Saturday, 25 August 2012

The myth of intelligence

It may not be immediately be obvious how this post is relevant to dementia, but bear with me.

I have always thought that our society is mistaken in being so in awe of 'intelligence'. This view has been strengthened by the current controversy over the GCSE 'moving the goalposts' fiasco. Regardless of the rights and wrongs of that issue, much of the discussion has accepted the need to have an exam at 16 which will sort sheep from goats and correctly identify the most 'intelligent' who will become the movers and shakers of our society. We're constantly told that universities and employers are interested in the 'best' (by which is meant 'most intelligent') students.

In fact the exams as currently formulated are largely memory tests, i.e. slightly more sophisticated than the memory tests given to people who might have Alzheimer's or some other kind of dementia. 'Who is the prime minister?' is a common question that's asked of 'dementia suspects'. I'm indebted to someone posting on an online forum for passing on novelist Iris Murdoch's answer (she had Alzheimer's): 'I don't know, but does it matter?'

The answers to so many exam questions are taken to be indicative of 'intelligence' in the same way that knowing who the prime minister is a potential 'get out of jail' card for the dementia suspect. This is, if I may say so, a bit mad. What does the ability to answer this kind of closed question really tell us about the person, other that that in these cases they remember or they forget? 'Does it matter?' is an appropriate response in all cases.

Not surprisingly, in the public consciousness intelligence and the memorising of facts are seen as synonmous. Thus contestants on 'Who wants to be a millionaire?' routinely describe the people they've chosen as friends in 'phone a friend' as 'very intelligent'. Now that almost every fact that you might wish to know is a few keyboard taps away, this confusion might eventually fall away. Then people can start finding out about, for instance, Gardner's 'multiple intelligences'. But I digress.

I think that one of the reasons why people with memory disorders/dementia are treated (and I realise that word has more than one meaning) so badly is that 'intelligence' is prized so very highly  -  this is the other side of the coin. No memory? So no intelligence, no brain, no humanity.

We come back again to personhood. And there is a link also to education and preparation for life. If I'm right, and there are things that are more important than 'intelligence'  -  the ability to consider the needs and views of others, the ability to form relationships, the ability to cope with disappointment and tragedy, the ability to understand other people, the ability to 'read' situations from non-verbal clues and many more  -  then these things should have at least as much of a look-in, as far as education is concerned, as 'intelligence'. Very difficult to include in league tables but in reality vital abilities for many employees.

It is so much easier to relate to people with dementia, to appreciate their personhood, if you can escape the myth of 'intelligence'.

1 comment: