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Stuart Shanker D.Phil.
Stuart Shanker D.Phil.

Reframing IQ

Releasing your child’s “limbic brakes”

Source: iStock-140444185

I once gave an interview on CBC radio in which I predicted: “Where IQ was the major construct of the 20th century, in the 21st century it will be self-regulation.” My intention at the time was hardly to belittle the extensive research that has gone into IQ. Nor was I suggesting that self-regulation would turn out to be a better predictor of long-term outcomes than IQ. Rather, my point was that whereas IQ stabilizes around the age of 10, self-regulation is something that we can always work on, with profound benefits – intellectual included – for every child, teen, adult, or senior. But the issue goes far deeper; for Self-Reg transforms the very way we look at IQ.

An IQ test can reveal something important about a child, but what that is can sometimes be difficult to figure out. To state the obvious, a test may reveal that a child who scores much higher than other children their age on reasoning tasks needs more stimulation. And sometimes it tells us that a child who has difficulty with some part of the test, maybe with all of the parts of the test, has something “holding him or her back”.

Like it or not, IQ shapes the way we see a child: even those of us who are most concerned about the ominous overtones that have always dogged the field. Without our being in the least aware that this is happening, a determinist bias colours our thinking about a child’s “intellectual potential”. And we unconsciously communicate what we’re thinking to the child, through what we say, how we say it – or just as serious, what we don’t say. These messages are internalized by the child: become part of that child’s own unconscious view of their intellectual capacity, play a critical factor in what becomes that child’s reality.

If Self-Reg teaches us anything, it is that it is next to impossible to ever be certain about a child’s intellectual potential: even when this might seem to be set in stone. Children are forever surprising us, and for that matter, themselves. And the whole point of looking at IQ through the lens of Self-Reg is to figure out how we can facilitate these sorts of wonderful “surprises.”

There is a long tradition, dating back to E.G. Boring (although it’s real antecedents go all the way back to Plato) that what IQ tests are testing is “brainpower.” Boring cautioned that by no means was he suggesting that a child with less brainpower can’t get to the same finish-line as one with more. It just takes them longer. The problem is that children with more “brainpower” get to the finish-line faster, and so, are able to go on to yet another race – if they so choose. In the never-ending slate of races on offer, they have the opportunity to pull ever further ahead. Not to mention, enter the kinds of Formula One races (like Med School) that lie forever beyond the scope of a go-Karter.

But then, how fast you get to a finish-line isn’t just a function of the power of your engine; no less important are the brakes. As the great Finnish race-car driver Jari-Matti Lavala explained, the secret to winning the Tours de Corse lies in the latter [Braking]. So, to keep with the metaphor, IQ tests aren’t just measuring, e.g., the processing speed of a child’s “motor”, but no less significant, how smoothly the child’s brakes are working.

Intelligence” is as much a matter of “brain-resistance” as “brainpower.” That is, “Intelligence” is a function of both prefrontal and limbic processes. There is a dynamic interplay between these parts of the brain. When we measure a child’s “intelligence,” the score we arrive at is a product of the interaction between thinking processes and limbic brakes.

Anyone who has ever driven with “sticky brakes” – brakes that grab – will immediately grasp the importance of this point. What’s more, anyone who has ever driven with the kind of engine brake known as a “governor” knows only too well that how much power is available to the driver involves more than just the engine’s cc’s; and so many children struggle in school with governors of all different sorts: both constitutional and acquired. But the thing about governors is that they can always be removed!

So much is impacted by a child’s governors: reasoning ability, interests, creativity, motivation. Considerable attention has been given to the biological governors that affect IQ: e.g., visual-motor or language impairments. But very little attention has been paid to the issue of acquired governors: the “limbic brakes” that kick in because of some experience the child has had. The point of a governor is that it prevents an engine from overheating. That is, a child’s governors stop her from burning too much energy: from going over her “red line”. And an IQ test, like all tests, is a way of ascertaining where a child’s “red line” lies.

An IQ test is not inadvertently stressful: the whole point of an IQ test is that it has been carefully designed to be stressful. Questions get increasingly difficult. Sub-tests probe areas that lie outside the child’s comfort zone. Abstract reasoning tasks are meant to stretch the child’s thinking. The test situation itself is stressful, whether it’s one-on-one (with someone who can’t control their leakage) or in a group setting that breeds social and prosocial stress. Or for that matter, the time of day the test is written and whether you’re a “morning” or an "evening" person [Time of Day]. Finally, there’s the time element, which has been designed to quickly build up the stress.

It’s largely because IQ tests are stress-tests that we see the correlations that we do with, e.g., later mental and physical health. We see the same correlations with other stress-tests, like the marshmallow task [Self-Reg]. To be sure, an IQ test provides an insight into how the child responds to cognitive stress, as opposed to, say, a temptation. But as with delay of gratification, the greater the child’s stress-load when she comes in to the test the more she finds the test stressful: and vice versa.

This helps us understand why some children stop so much earlier than others; for that, of course, is the whole point of an IQ test: to see where the child stops vis-à-vis her peers. The conventional line of thinking is that a child stops when they reach the limits of their intelligence. Self-Reg tells us that a child stops because they are under too much stress, and the ongoing stress of the test becomes more than they can bear. That’s why their limbic brakes kick in.

Not only are some kids not distressed by an IQ test, but, on the contrary, they seem to enjoy it. Whatever stress they are experiencing, it is of the positive kind, spurring them on. Moreover, we can predict on this basis that these kids (the top 10% on the Bell Curve) are going to find similar cognitive challenges at school an energizing form of stress. But how can one and the same test be a positive stress for some children and a negative stress for others?

Cognitive factors stand out as a big reason why a particular problem is a negative stress for a child. Suppose, for example, a child finds it difficult to figure out word analogies. Recent research points to an underlying problem in working memory. But then, there might be any number of reasons why the child has a problem with working memory – at least in such-and-such a domain. It may be due to a problem in the roots of cognition: e.g., in the local and long-range connections between the senses, internal and external, that form in the early years of life. The problem may relate to the child’s arousal state; for the more deeply a child goes into low-energy/high-tension, the more compromised her working memory becomes. Or the problem in working memory may be due to memory itself. Let me explain.

In some children, it’s quite easy to build up stress-tolerance; but in others, the hippocampus remembers the experience of being pushed too hard. When that happens, the child will balk at the very thought of repeating that experience. The hippocampus keeps a very strict record of how we felt when we worked on a certain kind of problem.

The lesson here is that effort itself has a history! But to further complicate matters, once a child is pushed past her peak, this lowers the threshold for limbic braking for the remainder of the test. For some children, an IQ test starts off with a bang and never lets up. A child who is jolted right out of the gate must now write the rest of the test with her "parking brake" engaged.

The fact that a child stops at a certain point does not signify that she could not have gone on. Scientists have shown that incentives such as money or sweets have a significant effect on test-performance in lower-scoring children [IQ and Motivation]. This may seem to confirm that motivation is the most important of the “non-intellective” traits that Wechsler talked about [Wechsler]. But from a Self-Reg perspective, the effect of incentives shows that you can push a child past the peak of an “inverted-V curve” [Inverted-V]; but it’s that aversive experience that will be remembered, and not the treat.

The low-scoring child is one who whose brakes kick in early. Sticky brakes are a drag on a child’s desire to learn, simply because the child has to work much harder than those whose brakes run smooth. Not surprisingly, the child begins to avoid stresses that her peers find arousing, and so, new material becomes an even greater stress. But the problem here is not that this child is unwilling to make the sort of effort that we see others make: it is that she has already worked too hard, and the prospect of working even harder is what is beyond her capacity.

For this child, it is “safer” to avoid a challenge than to try to meet it and fail. And then, because of a deep-seated bias that intelligence is a fixed trait, we may unknowingly reinforce this fear-driven shut down. We may unconsciously convey to this child that, yes, this is beyond her limits. If we see this child’s resistance through the lens of Self-Reg, we can shape the child’s perception that it is, in fact, safe to try. The key to helping her take this scary step lies in reducing the stressors – cognitive or otherwise -- that are holding her back.

Whenever we release a child’s limbic brakes we see a leap in that child’s intellectual potential. There are all sorts of ways to facilitate this. Scaffolding – i.e., presenting new material to the child in small increments -- is extremely helpful. Technologies that target constrictions in a child’s roots of cognition are being developed [Porges]. Programs that capitalize on a child’s “stronger” learning modality in order to “bootstrap” a weaker one are beneficial. Working memory exercises (e.g., visualization techniques) and executive function coaching have proven to be effective. But Self-Reg teaches us that we need to do still more.

The only way to release a child’s limbic brakes is to target all five domains of the stress she is under: biological, emotion, cognitive, social, and prosocial [Self-Reg]. Working memory, like thinking, is a whole-body phenomenon, and is similarly impacted by excessive stress. The child who scores low on an IQ-test is caught in a stress cycle [Stress Cycle], which is why we see all the correlations that we do.

The big lesson here is that, far from inspiring a fatalistic view about a child’s “intellectual potential,” a low IQ-score should spur us to work on the child’s self-regulation. That’s ultimately what reframing IQ is all about: transforming what has all too often been an excuse for doing nothing, or worse, into a force for positive change and growth.

So how smart is your child? Just release the brakes and watch her go.

About the Author
Stuart Shanker D.Phil.

Stuart Shanker, Ph.D., is a Professor Emeritus of philosophy and psychology at York University and author of Self-Reg and Calm, Alert and Learning.

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