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PT Bookshelf: The IQ Test

Book reviews on intelligence, positive emotion and creativity.

Intelligence and How to Get It

By Richard E. Nisbett

There's more to being smart than performing well on IQ tests, which measure analytical ability but neglect practical and creative intelligence. Nisbett argues that we could benefit from moving beyond the numbers and turning our attention to qualities like motivation and self-discipline, which are actually better predictors of achievement than IQ.

According to Nisbett, we're also overestimating the power of genetics. Intelligence is influenced by external factors that begin exerting their effects on us in utero. From your mother's smoking habits to the number of times your family uprooted and moved while you were growing up, a laundry list of forces can hinder your intellectual development. Low socioeconomic status is the strongest predictor of sub-par smarts; poor children see a full 15-point boost in IQ when placed in upper-middle-class environments. Nisbett attributes the black/white achievement gap to resource-related differences rather than genes.

Cultural factors may also influence differences between Asians and Westerners, Jews and Gentiles, men and women—the list goes on. Nisbett addresses these hot-button issues gracefully and with relevant research findings. The result is a no-nonsense guide to the nature of intelligence, with suggestions for how we can work toward a smarter America. — Erin Bell

How to Boost Your Intelligence

  • Exercise: Just 30 minutes per day sharpens problem-solving abilities and reduces the risk of Alzheimer's.
  • Meditation: Controlled breathing, mindfulness, and good posture enhance brain function.
  • Determination: Maintain faith in your ability to become smarter and to build skills. Nisbett warns that assuming intelligence is fixed, or determined entirely by genetics, discourages us from working to improve ourselves.
  • Video games: Games that require reflexes and strategy improve attention, working memory, and reaction time.
  • Education: Learning promotes mental acuity and prevents cognitive decline in brains of all ages.

Born to Be Good

By Dacher Keltner

Through his studies on facial movements, tones of voice, goosebumps, dinosaurs, and beauty, Berkeley psychologist Keltner has forged what he calls a "new science of positive emotion." His conclusion: Human beings have evolved a set of positive emotions—gratitude, mirth, awe, and compassion—and it is these that enable us to lead meaningful lives. The key to happiness, he says, is to let these emotions arise in ourselves and to evoke them in others. Human beings are wired to be good—so much so, Keltner says, that the best way to describe our origins is not "survival of the fittest" but "survival of the kindest." — Jay Dixit

The Art Instinct

By Denis Dutton

Is a urinal on a podium art? Extending his research in philosophy and anthropology, Dutton explores such perennial cultural questions. He also gives a lucid rundown of evolutionary psychology, and it's where Darwin and Dada cross paths that a science of aesthetics begins to emerge. Dutton says that despite cultural differences, tastes in literature, paintings, and music obey certain universal rules. And by explaining artistic expression as a fitness display (think mating dances), he even sheds light on why we care about artistic intention (the message in the urinal): Every finished work results from a process that we must evaluate for signs of true skill and creativity. — Matthew Hutson