Solving problems in your head and in the world

Until recently, the role of external information processing in intelligence has rarely been investigated quantitatively or experimentally. A group of researchers from Erasmus University Rotterdam, Leiden University, GGZ Rivierduinen, and University of Edinburgh measured in a new way how and when people ‘offload’ information processing onto their environment while solving difficult problems, reporting their findings in the journal Nature Human Behaviour.

The dominant way to think about intelligence is that it depends on how your brain processes information inside your cranium. However, this misses a crucial ingredient: the way people exploit their external environment in order to aid their thinking, recall, and reasoning. For example, a scientist might use a blackboard to compose and rearrange equations and diagrams, or a hunter-gatherer might configure place-holder objects in the sand to plan a hunting strategy. Whether we are talking about simple analogue (paper-and-pencil) or sophisticated digital technologies (software packages), the basic principle is the same: humans uniquely and routinely use their external environments as a resource to unburden their brains, which dramatically increases the complexity of the tasks they can perform.

Measuring intelligent use of the external environment

The researchers designed a computerized click-and-drag version of a popular IQ test to measure how and when people ‘offload’ information processing onto their environment while solving difficult problems. The newly designed test allowed university students to dynamically manipulate and reconfigure their task environment continuously during the course of problem-solving. The results suggest that the more students used their external environment, the more successful they were at solving the complex visual puzzles. Furthermore, the study provides tentative evidence that we may be able to improve the way we measure intelligence by designing IQ tests that are sensitive to the way people offload information processing onto their environment.

What makes human intelligence unique?

By developing methodologies that allow us to measure the reciprocal interaction between brain and technology we may be able to better understand what makes us humans uniquely intelligent. Interestingly, the ability to co-opt the environment to solve problems is considered by many to be a key feature of human intelligence, which may have played an important role in the advancement of civilization. This study supports the view that much of what matters about human intelligence is hidden not in the brain, nor in external technology, but lies in the delicate and iterated coupling between the two.

Article

Intelligent problem-solvers externalize cognitive operations |  Bruno R. Bocanegra  (Erasmus University Rotterdam),  Fenna H. Poletiek (Leiden University), Bouchra Ftitache (Institute for Mental Health Care GGZ Rivierduinen), Andy Clark (University of Edinburgh)

Nature Human Behaviour, 4 February 2019

More information

Marjolein Kooistra, media relations ESSB, 010 408 2135, kooistra@essb.eur.nl