A Fluid and a Crystallized Brain

The Fluid and Crystallized Brain

An article in the July, 2019, issue of The Atlantic by Arthur Brooks references the work of the British and American psychologist, Raymond Cattell.  Born in England in 1905, he studied at the Universities of London, Exeter and Leicester before moving to the US in 1937, researching at Columbia and Harvard and finally settling at the University of Illinois.  He died in Honolulu at the ripe age of 92. 


His interests and publications were wide ranging, but of import to us is his theory of general intelligence, published in 1971, which distinguished between fluid and crystallized intelligences. 


Fluid intelligence is the ability to reason, analyze, and solve problems using skills such as comprehension, problem solving and learning.  It depends on working memory capacity, localized in the prefrontal cortex,  a region of the brain that degenerates faster than other cortical regions as we age.  Fluid intelligence, he argued, peaks at around age 20, and then gradually declines.


Crystallized intelligence, by comparison, is  the ability to use knowledge gained in the past.  It is like having access to a large library and knowing how to use it.  Unlike fluid intelligence, which is inductive, crystallized intelligence is deductive, and as such is  the essence of what we call wisdom.  This ability to examine issues from a wide variety of experiences increases through one’s 40’s, Cattell suggested, and diminishes only much later in life. 


An example he used was that of a young engineer with a more fluid intelligence who  might focus on the theory of engine functioning, while his older colleague who, having worked on airplane engines for 30 years, might have a significant  amount of "crystallized" knowledge about the practical workings of these engines.  These two types of abilities complement each other and work together toward achieving a common goal.


In a more modern world, most successful tech entrepreneurs create their start-up companies early in life, and studies by Dean Simonton show that poets tend to have written more than half of their creative life output by the age of 40, whereas historians, who rely on a crystallized stock of knowledge,  don’t  reach this milestone until the age of 60. In colleges and universities, younger professors are typically research-oriented, while their older kin enjoy teaching (which requires a large store of fixed knowledge) and get better evaluations from their students. 


There are exceptions of course, but no matter what our vocation, as we age we can dedicate ourselves to sharing knowledge in some significant way.  Such is the role of grandparenting. 


In my case, I am resistant to learning to having to learn new skills, even as it was once a challenge I relished.  This can be as simple as mastering a new phone, a new remote control for the TV, or, heaven forbid, an up-dated computer operating system!  And yet I could not have written these articles earlier in my life, when I was busy living the various experiences that now weave their way through the various installments.   Only with time have I begun to see some of the connections, to make some sense of what otherwise appeared random. 


Hindus have a similar, though four-stage (called ashramas) developmental process.   The first, Brahmacharya , is that of youth and young adulthood dedicated to learning.  The second, Grishastha, is that time of building a career, accumulating wealth, and creating a family.  One of life’s traps is to become attached to earthly rewards - money, power, sex, prestige -  and try to make it last a lifetime. The third is Vanaprastha, as one studies and trains for the last stage of life, which is Sannyasa, when one is dedicated to the fruits of enlightenment.


The lesson, irrespective of belief system, is that, as we age we need to resist the conventional lures of success in order to focus on more transcendentally important things, to move beyond common thought and experience to a more mystical and supernatural mode of awareness.  


We know that honey bees have brains that are capable of learning, and although they are small - the size of a sesame seed, which is 20 000 times less massive than our own - they contain about one million neurons, compared to 100 billion in the human equivalent, and are ten times more dense than a mammalian brain.


The bee brain is a sophisticated sensory system which provides excellent sight and smell abilities with the ability to make complicated calculations on distances for different locations as well as the ability to remember various colors and different landmarks.


So the question arises, is the brain of a young honey bee more fluid and does it crystallize with age, like our own?  We know that the young worker bee goes through a variety of tasks, starting with cleaning out her cell and progressing to tending to the queen, receiving nectar, disposing of dead bees, feeding brood and defending the hive.  The signals for each stage are partly environmental, partly pheromonal, but is it the younger fluid brain that makes the worker responsive to system of constantly changing tasks?


After about four weeks, when she has accumulated a variety of knowledge and experiences within the hive, she becomes a forager for the last two weeks of her life.  It is not a simple transition in that learning the layout of the local environment clearly requires fluidity, and she can change what she collects and how much of it she brings home depending on the signals she receives from the house bees. But is it possible that even as her brain is crystallizing,  her astute knowledge of the complex workings of a hive provides the wisdom needed to perform one final, extensive and complex task essential to the colony’s wellbeing?



Synchronistically, in his Fall newsletter, Gunther Hauk offers another variable on this concept.  With the flexibility and coalescence of the colony, the superorganism, in mind, he writes, “Now comes the miracle par excellence: a queen can lay 1500 to 2000 eggs per day and, lo and behold, the weight of these eggs surpasses her own body weight! The nearly unending source of food she receives from the worker bees attending to her every need is being digested and almost instantly transformed into eggs. Is it any wonder then that the denatured food the honey bees receive from humans, in the form of sugar or corn syrup – fed to them for their winter provisions – results in a lower quality of food for the queen?”


“Add to this the poisons the foragers bring home with their bounty of nectar and pollen – we know that these have a cumulative effect even in the highest dilutions – and we have two major causes for the present-day epidemic of brood diseases, foul brook and chalk brood. Additional reasons are the artificial raising of queens from worker larvae, as well as the lack of a diversified diet due to medicinal ‘weeds’ being eliminated in our ‘clean’ agriculture, or more often than not, monoculture.”


All of these factors are bad enough, but add to these the stress that millions of queens

experience, being shipped like spark-plugs long distances and then introduced into existing colonies as strangers. Is it any wonder that within the last 45 years queens’ life expectancy has more than halved? Today, queens rarely live longer than one or two years. A side effect of this quick turnover is often ignored: the resulting youthfulness of a colony. Youth is highly valued in our modern society, but we fail to acknowledge that in our modern bee colonies a healthy maturing process is now missing, and with it the accompanying wisdom that comes with age. Resourcefulness is usually learned from life experiences, which present a diversity of problems to be solved. Youth in its exuberance tends to be more inept at coping with problems.”


As the C17th Welsh priest and poet, George Herbert, suggested, “Life is half spent before we know what it is.” 


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Latest comments

27.11 | 16:01

Moustache, wax? Of course. Now if all of the drones had mustaches ...

27.11 | 12:43

One of our club members says he got into beekeeping in order to make his own mustache wax. There's the explanation for the bearded/mustached ABF attendees!

13.08 | 05:43

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