• Health

Essay: What’s So Great About Acuity?

5 minute read
Walter Kirn

As a child, I measured my mental development (and I was the sort of child, I confess, who found his own mental development fascinating) by the complexity of the jigsaw puzzles I was able to complete. As I learned to do puzzles with smaller, more numerous pieces, graduating from simple farmyard scenes to detailed panoramas of city skylines, I felt better and better about myself. The adults in my life seemed to feel better about me too. But then something unexpected happened. One afternoon when I was 10 or so, I finished a 1,000-piece puzzle of the Milky Way and came to the realization that, puzzle-wise, I’d done all that I could do—meaning all that a normal child should ever wish to do. I realized that to master more difficult puzzles would be a sign not of desirable growth but of troubling compulsion.

I think back to that fiendishly complicated puzzle of stars and planets and whirling gas clouds whenever I think about the promise of human-intelligence enhancement. How much quicker and more acute do people really want to be? How many more bits per cubic inch of gray matter do people wish they could store? People whose minds are generally healthy, that is. People who, for their age and condition, are already smart enough.

The devilish problem, of course, is defining “smart enough.” Enough to accomplish what, precisely? To make a living or to make a killing? And smart enough to satisfy whom? An employer who wants you to do your work by quitting time or one who wishes you had finished it yesterday? Being able to do what must be done is liberating, but being able to do whatever might be done (or whatever your driven ego or pushy boss might conceivably demand) can be enslaving.

And does anyone really want to be brilliant all the time? Though heightened intelligence would seem to be a universally desirable goal, not all tasks and stages of life demand the amped-up cognitive speed and processing power the new regimens and medications may make possible. Becoming a parent, for example. I read somewhere once that many mothers and fathers suffer a rapid, appreciable drop in IQ after their babies are born. This, if true, is a huge gift from nature. Diapering, feeding and comforting little ones demands dumb endurance, in my experience, not penetrating cleverness. Thinking too clearly while cleaning up diarrhea on two hours’ sleep in a house that you’ve just realized is one room too small and two times too expensive can make you suicidal.

And yet people dream of aping their computers, which grow measurably more agile every six months. Not wiser or saner or more truthful, those immeasurable human qualities that are extolled by priests and poets, but just better at handling elaborate graphics, say, or performing multimillion-variable calculations. Assuming that we can keep up with these machines, where will it take us as a society? When the shared ideal is to be like Mr. Spock instead of Dr. Spock, and to emulate Dr. Jonas Salk rather than Marcus Welby, M.D., who will stroke humanity’s fevered forehead? No one, I fear, unless we use our brainpower to develop an altruism pill.

Genius goes only so far—at least in the current, cybernetic sense. In terms of sheer neurological acuity, how would Jesus or the Buddha have ranked? And how would your dear old grandfather have scored—that guy who could whittle a cottonwood twig all day and invent new bedtime stories every night? How often, now that the fellow isn’t around, do you catch yourself wishing he’d been sharper, swifter? Quite often, perhaps, if Grandpa suffered from Alzheimer’s, but what if he was just a wee bit… plodding?

It’s unrealistic to expect that people will forgo easy intelligence enhancement out of some fear that it may turn them into sociopaths obsessed with the goings-on inside their skulls and negligent about the outside world. The rat race keeps accelerating, and the labyrinths in which it is run are growing more complicated by the hour, it seems—as are the technological devices that are meant to help us through their tricky passages. If many more features are added in the next year to the average cell phone, for example, I may have to retire to a cave and survive on campfire-roasted venison. My synapses are on overload as it is.

Still, it seems important to remember that intelligence—human intelligence—involves a lot more than problem-solving skills or memory capacity. Sometimes the challenge of being a person is to recognize that the task at hand should be performed later, considered from a new angle or, if it’s a waste of time, ignored. That’s why, at age 43, I’m not at work on a 600,000-piece jigsaw puzzle depicting Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. I was smart enough to know at 10 that it’s not what one can do that matters but what’s worth doing.

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