Image: Brain
Mauricio Lima  /  AFP - Getty Images file
An actual human brain is displayed inside a glass box as part of an interactive exhbition titled "Brain: A World Inside Your Head."
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updated 1/14/2012 8:31:48 PM ET 2012-01-15T01:31:48

You might someday be much, much smarter than you are now. At least that's the hope of neuroscientists focused on understanding the basis of intelligence.

They have discovered that the brains of people with high IQs tend to be highly integrated, with neural paths connecting distant brain regions, while less intelligent people's brains build simpler, shorter routes. But no one knows why some brains construct much longer-range connections than others.

"When the brain mechanisms that underlie intelligence are understood, it is theoretically possible that those mechanisms can be tweaked to increase IQ," said Richard Haier, a neuroscientist and professor emeritus at the University of California at Irvine who studies intelligence. For the first time in human history, he said, "the concept that intelligence can be increased is reasonable."

It's a titillating thought but, considering the aphorism "ignorance is bliss," one might wonder: Would it really be better to be brainier? What would life and society be like if we all suddenly became, say, twice as intelligent?

For simplicity, imagine that instead of our current mean IQ score of 100, humans had an average score of 200. (Experts say this isn't a true "doubling" of intelligence because the IQ scale doesn't start at zero — and furthermore, the test isn't actually designed to yield a score as high as 200 — but we will set aside these qualifications for the purpose of argument.)

According to Earl Hunt, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Washington and president of the International Society for Intelligence Research, approximately one person in 10 billion would have an IQ of 200. With a current world population of 7 billion, there may or may not be one such person alive today, and in any case, his or her identity is unknown. However, the 17th-century genius Isaac Newton, discoverer of gravity, calculus and more, is sometimes estimated to have had an IQ of 200 (though he never took an IQ test).

Using him as an archetype, what if we were all a bunch of Newtons? Would the world be much more advanced than it is today?

Self-actualization
Haier believes greater intelligence, which he defines as the ability to learn faster and remember more, would be highly advantageous on an individual scale.

"Experiencing the world with a higher IQ might be more interesting for most people. They might enjoy reading more, might have a greater depth of appreciation for certain things and more insight into life," he told Life's Little Mysteries.

Furthermore, IQs of 200 would allow us to pursue activities and careers that most interest us, not just those we're mentally capable of, Haier said. We could master new languages in a few weeks, for example, or become brain surgeons.

Smarter humans would also be healthier and longer-living, the scientists said, because they'd have a better grasp of what behavior leads to these attributes.

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"Maintaining a healthy lifestyle, and even more, managing a chronic illness such as diabetes, can be quite cognitively challenging. That's the sort of challenge intelligent people can meet… by definition," Hunt wrote in an email.

Social skills
Society would not benefit quite as much as individuals from a mass intelligence boost. Although people like to blame social problems on human ignorance and stupidity, the scientists say removing these factors would not lead to the emergence of a harmonious Utopia. Greater intelligence does not come hand-in-hand with a greater ability to cooperate.

"Intelligence is independent of personality and emotion, so you can have very intelligent people who are also just kind of crazy people," Haier said. "Even if everyone had an IQ of 200, you'd have exactly the same range of personalities as you have now, and because that's a determining factor in how good your society is, you won't necessarily have a better society."

Again, consider Isaac Newton: Along with his off-the-charts smarts, he was also a notorious misanthrope.

While petty-crime rates would fall in a society of Newtons, Hunt speculated that white-collar crimes, such as banking scams and cover-ups by pharmaceutical companies, might increase and even grow more sophisticated. On the other hand, so would crime-fighting. "The evil corporate villains would be smarter than ever, but so would the government officials who were writing and enforcing the safety regulations! Who would win? Who knows?" he wrote.

Despite these issues, there's a very good chance that higher-functioning brains would help us invent technologies to fix some of our bigger problems. Haier explained that just as a team of 100 engineers is more likely to come up with a remarkable innovation than a team of 10 engineers (because there's more total brainpower working on the job), having 7 billion "geniuses" on Earth would likely lead to solutions to some currently intractable issues. We might figure out a hyper-efficient way to desalinate saltwater, for example, or tap into a limitless alternative-energy source.

Because both those advances would produce a greater abundance of resources, they would likely minimize societal conflict — despite some humans being just as nasty as ever.

Loss of faith
According to Hunt, there's evidence to suggest that many humans, if significantly smarter, would lose their belief in God

"There is a small tendency for people with high scores to be more liberal in their social attitudes and less likely to accept strong religious beliefs. This makes sense; we can know things by reasoning or we can accept something on faith. If we all became very good reasoners, there would probably be a small shift to preferring reasoned over faith-based explanations of the phenomenon of life," he wrote.

Some people would undoubtedly continue to accept faith-based cosmologies, however, as there have been many examples in history of highly intelligent and religious people, Hunt noted.

Looking smart
Confounding the stereotype of the nerdy brainiac with suspenders and thick glasses, Hunt mentioned one other change that would be expected to occur if we all became smarter. "People would be better looking!" he wrote. A study from Harvard University found a significant correlation between peoples' test scores and how physically attractive other people rate them to be, he explained, and extrapolating the finding up to people with IQs of 200 implies that, in our world of super geniuses, an "average-looking person" would move up to the top 15th percentile on our current scale of looks.

Even if the extrapolation isn't quite accurate — if the correlation between intelligence and attractiveness breaks down past a certain range — humanity might at least be better at things like exercising and grooming.

"I think what would happen is that there would be fewer homely-looking people; especially people who are unattractive because they are slovenly," he explained. "Intelligent people are aware that looking badly is a handicap in getting jobs, being invited to parties, etc."

One final thought: Even when scientists finally do discover the mechanism for ramping up intelligence, it is highly improbable that everyone would be given an immediate IQ boost. The "haves" would surely benefit from the neuroscience research more than the "have-nots," and this invites a further line of inquiry. As Hunt put it, "Suppose that in some future society, part of the population, say 10 percent, became hugely intelligent, while the rest stayed where we are now or even dropped behind a bit. What would that do to society?"

Follow Natalie Wolchover on Twitter @nattyover. Follow Life's Little Mysteries on Twitter @ llmysteries, then join us on Facebook.

© 2013 LifesLittleMysteries.com. All rights reserved. More from LifesLittleMysteries.com.

Interactive: Take a tour of the brain

Explainer: The world’s 10 smartest animals

  • EBU

    We humans have the ability to learn, to reason and solve problems. We're self-aware, and we're also conscious of the presence, thoughts and feelings of others. We make tools and practice the art of deception. We're creative. We think abstractly. We have language and use it to express complex ideas. All of these are arguably signs of intelligence. Scientists may not agree on the best and fullest definition of intelligence — but they generally agree that humans are highly intelligent.

    Other members of the animal kingdom exhibit signs of intelligence as well, and some scientists might say the definition of animal vs. human intelligence is merely a matter of degree - a point that was brought home in 2005 when the London Zoo put "Homo sapiens" on display in the exhibit pictured here. Click ahead to learn about nine other species that stand out for their smarts.

  • Chimps are almost like us

    Tetsuro Matsuzawa  /  AP

    If we humans possess intelligence, chimpanzees must have some as well: Our genomes are at least 98 percent identical. Chimps make and use tools, hunt in organized groups and engage in acts of violence. Wild troops have distinct behaviors and customs. Field observations and lab experiments show chimps are capable of empathy, altruism and self-awareness. In the experiment pictured here, chimps performed better than humans on a number memory test.

  • Dolphins get creative

    Janet Mann  /  Georgetown University

    This dolphin in Australia uses a sponge to protect her snout when foraging on the seafloor, a tool use behavior that is passed on from mother to daughter. Scientists say that's just one sign of dolphin smarts. Other signs include distinct whistles and clicks that may serve as dolphin names, perhaps used in a type of language. A famous 1960s experiment found that a pair of dolphins entered a tizzy of creativity once they figured out their novel behaviors were rewarded with fish. Frustrated human test subjects just let out a sigh of relief when they caught on to the idea.

  • Elephants exhibit self-awareness

    AP

    The sheer size of their brains suggests that elephants must know a thing or two about the ways of the world. They have been seen consoling family members, helping other species in times of need, playing in water and communicating with one another via vibrations sensed in their feet. A crowning achievement, some researchers say, was when this female Asian elephant named Happy recognized herself in the mirror. The complex behavior is shared only with humans, great apes and dolphins.

  • Cephalopods have big brains

    Binyamin Hochner

    Are octopi, squids and cuttlefish smart? That's a matter of scientific intrigue, but such cephalopods are certainly among the brainiest invertebrates in the sea. The cephalopod brain surrounds the esophagus, but shares with the human brain features of complexity such as folded lobes and distinct regions for processing visual and tactile information. The how-smart debate swirls around deciphering observations that the creatures have a seemingly irrepressible curiosity, a disdain for boredom, an ability to learn and the capacity to use tools. The octopus pictured here exerts precise muscle control to eat.

  • Crows get crafty

    Alex Kacelnik et al.  /  University of Oxford

    Crows are crafty critters: They fashion tools from twigs, feathers and other bits of debris to snare food from hard-to-reach places. A crow named Betty, pictured here, uses a straight wire she bent into a hook to retrieve food from a tube. The birds are born with a tool-making ethic, but they hone their craft by watching their elders, a sign of higher intelligence. Ravens, a type of crow, have even been shown to manipulate the outcomes of their social interactions for added protection and more food.

  • Squirrels can be deceptive

    Gabriel Bouys  /  AFP - Getty Images file

    Is the squirrel pictured here plotting deception? Perhaps. Researchers recently reported that the rodents put on elaborate shows of deceptive caching to thwart would-be thieves. The behavior increased in a lab experiment after squirrels observed humans stealing their peanuts. The researchers called the finding a sign that squirrels can interpret intentions of others, though it could just be a case of learned behavior. Other studies have shown the critters make three-dimensional maps to recall where they cache their nuts. And squirrels in California will cover their fur in the scent of rattlesnakes to mask their own scent from predators.

  • Man's best friend

    University of Vienna

    Are dogs intelligent or just really good at basic obedience? They can learn to sit, lie down and fetch, for example, but can they read their owner's intentions? Research suggests they can at least find food in response to non-verbal cues, a type of understanding that scientists think may be akin to the human ability to understand someone else's point of view. The dog in the experiment pictured here accurately discriminated between photos of dogs and photos of landscapes — an indication the dog was able to form the concept of "dog."

  • Cats are adaptable

    Bob Pennell  /  AP

    Like dog owners, some cat owners have trained their pets to sit down, roll over and jump through hoops. Cats learn the tricks by observation and imitation, egged on with positive reinforcement. But training cats is harder than dogs. Does that mean they are less intelligent? Not necessarily. Cat experts say felines are just different. They are solitary animals, motivated by the need to survive. This has allowed them to adapt to a variety of domestic environments for at least 9,500 years - even the hoods of cars.

  • Pigs are wise ... and clean

    Paulo Whitaker  /  Reuters

    Here's the dirt on pigs: They are perhaps the smartest, cleanest domestic animals known - more so than cats and dogs, according to some experts. But pigs don't have sweat glands, so they roll around in the mud to stay cool. A sign of their cleverness came from experiments in the 1990s. Pigs were trained to move a cursor on a video screen with their snouts and used the cursor to distinguish between scribbles they knew and those they were seeing for the first time. They learned the task as quickly as chimpanzees.

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