Is the modern world making us smarter?

What's behind the rise in IQ scores?

(Image credit: (Herbert/Getty Images))

Over a mere 20,000 years, the human brain has evolved from directing mammoth hunts to something capable of orchestrating space shuttle flights. So what marvels will our brains be capable of in the near future?

The modern era has already seen a measureable uptick in certain areas of brainpower. Since the 1930s, standardized test scores have been steadily increasing, a phenomenon called the Flynn Effect.

You might assume that the rise in IQ scores is due to people doing better on basic math skills and memorizations — basically, anything we can study for. But what's especially interesting about the Flynn Effect is that the opposite seems to be true: Humanity's biggest improvements have been in abstract thinking and general cognitive functioning.

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One standard intelligence test is Raven's Progressive Matrices, developed by English psychologist John C. Raven in 1936. The test is a series of 60 non-verbal multiple-choice questions that's ideal for measuring abstract reasoning. A test-taker is shown a series of patterns in a 3×3 grid, with one picture missing; the person has to pick the right pattern out from multiple choices. It's not the kind of test you can easily cram for.

When researchers administered the Raven's test to groups of people born in Dumfries, Scotland, and Des Moines, Iowa over a 100-year period, they found that test scores increased steadily in both populations of people along with their birth year. The pattern can be seen across a variety of tests, all over the world.

Researchers have come up with a few different explanations for why IQ scores are on the rise. Better nutrition and educational opportunities for the underserved in the world, especially for girls, are thought to be huge factors. Improvements in education across countries are bringing increased focus on scientific topics to more and more people, which fosters abstract thinking.

Another possible explanation is that we're living in more stimulating environments nowadays. With the rise of hyperconnected technology, modern people are being exposed to both richer more and complex entertainment and information options than their ancestors. Our children can parse storylines from Harry Potter while flirting and posting on Facebook. This new environment may encourage people to become fluent in multiple visual languages. This might help explain why tests like Raven's have shown the greatest increases — they depend on quick visual analysis.

Education researchers are now trying to figure out how schools can take advantage of a hyper-connected, visually rich environment. In one 2012 working paper published by the Institute for the Study of Labor in Bonn, Germany, researchers looked at 319 schools in small communities in Peru that participated in the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) program where every student was given a laptop. After the students had used the computers for 15 months, researchers collected and analyzed their scores on several tests, including Raven's Progressive Matrices.

While researchers found some limited benefits for cognitive skills when laptop use was monitored (and none when use was unmonitored), the results didn't seem to justify the $200/laptop cost. With no specific software or teacher training to do so, the laptops did nothing to boost math or language scores.

Abstract thinking and cognitive skills are also only parts of the complex whole of intelligence, and scientists are working to understand where technology fits in elsewhere. Will technology help our brains or hurt them? Even if mankind is getting gradually smarter overall, the whole web of the modern interconnected world likely plays a role — just plunking a computer in front of kids isn't enough to fire up their brains.

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