The Frontal Cortex

It’s just an n of 1, a small anecdote within a larger story, but it illuminates some of the perpetual controversies of the cognitive sciences, from the accuracy of the IQ test to the plasticity of the human mind. It occurs on page 189 of Michael Lewis’ The Blind Side, a gripping history of the left tackle position in football. It’s also the story of Michael Oher, an impoverished kid from the mean streets of Memphis. When the book begins, Oher is virtually homeless. His mom is addicted to crack. But through a strange twist of fate, Oher is enrolled at a fancy Christian private school, where the football coach quickly realizes that Oher would make an ideal lineman. (Oher is 6-5, 350, with gigantic hands and nimble feet.) To make a long story short, Oher is adopted by Sean and Leigh Anne Tuohy, a wealthy white family who takes a passionate interest in Michael’s academic and football future. They make sure he does his homework, and force him to spend hours every night with a tutor. This excerpt occurs during Michael’s senior year of high school, after he has been living with the Tuohy’s for about two years:

Michael Oher had been given an IQ test, and more than once, as a child. Those tests had pegged his IQ at 80. Now the two pscyhological examiners established that his IQ was currently somewhere between 100 and 110 – which is to say that he was no more or less innately intelligent than most of the kids in his class. The mind described by the new IQ test was not recognizably the same mind that had been tested five years earlier. “I compare it to photographs,” said Jessup [the pscyhologist]. “If you put Michael then side by side with Michael now, you would not be able to recognize these two people as the same.”

That wasn’t supposed to happen: IQ was meant to be a given, like the size of one’s feet. It wasn’t as simple as that, of course, but Jessup had never seen such concrete evidence of the absurdity of treating intelligence as a fixed quantity.”

There’s lots of basic science supporting this optimistic anecdote. Elizabeth Gould, for example, has studied the effects of various environments on a colony of marmosets. As predicted, putting marmosets in a plain cage–the kind typically used in science labs–led to plain-looking brains. (Think of this condition as a typical urban public high school.) The primates suffered from reduced neurogenesis and their neurons had fewer interconnections.

However, if these same marmosets were transferred to an enriched enclosure–complete with branches, hidden food, and a rotation of toys–their adult brains began to recover rapidly. (This is what happened to Oher at the private school.) In less than four weeks, the brains of the deprived marmosets underwent radical renovations at the cellular level. Their neurons demonstrated significant increases in the density of their connections and amount of proteins in their synapses.


  1. #1 J-Dog
    February 9, 2007

    So, can the reciprocal also be true? Can someone with a higer IQ have it lowered by too much TV, going to a less demanding school etc?

  2. #2 Jonah
    February 9, 2007

    Plasticity works both ways. The brain can absolutely regress, especially when put in stressful conditions.

    It’s also worth noting that Gould did not find a big difference between very enriched environments and moderately enriched environments. In other words, the elite private schools aren’t biologically better than a functional suburban school. But there was a dramatic difference between marmosets in the moderately enriched environment and in the impoverished environment. So the thinking is that once a certain threshold is crossed, the brain does just fine. But in the absence of a certain amount of stimulation, the brain stops investing itself.

  3. #3 Joanna
    February 9, 2007

    I studied memory performance in enriched and impoverished rats for my undergraduate thesis – it’s a well developed model to study memory impairments. Impoverished rats perform significantly worse than enriched or control rats on a variety of tasks. Consequent enrichment, and even recently dietary supplementation with CDP-choline or uridine monophosphate, has shown to ameliorate these deficits.

  4. #4 Jane Anson
    February 9, 2007

    I was IQ tested in 2002 after 10 yrs. of alcoholism, several extended bouts of TV-watching, social isolation, pot-smoking, eating poorly, and pretty severe anxiety. I scored 130. I can only compare that test score to my junior high school testing results in Canada, which put me in the top 3 percentile. (The 2002 test was flawed in administration and medium by interruptions and terrible computer graphics .)

    It’s hard to say what these recent results might have been, had I remained in good health and good company throughout. I can say that the score was better than I expected it to be, in light of experiencing memory problems, ‘fogs’ and panics.

    It seems possible that adverse conditions can promote development or accessibility of intellectual resources as they become necessary, as seems to be so with physical capabilities.

  5. #5 Madelaine
    February 10, 2007

    Ask anyone with a traumatic brain injury about neuroplasticity – my IQ went from 140+ to 100 and presumably back again. I haven’t had it tested recently because I know that it has improved and it doesn’t much matter to me. What was interesting for me was that the drop in score was due to large but very specific areas of congitive loss (short term memory, processing speed, visual mapping). I could literally ‘feel’ when those skills began to return – but it took lots of constant practice at using those functions. There are currently a spate of ‘brain excercise’ games being marketed to prevent cognitive aging but using your brain is the key element – playing word games, card games, building things (yes, those IKEA side tables with picture only diagrams are good for your brain!), listening to music, reading, drawing, etc.
    I feel that I have recovered most of my cognitive skills but not all – however some of the skills I can perform ‘feel’ as though they are excuted differently.(sorry for using such a non-descript term but see Damasio’s Feelng of What Happens and you can understand that word better). It’s as like taking a different route to Grandma’s house. Furthermore there are some cognitive abilities that I believe I did not have or utilize before that are now accessible to me.
    By the way current research indicates that brains can recover from serious alcohol abuse.

  6. #6 John Zadeh
    December 29, 2009

    Actually, it is scores on conventional IQ tests (WAIS, Woodcock Johnson, Binet, SAT), that tend to stay relatively (to age) constant, as they are highly loaded in ‘crystallized’ content (75% crystallized, Blair estimate). These tests reflect, predominately, short term memory capacity and are hardly influenced by environment and training.

    In contrast, there is plenty of evidence that has accumulated over recent years, which suggests that ‘fluid intelligence’ is highly permeable, and can increase with schooling and training. Fluid intelligence has been linked to the various structures of frontal lobe and prefrontal cortex, and significant discrepencies have been documented between conventional measures of IQ, and tests saturated in Gf. A range of mental disorders show largely negative correlation with Gf. On the other hand, it is not uncommon in individuals diagnosed with High-functioning Autism (Aspergers, HFA), to show differences of 30 or 40 points between the two factors (results, specifically, from the Raven’s, where the autistic sample showed higher fluid scores). However it is becoming more clear from theoretical work, that even among neurotypical (normal) individuals, there must be cases where through, at least some interval of time, large gf-gc differences exist. (Definitely , through childhood, and even at late adolescents and late teen, early adulthood as well). This is all very interesting, because it has come to challenge the ‘law’ of intellectual constancy, which has long been a convenient postulate, regarding general intelligence.

    Intelligence is a poorly defined term, and especially so in the hands of the subset of elitist, who have aimed and ,arguably, succeeded, in monopolizing the concept. (The agenda they have, goes beyond the scope of this post) It’s value can never be measured by any written test (especially, through any arbitrary hour, posing an arbitrary set of problems). Maybe one day, we can scan a person’s brain, and infer individual limitations by elements of structure and reflex. Until that day, I think there are better measures of intelligence (and I won’t waste more time, describing this), and especially, for individuals in their adolescent and early adult years, when the brain is more plastic with regard to Gf.

    But back to Michael Oher, with an 80 IQ. From what I saw in the movie, just for fun, I would guess he had a peak of about 105 and it would have been somewhere between his senior year in high school and first year in college. But to be fair, I should mention that someone who came from such an unprivileged background, was quite manageable. And such a fact, ultimately, further complicates the topic of intelligence.