Tuesday, September 27, 2016

How to Develop the Intellect: Why Emotions Matter… A LOT!

 This article is not about smart and stupid. Smart and stupid are terminal states over which one has no control. Conversely, intellectual development, like physical development, can be acquired by nearly anyone willing to put in the necessary work. Intellect is the capacity for reason and for acquiring an objective mental grasp. The key words in this definition are “reason” and “objective.” Reason is the ability to arrive at an understanding through logic. Objective means not being influenced by personal feelings or opinions. So, a developed intellect requires both logic and objectivity.

First, one must be able and willing to apply logic. This means adhering to strict principles of validity. There is a necessary logic to the arrangement of parts in a gasoline engine, an electrical circuit, and even a simple door latch. The validity of the arrangement of the respective parts is shown by the effective functioning of each device. If the parts are arranged illogically, the device won’t function properly. The scientific method is applied logic. The validity of the scientific method is shown by the myriad advancements we enjoy in modern life. Nearly every object in your field of vision as you read this post resulted from the application of the scientific method. The profound impact of science on human life cannot be overstated. Adhering to a belief that is clearly disputed by logic signals an intellectual blind spot.

Second, and equally as important as logic, is objectivity. Why would one stubbornly hold on to a belief that is obviously illogical or disputed by huge amounts of scientific evidence? The answer is simple… emotions. Our emotions evolved for one reason and one reason only, to keep us in the gene pool. Emotions guided primitive humans to behave in ways that kept them alive long enough to bear offspring. In the short run, emotion has far more power over our choices than does intellect. Emotional responses to danger quickly override intellect and prompt us to run or fight. These knee-jerk behaviors served us well for thousands of years. Emotions are about survival. From an evolutionary standpoint, our incredible intellectual capacity was an awesome upgrade, but not much of a survival feature.

Emotional responses are closely linked to another human survival trait, egocentrism. Every animal on earth, including the human animal, strives to preserve the “self.” It is our nature to evaluate situations in terms of the self in opposition to everything that is not the self. So, when illogical information is presented to a human animal in a way that makes the self feel emotionally validated, it is a very natural human reaction to accept that piece of information as true. In psychology, we call this cognitive bias. Cognitive bias is the primary obstacle to intellectual development. The scientific method is a series of procedures that help supersede our cognitive biases. Compare the relative pace of human advances prior to and then after the scientific revolution. This comparison makes it crystal clear that the survival traits that worked so well for so long also kept us from moving forward in our accurate understanding of our world.

A developed intellect requires a willingness to bypass your ego's emotional needs
and accept information that often"feels" uncomfortable. This is a tall order and it requires a lifetime of practice.


  1. I love this! Especially in this 2016 Trump v Clinton presidential season, we can really see how our self-interest drives irrational thinking. I see Trump supporters saying Trump is NOT bigoted. They may not be particularly bigoted, but they think his economic platform will benefit them. It makes them believe, despite all evidence to the contrary, that he's not bigoted. On that note, we ALL have prejudice. Some of us, however, realize it's illogical and work to counteract and overcome our bigotry.


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