Human beings—with our big brains, technology, and command of language—like to describe themselves as the most intelligent species. After all, we are capable of reaching space, extending our lives, and understanding the world around us. Over time, however, our understanding of intelligence has become somewhat more complex.
Theoretical physicist Albert Einstein, for example, possessed logical-mathematical intelligence. But now we admit that there is other types of intelligence, also: emotional, bodily-kinesthetic, visual-spatial, musical and social, among others, which are specific to different sets of human skills. Each of these types enables a person to solve problems related to his own situation.
And beyond the different varieties of intelligence among humans, scientists are beginning to understand the capacity for intelligence in other species—beyond the narrow, human-centered concepts that have framed our picture of intelligence until now.
What is intelligence?
Rosalind Arden, from the London School of Economics and Political Science, has been studying intelligence in humans and dogs for some time. She is particularly interested in whether improved cognitive abilities can predict better health outcomes within a species.
According to Arden, while logic and mathematics have helped us solve certain abstract scientific problems, they are also critical to the daily functioning and flourishing of people around the world.
“Without logic, we would be deluded about causes and effects. “Without math, we wouldn’t be able to tell more from less,” she says. “Many animals, including fish, have evolved some version of the ability to count, or the ability to discriminate between quantities.”
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This means that researchers accept broader definitions of intelligence: the ability to learn and apply knowledge to solve problems that are relevant to the continued existence of the system, for example, or the ability to achieve goals in different ways. And an interesting result of thinking about intelligence in these terms is that we can sometimes attribute intelligence broadly to a group of individuals rather than just one individual.
The term collective mind was coined by some researchers to describe the behaviors that enable groups to overcome certain challenges. “Collective intelligence is something different from human intelligence. It evolves under the key conditions of different ecologies and closer genetic association between group members, such as a hive,” explains Arden.
“We would say of a beehive,” she continues, “that they work together to create an intelligent solution for the bees’ lives, but we wouldn’t say that by putting their minds together they can figure out how to get to the moon.”
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In other words, although we may not describe any ant as cognitively intelligent, the colony is able to respond dynamically to changes in its environment—ensuring the future survival of the group. “Individuals within a species develop the ability to solve problems that are repeated over an evolutionarily relevant period of time,” says Arden.
And this broader intelligence takes into account the fact that different species face different problems. Perhaps call an octopus intelligent for its ability to use shells as tools to protect itself from shark attacks, but other species may not need to adopt such elaborate behavior to avoid predation. The most effective strategy may be to simply converge in a large group, such as schools of fish.
Peeking into the brain
But from a neurological perspective, what exactly is going on here? Intelligence has long been studied in terms of the individual; researchers give individual people or animals specific tasks and simply measure their brain activity while the task is being performed.
However, scientists like it Julia Slivaresearcher at the Paris Brain Institute, have been instead studying the brain at the group level in an effort to better understand social intelligence in animals.
In social species, social behavior can occur through verbal or nonverbal interactions, mimicry, storage or other signaling processes. With the help of brain imaging technologies similar to electroencephalography (EEG), which measures electrical activity in the brain, neuroscientists have discovered that human brains synchronize with each other when people collaborate on a task.
This phenomenon of neural synchronization has also been observed in others primatesas well as other mammals such as bats, suggesting that it may be a central mechanism for social intelligence (at least in mammals). However, whether neural synchronization is involved in socially intelligent behavior in animals such as bees and other insects remains an open question.