A radical new understanding of our human potential

Dr. Rina Bliss is a genetics expert, sociologist and mother of three young children. She studies the relationship between genes and the environment and teaches sociology at Rutgers University.

Below, Rina shares 5 key insights from her new book, Rethinking intelligence: a radical new understanding of our human potential. Listen to the audio version – read by Rina herself – in the Next Big Idea app.

1. Test scores don’t tell us how smart we are.

I grew up in an immigrant community in Los Angeles. My mother is an immigrant who came to this country for opportunity—to make a better life for herself. She saw education as a means to success.

My success in school was measured by my grades and test scores. My mother attached importance to these scores. This was how the system measured me, and she saw them as a direct reflection of my intelligence and my ability to ultimately succeed.

I passed my first big test when I was five years old. It was a test to enter a school specializing in magnets, and I knew it was important. When the results came in, I hadn’t made the cut. My scores weren’t high enough and my mom cried.

My second big test came soon after for a gifted program within my school. I had not changed. The same young Rina sat down to take an almost identical test and this time I passed. Did I magically become someone different, someone smarter? No, because a test and its results cannot tell us how smart we are.

Society has this belief that intelligence is something you’re born with – it’s genetic and unchangeable. We’ve been sold this lie most of our lives. I know I was. We categorize people as “gene lottery losers” if they don’t get a perfect SAT score or IQ test. But the truth is that intelligence is not genetic.

2. Intelligence is a process.

We have been taught to view intelligence as fixed, stagnant and immutable. But research over the past two decades has shown that genes give us the brain structures that allow thought to occur. They guide the process. Our genes, however, have nothing to do with the quality of those thoughts.

Intelligence is something we TO DOnot something that East. I define intelligence as our ability to learn from our environment and being aware of opportunities to learn.

“Intelligence is something we TO DOnot something that East.”

Our brain is constantly growing and developing. Although the rate of this growth may change with age, the growth does not stop. This means that the possibility of learning always exists. When we move from thinking about intelligence as an object to a journey, we are better able to optimize this process. We can become more effective thinkers and learners.

Being intelligent means being aware that you can learn from the world around you…and that’s what humans do best!

3. Our environments can enable or inhibit us.

Human beings have the same internal architecture. We grow brain cells, form connections between them (called neural networks), and our bodies do this naturally throughout our lifetime, whether neurotypical or neurodivergent. What limits our intelligence is not biology, it is our environment.

Stressful environments that lack basic resources hinder our ability to act on our potential, to think deeply and clearly. Stress is so toxic that it can alter our DNA and change how it works. We then pass these toxic changes on to our children and future generations.

“Stressful environments that lack basic resources hinder our ability to act on our potential.”

To allow everyone to develop their intelligence, we must equalize our environments. We must devote time, energy and research to how to improve the conditions in which we live, from air and water to security and food. The stress of getting these things inhibits people’s ability to learn and alters their brain functioning. Improving our environments can enable our children to think smarter.

4. We have infinite potential.

In my college class, I had a student who was labeled intellectually disabled from an early age. He had taken a test that marked him as having a low IQ. He was placed in special education classes in high school, where he received a poor education and was told by his teacher that he would not go to college. He could not achieve the life he dreamed of.

But there was an adult who intervened. They encouraged him to try community college, apply for housing, and continue his education. This person inspired him to go beyond the limits imposed by an educational system that considers intelligence as a “having” or a “having not”. He went to community college, excelled in his classes, and made his way to my college classroom.

This student was one of the most hardworking I have ever had. But he told me that he felt overwhelmed by the label he received in previous schools, and that it almost stopped him from working for the life he wanted, a life that included superior Studies. He was given that label, encouraged to work against it, and came into my class ready to embrace his own potential.

“What changed was how society saw him and, in turn, judged him.”

By the time he got to college, he was not a new person. What changed was the way society perceived him and, in turn, judged him. They decided he’s “intelligent” even though his genetics – those things we tell ourselves define intelligence – are exactly the same.

What my student was able to do, with a little help, was to see the potential within himself. We are all infinitely able to learn…but we have to do something first.

5. Seize the learning moment.

We are infinitely capable of learning and growing, but we must seize the learning moment. These can be big moments or very small moments. Every day our brains give us the opportunity to network and become smarter, but it’s up to us to seize the opportunity to do so.

Seize the opportunity to learn from anyone. Parents and educators constantly watch children do this, and do it with enthusiasm! We may not be able to learn as much as they did, but we can choose singular moments to undertake this learning with the same sense of excitement and wonder.

Now I am a realist. I know we can’t always choose to learn. There will be days when we face challenges that prohibit it, or we just don’t have the energy to make that choice, and that’s okay. Take it one day at a time. Learn a little, rest a lot. Learn a little about your relationships, about yourself, and improve the course of your life in a small way. Then rest.

Every moment is an opportunity to change. You always have the possibility to think about this thing, to change this thing. But you also have the option of taking a break. When you don’t succeed, instead of seeing yourself as a failure, seize the opportunity to learn. Choose to see the potential in yourself and others.

To listen to the audio read by author Rina Bliss, download the Next Big Idea app today:

Hear key information in the next big idea app

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