist

Michael has taught college-level mathematics and sociology; high school math, history, science, and speech/drama; and has a doctorate in education.

If you are intelligent and have children with someone who is intelligent, will your kids be smart? In this lesson, we will examine the aspects of intelligence that seem to be passed down through the generations, as well as how life experiences play a part.

What are Heritability and Intelligence?

Mary is amazing. She's only six years old, yet she can play concert piano at the professional level and perform complex calculus operations as easily as you might do simple arithmetic. Mary's brain seems to have developed remarkable capabilities very early, and everyone around her wonders why she's so special. Her parents are very proud, but can they really take the credit? In this lesson, we will discuss whether intelligence is inherited or is the result of something else.

Heritability is a measure of how much a trait's variation (such as the level of your mathematical intelligence) seems to be the result of the parents' physical characteristics, versus the effects of other factors, such as environment, exposure to stimuli, random chance, etc. Intelligence refers to your ability to obtain knowledge and skills. A higher intelligence means you gain knowledge and skills more rapidly and effectively, such as the little girl in the example above. There are many kinds of intelligence, and they relate to the various areas of your brain that focus on different kinds of thoughts and activities.

How Does Intelligence Happen?

When you are born, your brain has already been mapped with hundreds of billions of neural pathways (nerve connections designed to communicate) that are ready to obtain and store information. You are not exactly a 'clean slate,' because you have already been programmed with your experiences in your mother's womb, but your brain is ready to remember and learn from new experiences.

Here's where we begin to define intelligence. Your neural pathways can be extremely effective and adaptive for certain kinds of information. For example, you may have rich, complex neural circuits ready to receive inputs from your sensory cortex (the part of your brain that monitors what your body is experiencing) and send signals to your motor cortex (the part of your brain that controls muscle movement). You're graceful and it's easy for you to learn new motions. Certain kinds of activities, which might include piano, video games, football, or ballet, might come naturally. A certain type of intelligence happens when your brain's circuits are especially adapted to a certain kind of activity.

Of course, it doesn't end there. The ways that you use your abilities determine which areas of your brain develop after you are born. Perhaps you like to sit for long hours under a tree and think about the ways that civilization has developed. This means that the circuit pathways designed to move your muscles are not being used and other neural pathways--the ones that allow you to examine ideas in depth--are being used extensively. Your actions have begun to reshape your brain's circuits, causing you to become more 'intelligent' in different regions of your brain.

How Does Heredity Affect Intelligence?

Your father and mother have definite brain structures, part of which are reflected in their DNA (the internal design that controls how they develop and grow). This structural information was reflected (at some level) when you were conceived. You have certain tendencies. For example, if the aptitude for and appreciation of music tends to 'run in the family,' that implies that certain inherited characteristics in your brain's design tend to make you more prone to music intelligence than someone who does not have the same kind of parentage.

Don't forget, however, that another aspect of your parents' involvement is probably just as important. When your parents have a certain talent for and enjoyment of music, they are much more likely to immerse you (even before you are born) in a musical environment. This means that your early pathways in musical areas are more likely to be well-developed than would be in a child who is conceived and raised by parents with no interest in music. This means that in actual practice your environment is probably just as important as your parental heredity for developing certain kinds of intelligence in your brain.

How to Make Your Kids Smart

Intelligence is valuable. When you're intelligent, many kinds of things are easier and more fun for you. The kinds of jobs you can get are more interesting, and the possibilities in life are far more varied and abundant. So how can you help your kids get all the intelligence possible?

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